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December 9, 2016
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ON TO 2050 Big Ideas forum evokes debate about the future of regional urbanization

More than 100 people joined CMAP at Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora on Tuesday, December 6, for the latest ON TO 2050 Big Ideas Forum, "Development at the Edge: The Future of Regional Urbanization."  The event was co-sponsored by APA Illinois and Kane County.

Panelists Collete English Dixon, who has more than 30 years of experience in investment management; Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns; Curt Paddock, director of the Will County Land Use Department; and moderator Carolyn Schofield, former McHenry County Board and Crystal Lake City Council member, debated and discussed their different perspectives on the future of growth and development in the Chicago region.

Schofield, who is also the McHenry County representative on the CMAP Board, led the panelists through a discussion about some of the fundamental trends that are changing the world of development now and as we plan for the future.

Infill versus expansion

From 2001-15, approximately 140,000 acres of the Chicago region's agricultural and natural lands were developed, coinciding with a population shift away from the region's core as suburbs expanded along the periphery, but panelists said that trend might not continue in the future.

Since World War II, Marohn said development has been about planning for growth, but Paddock said he saw the housing crisis bring that pattern to a full stop. Before the crash, Paddock said Will County had approved approximately 20 new subdivisions in a six-month period, but have not approved a new housing development in the past eight years.

"The recession did more to reshape our development patterns than any policy. It made it uneconomic to continue to develop on the periphery," Paddock said. "Prior to that we were approving land on a colossal basis that I think left enough capacity that will take 20 years to be absorbed."

English Dixon said that too many businesses subscribed to a "if you build it they will come" philosophy before the recession.

"But then the music stopped," she said. "It stopped in a way that forced many industries to rethink their model of speculatively building things thinking there will be customers right behind it. There has to be a much more measured, in-step process. It can work well, but it is a slower process on a smaller scale than what many of us are used to."

This overbuilding, both in housing and retail, led many cities and suburbs to financial insolvency as they struggled to keep up with mounting infrastructure costs, Marohn said. "We've taken on far more liabilities than we have wealth generated to maintain," he said. "At some point we will have to deal with the fact that we've created cities that cannot maintain themselves, and then we're going to have to do something different."

"I totally believe we have had a huge shift and I think there's more shift to come," added English Dixon. "There is a need to approach our planning for the future very differently than we have in the past, but we have a great opportunity because there is so much more data to understand what's happening now than ever before to help us make better decisions on every level."

The future of planning will require using that data to make decisions in more nuanced way, Marohn said.

"We need to stop building new stuff," Marohn said. "We've already built more than we can maintain. What we should actually be doing is saying ‘What do we have that we are actually going to maintain and what are we not.'"

Paddock was less convinced that this was a time of major shifts in development patterns, saying instead that he thinks development in 2050 will look similar to how it looks today, but with more technology connecting areas within the region.

Affordability in livable areas

Changing transportation patterns -- an increased desire for walkability and easy transit access rather than drivability --  is also changing our development patterns, panelists said.

"Every generation alive grew up with the automobile, and our cities grew around that," Marohn said. But now, there are groups of people, including millennials and retirees, who may value a walkable lifestyle more than the ability to drive everywhere.

But, as livable communities become more desirable, English Dixon said it will be difficult to maintain affordability in large urban areas like parts of Chicago and New York that are only accessible to some.

"If these urban cores, which are so popular for what they provide, are not able to maintain an affordability factor, that will result in a revisiting of the more outlier, suburban environment," she said, pointing to suburban areas with amenities, retail and transit that will be a more popular and affordable mode of development rather than expanding further into natural lands.

The panel also discussed challenges to creating equitable development.

Paddock said experiments done by Pace in expanding its coverage area are a good start, but there needs to be more of an effort to bring people from struggling areas of the region to places where jobs are forming.

"The whole orientation of our transportation system has been to get people from the periphery to the core. One way to be more equitable is to invest in a transportation system that is moving people to where the jobs actually are," Paddock said.

English Dixon added that industry also has an opportunity to create jobs in the middle and go where people already live rather than keep expanding outward.

Panelists said that as the demographics of the region, and country, shift, cities need to embrace a more diverse population and the benefits that having a mix of housing and business types can bring to their area. English Dixon said that at the core, no matter how diverse, most people have the same values, expectations, and desires about living in a desirable community.

Conflicts between regional and local planning

The group also discussed the goals of planning collaboratively as a region and how those efforts can have more of an impact.

"Regional planning is often an exercise in wishful thinking," Marohn said. "We think that we're all better off when we work together, I agree with that. But, if we don't step back and acknowledge that there is this conflict between what makes sense at the regional level and what makes sense at the block level, all the good intentions in the world are not going to compensate for that imbalance."

Paddock said that if there were a layer of government with more authority on regional development decisions, it would give regional planning efforts more teeth.

"Everybody wants to get their piece of the pie, and there's a belief that the pie is only so big. So, if you get that piece then maybe there's not enough for me," English Dixon said, "That's why the regional approach is so hard."

As development continues, experts said one place where cities and suburbs can work together is in prioritizing natural resource management such as water supply and preservation of natural areas.

"More than ever, planning partnership and coordination are really important," said Chris Lauzen, Chairman of the Kane County Board. "Especially as growth starts to accelerate, we've got to be ready."

CMAP will hold more ON TO 2050 Big Ideas forums in coming months. Subscribe to our weekly updates for more information.


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