Planning for People: What are Districts?

“To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts four conditions are indispensable:

1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two…
2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there…”

-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

In my neighborhood, we have seen some new leadership on the local Chamber of Commerce. This is good because chambers of commerce have an outsized roll to play in the development of healthy districts. So when my local chamber posted a survey soliciting residents and business owners their thoughts about establishing a special service area and is currently holding public meetings, I figured it is time to explain what an SSA is and what it is not, along with how planning a district is planning for people.

First, a special service area in Chicago (also known as a business improvement district) is a local tax district that funds expanded services and programs via a localized property tax levy. SSAs are different from tax increment financing (TIF) districts in that the levy is on top of current property tax rates and does not sunset, nor is an increment reserved. However, special service areas are like TIFs in that they can use the additional funds for capital projects in their districts as well as enhanced services like landscaping, sidewalks, facade improvements, and the like.

The purpose here is not to explain what SSAs or TIFs are, or the differences between them (see here for that insightful analysis) but rather to explain the benefits of such a district to the community at large.

Jefferson Park satisfies some of the conditions as laid out by Jane Jacobs. It does the following:

  • Function: it is the economic hub of the neighborhood as well as a transportation nexus.
  • Urban Design: the area around Jefferson Park is very walkable, although it is debatable whether there is much work walking to or how safe it is to walk to it.
  • Architecture: Jefferson Park mingles a diverse set of businesses, cultural and governmental functions well including Copernicus Center, Jefferson Memorial Park and the Jefferson Park Transit Center as examples of civic and cultural architecture fit for people. Other institutions catering towards cars might include CVS and McDonald’s.

What an SSA does is strengthen the district via local means. No longer is the district solely dependent on City Hall for its upkeep. Its residents have taken government into their own hands for their own purposes – that of strengthening the neighborhood. Thus, SSAs, like TIFs are a great example of “small c conservatism” in that they address and apply local funding to local problems.

What is important to note about SSAs and similar business improvement districts is that they exist to solve a very local problem with a very local solution – a tax levy on behalf of local businesses to support themselves and their community via local improvements that spur increased development. These sustainable solutions are the answers and direction future developers, investors, neighbors and business owners can look on with certainty as they make decisions on whether to locate here.


Planning for People: Land Use

The Simplified Residential Zoning Map – Daniel Kay Hertz

In Chicago, where I live, land use planning is largely the domain of the zoning code. The Alderman has control over granting variances to the zoning code (Aldermanic prerogative). Thus, the Alderman’s office has tremendous control over whether anything gets built because, despite the fact that Chicago’s zoning ordinance was re-written only 10 years ago, much of the city is zoned for single family homes.

Now you might ask, how can this be? There are plenty of apartments on my block. Whether they are courtyard, two and three flats, or mid and high-rise, they are sprinkled all over the city. And my response to this is that those properties are grandfathered in as a “non-conforming use” – which is a land use that is permitted but does not conform to current zoning law. God help you if you want to rebuild or substantially alter your property; that triggers a need for a zoning variance. And this is the problem. Because as you can see from the map above, virtually the entire city is zoned for single family homes.

Daniel Kay Hertz developed the Simplified Residential Zoning Map to simplify the zoning code as it concerns residential land uses. Because when most people think of zoning, they think of density. And density is one of those bogeyman words, short for “not in my backyard” in many cases. I’ll let Daniel explain the implications:

One of the most under-appreciated aspects of Chicago’s housing system – although, thankfully, it’s becoming more well-known – is how radically the city restricts the kinds of housing that can be built in the neighborhoods. Forms of housing that are traditional all over the city, and that provide subsidy-free affordable housing for working class people, are illegal nearly everywhere outside of downtown and the lakefront. In fact, the vast majority of Chicago neighborhoods are zoned so that the only legal form of new housing is the single-family home – which in many places will necessarily be out of reach for moderate-income people. This is true even in neighborhoods, and on streets, where two-flats, three-flats, and other apartment buildings already exist. Essentially, we’ve imposed classic suburban exclusionary zoning in North Center, West Town, and elsewhere.

This is frustrating for urbanists like myself – seeing that virtually the entire city is non-conforming and that much of what I love about the city cannot be legally built today. We are essentially planning to slowly separate land uses – to essentially turn the city into the suburbs.

Fortunately, as my colleague Steven Vance points out, the City’s transit development ordinance has made it easier for multi-use and multi-family housing to be built. The catch: it can only be built within 600-1200 feet of a transit station (roughly 1-2 blocks).

I think it is vitally important that if we are planning for people, we are planning for various housing and accommodation types. Not everyone can afford or would want to live in a single family home. A city needs a variety of housing types for a variety of needs. And monotonous cities with separated land uses inevitably leads to more driving, as destinations are farther away. This then becomes, essentially, planning for cars.

Planning for People: A Step Back in History

I would like to follow-up on my Planning for People in Jefferson Park post and expand a bit on what it means to “plan for people”.

For at least the past 60 years, the architecture, planning and engineering professions have fundamentally changed the way they designed cities. Cities, a creation of the human race for over 8,000 years have grown organically – they tended to pop up in places of favorable geography, say a deep harbor, up river at a narrow crossing point, at the nexus of trade routes. Cities expanded organically, one or a few buildings at a time. Streets were footpaths and market lanes. As we’ve moved through the millenia, cities have spread based on transportation technology. Whereas, before 1850 and the advent of the omnibus streetcar, cities were of a walkable size, the technology of the streetcar powered by horse, later by electricity and then the automobile has enabled cities to expand far beyond their initial settlements.

ancient cities photo

The way cities were designed before cars. Florence, Italy. Source: Imulej @Pixabay.


Chandler, Arizona. Source: By Chris J [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons












Why the brief history lesson?

My point is to emphasize that cities were built for people up to and until the time that the automobile became a mass-produced commodity that the middle class could afford. In America, this was shortly after World War II. Something radical happened around that time. To make up for severe housing shortages caused by decades of depression followed by war, we found a way to mass produce housing and to tailor it towards the convenience of the car. These design decisions became codified into our zoning codes, our engineering standards and our architecture practices to produce an endless arrangement of Chandler, Arizonas.

An Ending and a New Beginning

We have reached a point where that phase of city building is over. As Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns and others have documented (myself here), the Suburban Growth Ponzi Scheme has come to an end. And it has come to an end here in Jefferson Park as the first cycle of the suburban development pattern, consisting of structures built-in the 1940s – 1960s has largely passed its useful life. You see this crumbling along Milwaukee Avenue in Gladstone Park in particular. The five lane stroad serving only 20,000 cars per day, empty businesses and listless place. It is an area lacking in pedestrian and transit-oriented design, in placemaking.

A new beginning for planning for people in Jefferson Park means returning to the tools of city planning for designing places for people. It means taking advantage of the design features that will bring people to places. These design features include things like medium to high residential densities, mix of land uses, safe street crossings, 2-4 travel lanes, transit, street-oriented buildings and comfortable outdoor spaces. In the next series of posts, I intend to highlight how Jefferson Park can plan for people utilizing these design strategies.

A reboot is needed. One in which we get back to the ancient art of building places…for people.


Geography is Fun

Geography is fun.

I’ve been playing around in Google Maps. Here are two maps made locally for my Chicago neighborhood of Jefferson Park.

The first, a map of all parking lots in downtown Jefferson Park:


The second, a map of election results from the February 24, 2015 municipal election in Chicago. I’ve mapped the results of the 45th Ward, where I live, by precinct.


The purpose of these maps is to illustrate and illuminate discussion amongst my neighbors. I find data visualization to be helpful in that regard. In my neighborhood, we often talk about a parking problem, but as you can see in the first map, clearly there is no shortage of land devoted to the storage of automobiles.

The election map is not surprising to residents of the 45th Ward that follow politics. The Alderman, John Arena, has his base of support in the southwest, near the Six Corners intersection of Milwaukee, Cicero and Irving Park Roads. His challenger, John Garrido, lives in the northwest part of the ward and has a base there. I’ve found potential precincts that might be in play and those precincts are notable for the issues that have occurred locally there. This map does a decent job of highlighting all of that.

Cross-posted at

Planning for People in Jefferson Park


Recently there has been a surge of planning work being done in my neighborhood, the once sleepy corner of the northwest side of Chicago known as Jefferson Park. Several development proposals have been percolating through the planning process and a few have been refined enough to make it to the community meeting level where opposition to increased density is a given (interesting coming from a neighborhood with a population density exceeding 12,000 people per square mile). When it comes to roads – many people seem to like them the way they are.

And this is the problem, because Milwaukee Avenue, the main north-south commercial artery through the neighborhood, as it exists fails the community (as I have previously pointed out).

The problem is, even in urban communities, the discussion of cars (and parking them) takes all the air out of the room. It is a straw man, designed to distract from the real issue at hand – if you plan cities for cars and traffic you will get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you will get people and places.

Hence the Milwaukee Avenue road diet. This project was killed dead because it was so vociferously opposed by people in Gladstone Park. They argued the road diet would cause congestion, that it would eliminate parking and that it would negatively impact quality of life and economic development. This despite evidence to the contrary. The reality is that road diets are an excellent way to support economic development. With the safety benefits that come with it.

Milwaukee Avenue north of Foster Avenue struggles for a couple of reasons. One of those reasons is because of cars. They simply drive too fast for people to notice what business activity is there. Another reason is a lack of sense of place. Because Milwaukee Avenue doesn’t feel like a pleasant environment, people don’t want to be there. Have a look for yourself.

Conversely, this is a street that I think many people would like to be on.
View Larger Map

View Larger Map

Notice the difference? Lincoln Avenue is planned for people, not cars. And its businesses are thriving. But there is something else – and it is in the details. Look at the narrowness of Lincoln Avenue, the sidewalks, the trees, the setbacks of the buildings. It feels like an outdoor room. It feels scaled to people, not cars. And so there is a plaza on the left side and a sidewalk cafe on the right. This street has a sense of place that make people want to linger. And if they linger long enough they spend money…

Whereas, Milwaukee Avenue looks like a giant runway. It is not scaled to people but rather to cars. It does not have a sense of place in that people would want to spend time there. The vacant storefronts support that theory. In short, it is a weak, unproductive place.

If we want to build a strong Jefferson Park we need to look at planning for people and not cars.