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May 11, 2017
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Walkable Communities Alternative Futures forum recap

Panelists and audience members participated in a wide-ranging conversation about how to plan for increasing demand for walkable communities across the Chicago region at the second ON TO 2050 Alternative Futures Forum Series event, "Where We'll Live in 2050," on May 4, at the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF).

More than 120 people attended the forum, which was led by moderator Geoffrey Baer, producer and host for WTTW Channel 11. Panelists were Tom Kirschbraun, managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle; Linda Searl, principal at Searl Lamaster Howe Architects; and Joanna Trotter, senior program officer at The Chicago Community Trust.

This was the third of five forums that the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) has planned through August as part of the Alternative Futures campaign, an effort to spark conversation and garner public input about the Chicago region's future as CMAP develops the next comprehensive plan, ON TO 2050.

Chicago Architecture Foundation president and CEO Lynn Osmond welcomed the crowd to CAF, which sponsored and co-hosted the forum as part of their monthly Design Dialogues series. CMAP executive director Joe Szabo laid the groundwork for the panel by sharing data supporting the premise that, by 2050, more people will want to live in walkable, mixed-use communities. Today, 42 percent of baby boomers want to live in a place where they don't have to own a car, while 63 percent of millennials share that preference, he said.

"This trend has already begun transforming many city neighborhoods and suburban downtowns," said Szabo. "One challenge is that walkable places like this are in short supply and high demand -- which will eventually make even those that are affordable now, expensive soon."

Access to walkability

Trotter said that walkable communities are about more than just convenience, but access to work, social connections, better public health outcomes, and education. Without proper planning, those benefits may only be available to people who can afford to pay a premium for living near transit and other amenities. "It's not a question of if there will be a demand for walkability," she said, "but who gets access to those communities."

One way to address that issue, Trotter said, would be to reinvest in certain areas where, although transit already exists, development has not caught up.  "Those bones are in place and we need to unlock their potential," she said.

Trotter said that, while she sees the promise for more inclusive growth in the region's future, communities have to plan intentionally today to create opportunities that enable all segments of the population to advance.

"It's about how we invest. Equity has to be front and center in how we make our investment decisions, whether it's where schools should go, where infrastructure should go, or where we're directing incentives around economy and community development," she said.

Kirschbraun said that, as someone who works directly with real estate developers, he has a slightly different point of view.

"Builders build where there's demand. They have to budget a rent or a purchase price that supports the costs. That is just a fact of life," Kirschbraun said.

He said that even if municipal leaders want or need more affordable housing in their community, it can't happen without developers and financing.

"Real estate can't solve poverty," he said. "The issue is jobs and education. The biggest sorting mechanism for where people live is education. Your children are most important to you, and you go where they have the best chance. Real estate is part of it, but it's not the solution."

Trotter said the Chicago region should look to the Bay Area in northern California as a warning -- and an opportunity to plan now to avoid a similar affordable housing crisis in the future.

Closing the gap between suburbs and city

Panelists said that by 2050, the line between cities and suburbs may be blurred as walkable communities become more popular across the region.

"I think our suburbs will densify because they will have to. Chicago is already a little bit suburban because we have all of these distinct neighborhoods," said Linda Searl. "I think [the city and suburbs] will get more alike to be most successful."

Kirschbraun said suburbs served by transit have the most opportunity to thrive in a future where more people want to live in walkable communities because other amenities cluster near transit. However, he believes many suburbs will have to overcome the frequent barrier of community opposition to higher density, an often-necessary requirement to sustain new development.

The bigger challenge, he said, will be to plan for communities that are not rail-served.  "I don't know what the future is for those suburbs that are utterly auto-oriented," said Kirschbraun.

"Both urban and suburban communities are going to have to go through a reinvention in a whole range of aspects," Trotter said. From demographic changes to the way we work in a transformed economy, she said it's important that we lay the groundwork for that future today.

Planning for unknowns of the future

While CMAP and its stakeholders are planning for 2050, Kirschbraun said it can be difficult for the real estate market to look that far ahead and keep up with our increasingly rapid technology cycles.

"Real estate is inherently a long-term asset that doesn't adapt well to these changes," he said. "That's because of both the physical product and the inability of zoning codes to keep up as fast as the world changes. Flexibility is going to be key."

To help create more flexibility, he said Chicago should continue to open new stops along already existing transit lines, develop near stops that exist, and upzone for higher density, even if not every resident is happy with that decision.

Searl, who is also a member of the Chicago Plan Commission, referenced the city's Transit-Oriented Development Ordinance as an example of government working to address these trends.

The panel also discussed how automation and a Transformed Economy will change where we live by 2050. If people are more isolated by technology or working from home, they might seek more social connections that a walkable community can bring. However, "If we are all buying things on Amazon, those cool stores that you want to walk to in your neighborhood will disappear," Kirschbraun said.  He added that those smaller storefronts may become neighborhood fulfillment centers for companies like Amazon or experience-based offerings such as restaurants and cafes where people can make social connections.

Overall, panelists said it's important to work with the community and plan long-term to meet this trend because a successful walkable community can't just come out of a box.

"It's not so easy to make what happened organically over a long period of time happen instantly," Searl said. "It doesn't happen overnight."

More on this Alternative Future

To learn more about Walkable Communities, visit http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/onto2050/futures/communities, where you can take a survey about what kind of neighborhood you would like to live in by 2050. If you missed the forum listen to it here.  Visitors to the Chicago Architecture Foundation can give feedback on this and other Alternative Futures at an interactive kiosk stationed in the building's lobby.  CAF is publishing a graphic novel, No Small Plans, a graphic novel inspired by the 1911 Wacker's Manual, to explain urban planning and civic engagement to students.  The book will be distributed to thousands of Chicago teenagers over the next three years.

Next: Innovative Transportation

Register for the next Alternative Futures Forum Series event, "Harnessing Technology for Future Mobility," hosted and co-sponsored by the Illinois Institute of Technology (3201 S. State St.), at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, June 22.

 


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