The New City

Politico has a nice long-form article on the success of urban planning and new city design in Evanston, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.

It’s a good read on its own about how one city has managed to overcome issues common across the country — sprawl, declining populations, and hurdles to development and growth. One of the keys to Evanston’s revival has been building up its downtown core of mixed-use development: multistory apartment buildings with retail on the ground floor, oriented around transit options.

Such a setup is common in many cities throughout the world — even the small mining city of Pavlograd, Ukraine, my home for two years — but not so much in the United States apart from a few areas. Why is this? There’s been essentially an ecosystem of deliberate policy choices that drove this. In short order, here are some of the influences:

  • The rise of the automobile and suburbs as ubiquitous. The interstate system built under President Eisenhower is one of the defining moments, as is the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy.
  • The ideal of the “garden city,” where a downtown core is surrounded by numerous village hubs.
  • Restrictive zoning laws that designate wide swaths of the city as reserved solely for retail or residences.

The Politico article touches on these ideas, but these kind of deliberate choices are what resulted in the modern city in the U.S. as we know it. Across the country, though, we may be seeing a shift in lifestyles back toward favoring dense cities, which in some ways is very necessary. Cities can only build out so far before sprawl and traffic ensnares everyone. Suburbs that require a car to go anywhere aren’t pleasant to live in when there’s terrible traffic all the time. Putting more people closer together and encouraging them to take trains, buses, streetcars, or anything that’s not a car frees up the road for everyone, including people who still drive. It’s simple mathematics, and there are plenty of great visual demonstrations of how much more efficient pretty much any mode of transport is besides cars.

A lot of suburbs like Evanston are now reorienting themselves away from the 20th-century model of tract housing and strip malls. Even my hometown of Woodstock, Georgia has new condo buildings in its downtown, along with a pretty robust retail and restaurant area. It’s a far cry from the handful of antique stores and funeral homes that dominated it when I was growing up not too long ago. And I have to say, Woodstock has a lot more to offer people than it did when I was growing up.

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