Rural towns on the edge of big cities often see encroaching suburban development as a threat to their way of life. One small town is feeling those pressures too. And it’s taking a page from its past to fight them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee has this report:
Rural towns on the edge of big cities often see encroaching
suburban development as a threat to their way of life. One small town
is feeling those pressures too. And it’s taking a page from its past
to fight them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee
has this report:
Eric Gustaffson is a young guy who works at his family’s drug store. He says he plans to stick around because he likes his small town – Elburn, Illinois – just as it is. It’s still got a working grain elevator and animal feed stores. It also has a real town center, a strip of shops that people can walk to.
But like a lot of his neighbors, Eric’s bothered by some of the sprawling subdivisions that are popping up nearby. He doesn’t want to see that that kind of development come to Elburn. He says it would become a place where neighbors live too far apart and everyone has to drive to get anywhere. He does have hope, though.
“I really think that the plan that Elburn has set in place will work a lot better and will control how things grow a little bit more instead of just things from popping up in random places.”
So, what’s the plan? Well, it turns out Elburn’s looking to its past for help. Residents used to catch passenger trains here for day trips to Chicago. The passenger service died out decades ago, but now Elburn’s bringing in a new train station. It will be part of the region’s Metra commuter rail system.
By next year, commuters will be able to avoid the congested roads that lead to Chicago, but the town also wants the station to be the center of a new neighborhood, a cluster of new shops, smaller homes, and even apartments.
The idea’s to get people to walk to stores and the train instead of driving to them, all of which is very different from what’s happening in nearby subdivisions. Those are pretty much isolated tracts of big houses and little else.
There is some danger in Elburn’s plan, though. The proposed development could double the population, and the train station will attract extra car traffic to its parking lot. During our drive to the construction site, I ask the mayor, Jim Willey, whether this plan might kill the town while trying to save it.
“I get the impression sometimes people wish that we had some secret sauce we could spray on the town and keep it just the way it is. It’s sad, but you can’t do that and change happens, and we have to deal with it.”
(Sound of heavy machinery)
At the site, construction machines pack down a couple of acres of dirt. It took a decade, a lot of political will, and a hundred and forty million dollars to start the project. But Jim says that was the easy part.
It will be harder to resist the temptation to stray from the plan, and build only big, single family homes here. He says a compact mix of stores and housing will be good for the region, not just Elburn. If there’s enough housing here, maybe there’ll be less pressure to build houses on the nearby farms.
“You can’t go anywhere in the world and find finer farmland than where we’re at right now. So the least that we can do is, when we’re going to convert this to housing, is let’s think about what we’re doing, let’s try to make some intelligent decisions.”
There are towns that look like Elburn’s vision of the future. Last century, commuter towns with compact development sprung up along the country’s commuter rail lines. But they all got their start in the days before interstate highways and long car commutes. So, is it possible to mimic those towns now, in the post-automobile age?
Well, I put that question to Dave Schulz. He’s with the Infrastructure Technology Institute, a federally-funded transportation research group. He says it’s hard to keep projects like Elburn’s on track; homes are clustered close to shops, what planners call high-density. He cites Glenview, another Illinois town with a commuter rail station.
“Basically, a number of members of the Glenview board who were voted out of office for approving a townhome development that was judged, apparently, by voters to be too high density near the train station. I think we have a situation where people in the suburbs fear density.”
Schulz says it’s hard to change that attitude. But to fend off the sprawl of suburban development, towns like Elburn need to stay the course. Otherwise…
“If all you’re gonna do is build a bunch of stations in the middle of the cornfields with giant parking lots to allow people to drive to the station from wherever they choose to live, I think a fairly strong argument can be made that you’re not fighting sprawl, but you’re in fact facilitating sprawl.”
Dave Schulz says places like Elburn could be onto something. Maybe its plan for compact development will attract people looking for something different from typical suburban homes. If Elburn can keep its small-town feel, maybe newcomers won’t mind giving up their spacious yards and extra cars.
For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.