In the mid-1960’s, the federal government started requiring metropolitan areas to come up with regional plans in order to get government grants for everything from highways to housing. That forced officials from large cities and from the suburbs to sit down at the same table (in many cases for the first time) and think about what was best for the entire region; not just their own town. From this effort, sprang the regional planning movement, but things aren’t always easy, and certainly don’t always go ‘according to plan.’ The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports on one region’s attempt to plan for growth:
There are four major regional planning orgnizations in the Chicago metro area:
mid-1960’s, the federal government started requiring metropolitan areas to come up with regional plans in order to get government grants for everything from highways to housing. That forced officials from large cities and from the suburbs to sit down at the same table — in many cases for the first time — and think about what was best for the entire region, not just their own town. From this effort, sprang the regional planning movement. But things aren’t always easy and certainly don’t always go ‘according to plan.’ The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports on one region’s attempt to plan for growth:
If you were to gather around the coffee pot in the morning at just about any place of business in just about any suburb of just about any big city, the topic of conversation would probably not be the weather, or last night’s big game, or even politics. Nope. More than likely it would be about how long it took to get to work. Lots of people drive an hour, ninety minutes, or even longer to make the commute. So, why not move closer, you might ask. The answer could very well be “Can’t afford it.”
Housing costs in many suburbs are so high that the people who teach the kids, fight the fires, and fix the cars in the nice suburbs have to live in other less affluent communities where housing is cheaper. That’s because city officials in many suburbs encourage the building of expensive houses on big lots because it means a better tax base. But that also means many workers need to hop in their cars to get to work in those fancy suburbs.
Of course, when thousands of cars line up bumper to bumper to make the commute, you get traffic congestion.
“If you think it’s bad now, just wait. It’s gonna get worse.”
That’s Frank Beale. He’s the Executive Director of a group named Chicago Metropolis 2020. Metropolis 2020 put together a plan that looked at the Chicago area’s growth patterns and came up with some pretty dire forecasts. According to the study, if the Chicago region conducts business as usual, by the year 2030 there will be a 75-percent increase in auto miles traveled for work, shopping, and normal everyday trips. The time it takes to drive to work will be up 27-percent. And only about seven-and-a-half percent of housing units will be within walking distance of mass transit.
Beale says there’s seems to be a disconnect between local governments’ decisions to encourage big, expensive houses and the resulting need for more roads and additional lanes of traffic to handle all the commuters.
distribution of affordable housing and the employment centers would diminish the demand on the transportation systems. We seem to always only talk about roads. But, we only need roads because of how we’ve configured the land in the region.” Beyond the travel concerns, business as usual — according to the Metropolis 2020 study — means another 383 square miles of farmland will become subdivisions and strip malls in less than 30 years.
Organizations such as Metropolis 2020 are working together to try to educate and persuade the Chicago region’s 275 suburban mayors that the decisions they make will have an effect on the whole region.
Larry Christmas was once one of those mayors. He’s also spent his career running or working for regional planning agencies. He says as a mayor, it’s hard to think about the larger region when you are working to bring good growth to your town. It’s especially hard when regional planners want you to give up local control of land-use for the betterment of the larger region.
“And that’s something the communities don’t want to give up lightly even if there’s a regional argument that the collective local decisions may add up to bad regional development patterns.”
So, those looking at the big picture have their work cut out for them. The regional planners spend a lot of time at meetings with local officials, putting together roundtables to explain plans and trying to schedule meetings between antagonists.
One of the partners of Metropolis 2020 is the Metropolitan Planning Council. Executive Director Mary Sue Barrett says sitting down with those different interests and getting them to consider the reasons for bending a little here and there to adhere to a regional plan can pay off.
“To put it in practical terms, if you can get an environmentalist and a homebuilder and a mayor to agree on something, you can probably go get it done. And that’s what we try to do.”
And the regional planners try to get the mayors to listen on topics ranging from fair and equitable housing, to public transportation, and even taxing systems that sometimes encourage bad development with tax breaks.
But given the kind of expansive sprawl that continues to plague the Chicago metropolitan area, there’s still one question you have to ask of people such as Frank Beale with Chicago Metropolis 2020. That is: who’s listening?
“Well, the general assembly, the legislators are listening, the Mayor, the 275 suburban mayors are listening. They don’t always agree, but they’re listening.”
And as long as they keep listening, the people looking for better regional planning will keep trying to persuade the cities in the suburbs there’s a better way.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.