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03.04.2014
Editorial> What Does Regionalism Look Like?
Chris Bentley calls for more sustainable development across the Chicago region.
OZinOH / Flickr

With New Year’s already far away in the rearview mirror, those who made resolutions may already find themselves struggling to stay true. It is a good time to reevaluate your way forward whether you are reconsidering choices made on January 1 or in the years that led up to that day. That goes for Chicago area planners and politicians, too.

As Greg Hinz noted in Crain’s Chicago Business, political leaders from the Chicago area’s seven counties gathered at the end of last year for an unpublicized meeting of the minds. At the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Chicago Deputy Mayor Steve Koch, and Chicago Metropolitan agency for Planning head Randy Blankenhorn heard presentations from regional leaders. Preckwinkle had called the meeting to discuss “opportunities for collaboration” among Cook and its ‘collar’ counties, which often find themselves at odds with one another.

“I can’t tell you the last time I’ve heard of anything quite like it,” wrote Hinz.

Of course it is easier to talk collaboration than to implement it. Chicago still trumpets victory over the suburbs when it poaches company headquarters (just this year Google’s Motorola Mobility was a big get). And the city-suburbs battle goes back just about to the birth of the area’s sprawl itself.

But it is also true that we have seen a convergence of the challenges facing Chicago and its surrounding towns and cities. Poverty and foreclosure are by no means constrained to city limits. A review of U.S. Census Bureau data by the nonprofit Heartland Alliance in September found Chicago’s suburbs have nearly as many people living in poverty as the city does—a population up 95 percent from 1990. A heroin epidemic affecting communities nationwide is especially pronounced in the Chicago region, with new users more likely to be white, suburban, and in their late teens or 20s. Suburban tropes about the dangerous city are outdated.

City prejudices against the suburbs are unraveling, too. Transit-connected cities, especially, are reinvesting in walkable downtowns, landscaped (often river-front) parks and promenades—development plans that sound decidedly urban. Chicago’s workforce largely lives in the suburbs. Each might be seen as the other’s greatest asset.

The point being that city and suburb have more to learn from one another than to quarrel over. So what would a Chicago-area “regionalism” look like? At December’s meeting, Preckwinkle’s office convened working subcommittees to look into opportunities for the city and suburbs to work together on issues like freight and logistics, exports, and food processing. They are going to meet again in six months.

Reviving the region’s freight and logistics industry is a matter this editorial page has explored before. More than one quarter of all jobs in the state are in industries tied directly to freight, according to a recent CMAP report. It would serve the whole region well to encourage compact development around corridors that could support the resurgent freight and advanced manufacturing industries.

Sprawl is one major way city and suburban interests diverge. Though cheap at first, flipping farmland into new exurban real estate increases transportation costs (and gas emissions) for those who live or work in the far-flung developments. It is tougher to reconnect these areas to transit, or remedy segregation, after the fact. Could we build up nodes for land-intensive industries like manufacturing and freight in the collar counties, where the expertise already exists, and continue to develop downtown’s burgeoning tech sector at the same time?

Regionalism is not a buzzword for urbanists and suburbanites to wield against one another in service of their own short-term interests. (Illustrated in Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s spate with suburban Waukesha over its contentious request for access to Lake Michigan’s closely guarded supply of drinking water.) It is about developing places that work for themselves and for each other, reinforcing a sense of place that goes beyond the block, the neighborhood, or the subdivision.

It can be a guiding force for sustainable development. Kaid Benfield, who blogs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it perfectly when he said “city sustainability is about the environment, even when it isn’t”—that is, anything that makes living in cities more rewarding helps forward the environmental benefits that dense development holds over sprawl. The same goes for a region.

This summer, when the Chicago-area group meets again, we hope this is one New Year’s resolution the region’s leaders decide to keep.

Chris Bentley