Crime or Not, Chicago Still Serves as a Model of Urban Growth

There's a lot to learn from the Windy City.
October 2018
Chicago skyline
(David Kidd)
By Pete Saunders  |  Columnist
Urban planner

If America’s growing Sun Belt cities are looking for a model to emulate to achieve standards of prosperity, sustainability and affordability, they should look to Chicago.

Chicago may seem an odd choice to many, especially those who are mostly looking at the global economy-fueled growth of, say, New York, San Francisco or Seattle. And indeed, Chicago’s historical culture of political corruption, its history of racism and segregation, and its current high rates of violent crime are troubling and real obstacles to this view. But somehow, despite these challenges, Chicago has still been able to be a top site for major corporate relocations and expansions, position itself as a leader in downtown construction and redevelopment, and host a housing market that remains eminently affordable relative to America’s superstar cities. And it’s done so while having many of the urban amenities that make today’s top cities attractive: It’s walkable, has strong public transit, and offers a wealth of commercial, elite educational and cultural opportunities.

How has Chicago been able to do this? The city and region continue to benefit from significant public investments made between 1870 and 1930 during its high-growth era. For a time in the late 19th century, there was a battle between Chicago and New York City over which would reign supreme in the emerging industrial world. In its push to compete, Chicago made many critical investments that established the foundation of the region we know today. It early on committed to a street grid system that made for the easy subdivision and sale of land. The city’s emergence as a rail center provided opportunities for the development of railroad suburbs, while the city’s rapid expansion of public transit allowed for the development of transit-focused communities. Chicago committed itself to an extensive and connected park and boulevard system in its interior and an open lakefront to serve as a recreational resource and protect its water supply. 

For its part, New York doubled down on its strengths -- as the historical center of the nation’s media and finance sectors, the primary port of entry for immigrants, and an openness to entrepreneurship -- to separate itself from Chicago’s industrial-centered economy. In the increasingly interconnected global economy that emerged with the 20th century and is still here today, that was enough to enable New York to achieve heights that eluded Chicago.

New York clearly won the economic battle. However, Chicago has maintained a level of overall affordability that is the envy of coastal cities, as well as a quality of life that few of today’s rapid-growth Sun Belt cities have been able to attain. Chicago has done this by continuing to invest in itself. After its heyday, the city brushed past its declining Rust Belt counterparts by successfully diversifying its economy away from manufacturing -- no one industry accounts for more than about 15 percent of its economy today. Chicago has also supported downtown investment since the 1990s -- it trails only Seattle this year in the number of cranes dotting its skyline -- and has made sure its housing stock has broad appeal.

That’s what today’s rapid-growth Sun Belt regions such as Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Houston, Nashville and Phoenix need to do. Like Chicago, they need to utilize their periods of impressive growth to invest in themselves as livable regions. Many have largely been reliant on the white-hot nature of economic sectors like tech and finance over the last 40 years, or on fueling the development of inexpensive single-family homes. But as these metros become larger and their regional economies diversify and mature, they’ll need to address challenges typically associated with our nation’s older metros. How will they combat road congestion and move people and goods efficiently through their region? How will they develop a housing stock at the regional and local scale that meets the needs of today’s renters, first-time buyers, upsizers and downsizers?

Chicago’s example suggests that the time to answer those questions and implement the appropriate policy response is now. In many Sun Belt cities, there’s still a strong single-family, suburban orientation to many of the neighborhoods that calls for a heavy reliance on cars and roadways. Don’t be afraid to embrace urbanism. Invest in your city now, and it will pay dividends for generations to come.