Chicago’s Walkable Urbanism

I’ve always been impressed by Chicago’s urbanism. Yes, the city of broad shoulders has more awesome old buildings designed by renowned architects than most cities have buildings total, but the fabric of the city impresses me the most. Over the years I’ve spent the most time on the city’s north side, and have found block after block and mile after mile to be walkable and interesting.

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First of all, residential neighborhoods have sidewalks that line up with crosswalks in a continuous path (above). And people walk!

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Any given residential street may have a mix of bungalows and two-flats

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There are walkable grocery stores like Harvestime Foods on Lawrence Avenue

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Train stations knit in to the neighborhood like Rockwell on the Brown (Ravenswood) Line

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There are schools like Waters Elementary

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Gazebos and populated playgrounds in the shadow of churches like here at Welles Park

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Commercial streets lined with almost uninterrupted walkable retail frontage (in both old and new buildings) like Lincoln Avenue

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And delicious urbanism like cappuccino and sweets at Julius Meinl

This was crossposted at Joe Urban


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6 Responses to Chicago’s Walkable Urbanism

  1. Morgan November 12, 2013 at 7:41 am #

    I was just in Chicago this past weekend!

    I think that your post is mostly about the age of cities and not land use planning so much. These neighborhoods are old compared to most of America and pre-car. That is why the housing stock and older commercial districts are walkable. But there is a lot of poor land use planning in Chicago. I am thinking all of the new commercial development along North Ave and all of the street facing parking lots at new grocery stores like Whole Foods. These could have been brownfields, I’m not sure, but the urbanism of new development isn’t that great if you ask me.

    The detached single family home is not the best “urbanist” housing type, that’s for sure. Attached housing, especially with different households on each floor, is the best for street life and the density of amenities while still maintaining a human scale.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg November 13, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

      Morgan, you are right some of the big new commercial infill isn’t the best. However, a lot of small scale commercial and housing fits very well. For more than a decade I’ve seen attractive, well-scaled three-flats built on infill lots and fit well in the streetscape. Same is true on commercial corridors. I do, however, wonder about the quality and if already century-old two- and threeflats will outlast the new buildings. I’m not sure if that’s a good code or a private sector with urban sensibility.

      As for single-family versus attached housing, it seems like block after block in Chicago has a combination of both and that works very well, providing good variety. It’s like Uptown in Minneapolis with bungalows spread across a broad swath of the city.

  2. Nick Magrino
    Nick Magrino November 12, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

    I’m definitely not a Chicagologist, but in my past few experiences there, I’ve stumbled across a few odd situations streetscape-wise which required a decent amount of navigation–with the river(s), rail yards, highways, two level roads, weird loop train situation, etc. I also remember some really weird pedestrian funneling around Grant/Millennium Park. It’s a lot less intuitive than, say, Midtown Manhattan. Nothing that was a huge deal breaker, obviously, but the experiences stuck with me. (Hopefully someone in Chicago reads this and thinks I’m a hick)

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg November 13, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

      Nick, I’m sure many people from Chicago will think you are a hick! Ha! I’d actually say in spite of two level roads, railyards and the river, the city is actually very intuitive.

  3. Jeremy Bergerson November 15, 2013 at 7:37 am #

    I just moved back here from living in Chicago for a couple years. I was in the South Loop, which used to be warehouses and railroad-related infrastructure. Now it’s all highrise condo buildings, which make the area pretty un-neighborhoody for a city renowned for its identity-rich neighborhoods. Still, I lived a block from an L station, two grocery stores, and numerous restaurants and little shops.

    I’d’ve preferred, though, to live in a real neighborhood. The North Side is, as you point out, super charming, especially in Ravenswood, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and Old Town. But people often overlook how beautiful the South Side is. Kenwood, Hyde Park, and Jackson Park Highlands are all super charming and very nice. Unfortunately, the L doesn’t serve this area very well, though bus lines are reliable, frequent, and fast in these areas. There’s even BRT-lite in the form of the Jeffery Jump. And the Metra Electric District trains serve the area amazingly well.

    Bronzeville is getting better, and Pilsen is already in full-blown hipsterization mode. Milwaukee Avenue from downtown to Wicker Park is fully hipsterized and now the fratboys from Lincoln Park are moving in. The city is undergoing a population revolution, which Rahm is, I’m sure, giddy about.

    But Nick’s right: Chicago infrastructure takes a while to get used to. You’re kind of left with the impression that Chicagoans only consider other Chicagoans when doing this stuff. Seriously, try finding the CTA when you’re in the baggage claim of Midway. It sends you to a room with no further signage, but if you continue on anyway, two rooms later there’s more signage for the Orange Line. Crazy.

    Still, when Chicagoans build new houses, they’re concrete, brick, and cinder block affairs whose solidity is a true contribution to the city’s housing stock. New apartment buildings are equally substantial. I can’t say the same for all the condo buildings be slapped together in Minneapolis.

    Chicago’s awesome urbanism takes on many forms. Minneapolis could take a page from its successes and failures in this regard.

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