Annexation: A tool to boost Chicago’s population, yes, but efficiency and integration are more important

Unless Chicago can stem its population losses, there is likely only one way for the city to beef it up and that is annexation. In a commentary published by the Chicago Tribune, author Edward McClelland (bio) argues it is time the city annex smaller suburbs to raise its population and those suburbs fortunes. Lower taxes and improved services makes this process worthwhile. Nevertheless, this approach to population growth fails to address the more ingrained problems stalling Chicago’s and the surrounding region’s growth. Annexation has its place in the box of tools for bettering the region and maintaining its place in the nation and world, but this has to be done hand-in-hand with a larger program of transformational reform.

The benefit of annexation is surprisingly compelling. Many of the region’s inner-ring suburbs are struggling with the same plight as some of the city neighborhoods–crime, joblessness, de-industrialization, crumbling infrastructure are all issues in Dolton or Burnham as they are in South Chicago or Englewood. The difference though is Chicago neighborhoods benefit directly from wealthier neighborhoods elsewhere in the city. Due to their size, small suburbs are on their own to address many ingrained issues. To stay afloat they must exploit whatever revenue sources possible, even beyond economically sustainable levels: Taxes go up more, residents and businesses move, and infrastructure never gets better, thus producing a nearly impossible to reverse cycle.

That is until Chicago comes in and saves the day. With lower property taxes and a larger arsenal of resources, annexation by the city could be a the much-needed booster shot for communities at the city’s edge. According to Curbed Chicago, annexation of just a handful of suburbs would likely push Chicago’s population over the 3 million mark for the first time in decades. Such an increase (a growth of about 300,000 individuals, the size of Anchorage or Cincinnati) would also raise Chicago’s clout in Springfield and Washington by an expanding legislative and congressional contingents from the city. This alone would be a boon for the city, since it could push for more city-friendly legislation.

And, of course, it would also allow new Chicago residents to finally tell off snarky Chicagoans (this blogger included) to shut up about whether they can say they’re from Chicago or not. (Ah ha! One of the great divides between city and suburb is slowly dissolved).

Nevertheless, this is far from a sure-fire solution. Considering the state is mired in unending political gridlock, it seems unlike an annexation program would find itself high on the agenda in the statehouse. Annexation and consolidation could be boons for the communities that embrace it, however. This mostly has to do with how annexation fits in with local and state tax policy.

Government in Illinois is not efficient. Period. And, this is in part to its fractured nature and many layers. (Although the obvious corruption does nothing to help.) There are simply too many layers of government and services provision, often at too small as scale, to be fiscally sustainable. This means lots of layers of administration, which adds up. These costs then gets funneled away from actual services.

Plus, in Chicagoland, there is the problem of the many small suburbs. Here, it is not the replication of services by unnecessary layers of government that is straining the breadth of tax dollars (keep reading for that), rather it is an unnecessary number of governments. Regardless of size or wealth, most Chicago suburbs provide the same services (police, parks, libraries, fire safety). While it might make sense for a town of 5,000 residents to provide all these if it is isolated in a rural Downstate Illinois, one has to ask if it makes sense for Park Ridge (population 37,608), Rosemont (4,305), and Des Plaines (58,390), all adjacent to pay for three sets each of libraries, police and fire?

 

LACityCounty

Fig. 1: This shows the proportion of Los Angeles County residents who live in Los Angeles (city). Although more Los Angeles County residents live in suburban communities (i.e. not Los Angeles) they are split between fewer municipalities than Cook County.

ChiCookCityCounty

Fig. 2: This shows the proportion of Cook County residents who live in Chicago. Although a smaller proportion of Cook County residents live in suburban communities (i.e. not Chicago) than in Los Angeles County they are split up in a larger number of municipalities.

Thus, there are two issues at play here, both of which are affecting how far every Illinois and municipal tax dollar can stretch. First, the statewide problem of layered governments mean costs are skyrocketing, because of the replication of administrative services as well. At the local level in Chicagoland, the sheer number of government mean residents are paying for the same services more than 200 times over, because of the number of municipalities in the region. In Cook County specifically, that means the 2.5 million residents who live outside Chicago pay for the same kinds of services provided in the city, just 130 some odd times over for each municipality in the county. Los Angeles County has only 88 municipalities including the City of Los Angeles and a population of close to 10 million. (See Fig. 1 & 2.)

 


 

The prime example of the limitations posed on the Illinois tax dollar is education. A recent report from the Metropolitan Planning Council targeted the state’s incredible number of school districts. Their numbers result in huge administrative costs that funnel funds away from classrooms; per pupil, Illinois spends more than twice the national average on administration to a tune of over $1 billion annually. If this amount were brought down to the national average an incredible amount of funding could be returned to where it’s needed the most: the classroom. The savings produced by lowering the administrative costs would release $4.6 billion over the next decade without at current taxing rates. This is more than the $3.5 billion in funding needs identified by the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission.

As MPC explains, there are “more than 850 public school districts in Illinois…not including regional and special education districts…On top of that, nearly 100 high school districts covered the same geographic areas served by more than 370 elementary school districts. In those areas, residents were served by (and paid taxes for) two school districts.” Merging school districts so high schools and the elementary schools that feed them are in the same district is one way to eliminate this administrative largess. It also stands as an example of how consolidation (read: plus annexation) is an economically sustainable option.

Addressing how school districts are determined is practical and necessary. It will only go so far though if the many other layers of government and administrative divisions that restrict the efficiency of Illinois tax dollars stay in place. This includes contending with the ramifications of the hundreds of municipalities in Chicagoland. Thus, the push for annexation, which would lower the number of municipalities, and according to McClelland make service provision more efficient where it occurs.

Take tiny Hometown. Wedged between Chicago, Oak Lawn, and Evergreen Park in the Southwest Suburbs, it has a population of just over 4,400 and median household income just shy of $45,500, which is lower than Chicago’s. Nonetheless, the city provides many of the same services as Chicago. Annexation into Chicago along with two dozen other communities would roll these services into the city’s larger infrastructure. Although this would increase the area covered by each service, it would also mean more residents paying for the services, ideally taking the pressure of each tax dollar coming out of the annexed communities. Additionally, the median household income in Chicago would increase after the annexation, resulting in more wealth to pay for these now shared services.

Suggesting Chicago annex anything more than a handful of suburbs is doubtless a gigantic no-go for most. Indeed, there are other ways the county could make government and service provision more efficient without annexation: consolidating services between municipalities or taking on a greater role as a service provider for larger services (like roads) would achieve many of the same ends as annexation. It still leaves well over a hundred communities though and the many sets of administration it takes to run them. This does not mean annexation is dead on arrival. While a community may be averse to annexation by Chicago it may not be averse to annexation, rather consolidation, with other surrounding communities.

 


 

While it might make the most sense for Hometown to join Chicago, residents in a village like Lincolnwood would probably balk at the idea. I live near and have worked in Lincolnwood (for the village for that matter) and I am confident in this assertion. The reason Lincolnwood attracts families is the proximity to the city without the “problems” of city (schools *cough*). And it is significantly wealthier than many surrounding communities. Residents would likely use that wealth to fight annexation. But, what about consolidation with Skokie, Niles, and Morton Grove?

A new city created out of the consolidation of these four municipalities seems more realistic due to their proximity and similarities. They would benefit from the consolidation of services paid for by a larger, more diverse tax base. Moreover, a city the size of one formed out of this consolidation would also be large enough to fully support a single school district serving that city alone, as is the case in Chicago. Finally, like Chicago, it would have greater political clout.

ChicagoAnnexationAndSuburbs

Fig. 3: Chicago and its suburbs shown after a series of annexations and consolidations to reduce the number of municipalities in Cook County.

Annexation is a solution to explore for Chicago and between suburbs, because it achieves many of the same ends. Using demographics and high schools districts as a rough measure, I created a map (Fig. 3) showing how Cook County could be reduced from 142 municipalities to less than 30, thus reducing the number agencies, authorities, departments, and districts serving these municipalities to around 30 as well, thus reducing administrative costs in all types of governments to (hopefully) serve residents better.

Annexation is a solution to explore for Chicago and between suburbs, because it achieves many of the same ends. Using demographics and high schools districts as a rough measure, I created a map (Fig. 3) showing how Cook County could be reduced from 135 municipalities to less than 30, thus reducing the number agencies, authorities, departments, and districts serving these municipalities by the same amount, thus reducing administrative costs in all types of governments to (hopefully) serving residents better.

School districts, for example, could be reorganized around municipal divisions and not archaic township boundaries, as they currently are. There is still wiggle room to for making government run more efficiently. Certain services could still be provided exclusively by the county, like public health services. It would also result in a more uniform tax policy, regardless of measures taken by the county or state, simply because more people and businesses would be paying the same municipal taxes.

This is an area where fewer municipal voices would also help the county and region. Tax policy is a big driver behind the region’s sprawl and economically unsustainable competition. It is also making the region an undesirable location for investment, because more taxes go to fewer and worse services. While the smaller number of municipal voices would make it easier to design unifying policies, the increased size of the different municipalities would also each more clout. While Chicago’s population would increase as well post-annexation, Lincolnwood would no longer be a village trying to make its voice heard, rather it would be part of a city of almost 130,000.

 


 

A major fault of McClelland’s (and many others’) argument that Chicago’s dropping population is a sign of the city’s decline is that it focuses just on the city’s population and not that of the region, which has a population greater than 9.4 million. This number puts it ahead of Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston (the two largest metros after New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago) by more than 3 million people. That difference is the equivalent of metropolitan Seattle-Tacoma or the Twin Cities.

It also ignores the city and region’s resources. Chicago is lucky to be flush with major cultural and educational institutions and (by American standards) amazing infrastructure, that put it well ahead of cities like Dallas or Atlanta in terms of global influence. And in any event a metropolitan region’s size has little correlation with the quality of its resources. Metropolitan Vienna and Berlin are both smaller than metropolitan Dallas and Atlanta, but both are known globally for a number of things the latter two cities are unlikely to be known for any time in the near future. Chicago has the same positive things working for it.

While annexation may not have any direct impact on the future of something like the Lyric Opera or Art Institute, it should be approached and implemented in a way that makes the region function better. This is not to say the region should be deprived of its uniqueness, nerve, and talent, rather that the way it works should not deprive its uniqueness, nerve, and talent from reaching its potential. What McClelland misses in his initial argument about annexation is that there are reasons the population is dropping. (Although I would be shocked if he was unaware what these reasons are.) Some of the reasons are the product of externalities out of the city and/or state’s control. Those that are within the control of regional government, however, need to be addressed, so that in spite of the city’s tough winters, people still feel ready, willing, and happy to stay and invest their time, money, and well-being in this city and region.

 


 

The last two metropolitan areas mentioned (Seattle-Tacoma and Minneapolis-St. Paul) have shown greater regional cooperation than experienced in Chicagoland. The lack of this is one of the fundamental ailments afflicting the region. McClelland’s proposal for annexation to be used again should be to address this as a root problem hurting the region and not as vain way to make the city look amazing on paper. Population is ultimately merely a number and it does not really matter if the individuals who make up that number are unable to flourish and create more vibrant and interesting places.

Personally, I say bring on annexation, consolidation, and regional government in Chicagoland. The impracticality of how the region is governed needs to end. (Figures 4 and 5 show this perfectly, but showing the incomprehensible number of administrative, government, and municipal boundaries in the region.) And while I hope that the improvements I think can come from such efforts and policy changes would both encourage people to stay and come to the region, if the end game is just increasing the population than the whole point of improving the city and region gets missed, because if the city and region focused more on quality of services and quality of life and number just numbers then the outcome would be what makes headlines: population increases and not those that come from changing lines on a map.


The chart below outlines which municipalities would be merged through a program of annexations and consolidations in Cook County. It includes theoretical new names (usually based off the largest municipality in the merger process or the township name) as well as the populations after the merger. 

ORIGINAL MUNICIPALITIES NEW MUNICIPALITY POPULATION
Evanston, Glencoe, Kenilworth, Northfield, Wilmette, Winnetka North Shore 130,955
Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, Niles, Skokie Skokie 128,225
Glenview, Golf, Northbrook Glenbrook 75,735
Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Rosemont Des Plaines 100,720
Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights, Wheeling Prospect 183,875
Inverness, Palatine, Rolling Meadows Palatine 96,830
Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Schaumburg Schaumburg 159,610
Bellwood, Berkeley, Broadview, Hillside, Maywood, Melrose Park, Northlake, Stone Park, Westchester Proviso 126,190
Oak Park, Forest Park, River Forest Oak Park 78,850
Lyons, Summit, North Riverside, Riverside Riverside 36,475
Brookfield, La Grange, La Grange Park, Western Springs La Grange 60,480
Countryside, Hodgkins, Indian Head Park, McCook, Willow Springs Willow Springs 17,090
Hickory Hills, Justice, Palos Hills, Palos Park Palos Hills Park 48,475
Alsip, Chicago Ridge, Crestwood, Palos Heights, Robbins, Worth Chicago Ridge 74,045
Orland Hills, Orland Park, Tinley Park Orland Hills Park 106,260
Country Club Hills, Hazel Crest, Markham, Midlothian, Oak Forest, Posen Oak Forest 90,700
Homewood, Flossmoor Homewood 28,845
Park Forest, Olympia Fields, Matteson Park Forest 41,125
Chicago Heights, Ford Heights, Glenwood, Sauk Village, South Chicago Heights, Steger Chicago Heights 69,295
Calumet City, Lansing, Lynwood Calumet City 74,780
Dixmoor, East Hazel Crest, Harvey, Phoenix, South Holland, Thronton Harvey 62,430
Chicago, Bedford Park, Berwyn, Blue Island, Bridgeview, Burbank, Burnham, Calumet Park, Cicero, Dolton, Elmwood Park, Evergreen Park, Forest View, Franklin Park, Hometown, Merrionette Park, Oak Lawn, Riverdale, River Grove, Schiller Park, Stickney Chicago 3,313,095

 

Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful! But the City is So Delightful!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: weather–winter weather especially–should not be a major player in determining where people live. It is high time cold climate cities embrace the winter as an asset and chide it. This discussion may become an annual tradition on this blog (I wrote about it last year too); so, as long as the annual threat by Northerners to move mid-winter continues, so will my call for a more positive mentality towards the chillier months–and in this installment for better design for the winter.

In the previous post about winter I focused on a mix of methods to improve a residents’ experience of our cold climate city. (This was done with help from the Project for Public Spaces.) Suggestions ranged from incorporating winter markets into the seasonal calendar of events to creating little league hockey and other winter sports opportunities.

The suggestions weren’t entirely focused around a single theme. After getting back to Chicago this year, I re-recognized the importance of design in getting residents through the winter. Most of this realization happened using the “L”, which is where most Chicagoans probably get extended exposure to the winter elements. This, and walking and biking mid-winter in the city.

The weather is made uncomfortable mostly due to wind and snow. In a city like Chicago it is hard to avoid both. It’s called ‘lake effect’ and the Great Plains. There is nothing to stop or slow any inclement weather. Sadly, the design of a lot of the city’s public spaces and amenities doesn’t seem to account for this. And in terms of design, this is what the Chicago needs to begin considering.

So, to make winter all the more lovely in Chicago there are three areas where design holds the solutions: transit stations, sidewalks and bike lanes, and parks.

  • Transit has to be made weather proof. It is insane that the CTA and Chicago’s DOT haven’t made it a standard policy to build stations that includes weather proofing. Chicago is unique having a rapid transit system that is almost entirely above ground; or, at least this is unique among cold climate cities. Yet, station design doesn’t reflect this reality. While the airy elevated stations are great in the summer, they don’t hold up in the winter.
    • Use the Cermak-McCormick Place Green Line station as a design model for future stations and renovations. The station, wrapped in a tube like structure, protects passengers from the elements while waiting for trains. While it isn’t enclosed fully to keep it heated, it keeps passengers dry and moderately warm.
    • Install glass windows along Blue and Red Line stops in the medians of highways. The canopies of many of these stations (e.g. Harlem and Cumberland Blue Line stops) are ideally designed to allow such installations. This would not only help keep platforms insulated from the weather, but lessen noise caused by traffic passing so close to the platforms.
    • The same applies to stairwells along segments of other L lines. Enclosing them in glass would go a long way to improve the station experience while allowing light in still. Take the Brown Line: most of the stairwells at the Brown Line’s elevated stations are only enclosed with fencing. This allows snow and ice to build up on the stairs making for wet and dangerous ascents to and descents from platforms. Put up impermeable walls and problem solved.
    • Invest in bus stops that actually keep the weather at bay. The CTA’s JCDecaux bus stops are purely aesthetic and fail on a functional level. The gaps between the glass walls and roofs let in snow and rain and the open fourth side lets wind and cold in easily. A good example of a weather proof bus stop were those I’ve seen in Winnipeg. It was enclosed on all four sides and included an easy to push open swinging glass door to keep the weather at bay.
  • winnipeg-bus-stop

    This bus stop in Winnipeg is fully enclosed. This design could also include ticket machines or be incorporated into prepaid boarding schemes. 

    Using permeable pavement is another solution to deal with snow and ice. Shoveling, or lack thereof, is an annoyance for pedestrians and cyclists in Chicago. Bike lanes only get partially cleared and crosswalks are usually blocked by piles of snow, ice, and sludge kicked up by snow plows. This decreases the likelihood of winter biking and causes inconveniences and safety concerns. According to a Water Environment Federation report on porous pavement the amount of salt needed to keep streets and sidewalks clear of ice decreases where porous pavement is used. It also lowers the amount of black ice that appears since water can drain before refreezing when it melts. Porous pavements should become standard in areas that are difficult to clear including bike lanes, parking lanes, pedestrian crossings and intersections. It is no silver bullet to snow build up, but the easier it is for snow and ice to clearance, the better.

  • While the Project for Public Spaces is right for pointing out that using skywalks and underground pedestrian walkways can backfire by lessening the value of outdoor spaces they are in and of themselves not worth dismissing. In cities like Chicago, Montréal, and Minneapolis the winter weather can be extreme and there is value in keeping people inside on the worst days. The question is whether these passages are designed to connect with their respective cities. Chicago needs to renovate its pedestrian passage way, which covers a significant area of the Loop and employ better signage in addition to other aesthetic improvements. A particular focus should be made on a single aesthetic identity and ensuring users know where they are in relation to the city above. Montréal’s Ville Souterraine is a prime example of how to maintain a balance between indoor and outdoor spaces. The system connects major institutions and the Métro and throughout the system opens into light filled galleries and atriums that connect back to street level.
  • Green spaces play a vital role in improving how we experience winter cities. Design firm Perkins + Will lays out a number of suggestions for improving outdoor life in cold cities. This ranges from designing to maximize winter sunlight and creating new waterfront recreational opportunities with parks that connect residents to rivers and lakes, but also block wind. In North American cities where grids are the dominant street form another way to achieve this is by capping streets throughout the grid creating parklets at dead-ended streets that provide new public spaces and can be planted with large trees to block and slow wind. Such parklets shouldn’t be restricted to areas along water, since streets along a grid channel can wind for longer distances. I can say the worst wind I experience biking is on an uninterrupted east-west street on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side far from any water.

Before I wrote this I was sitting in a café in Madison in a newly built building. The café had floor to ceiling windows that must have been 15 feet high. They let in plenty of light, but mid-winter in a city surrounded by three lakes, where the wind, snow, and cold can be intense the lack of context struck me. The large windows did not keep out the cold. The only thing you needed to do to figure that out was come inside. Design trends have become so ubiquitous that any context seems to have disappeared. How silly that is. Design for the winter and we might all be a little warmer year round.

Trenitalia and The Real Possibility for High-Speed Rail in the Midwest

This past Friday at the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s fall luncheon Marco Stegher, Americas Area Manager for Italferr S.p.A., the international consulting arm of the Italian railway company, discussed the Italian high-speed rail (HSR) network and how its development and successful and continuing implementation could be replicated in the Midwest. Progressively introduced since the 1970s, the Italian HSR network now connects most of Italy’s major cities and is one of the most modern, technologically advanced systems in the world.

If a Midwestern system got built in one fell swoop the costs would easily climb to $80-90 billion. It’s unlikely that money is forthcoming. The U.S. government is unlikely to provide more than $500 billion in total infrastructure spending in the coming years let alone 1/5 of the total transportation spending to one project. Looking at it this way the likelihood of HSR in the Midwest seems like a preposterous proposal. But it need not be so.

Enter the Italians!

Never would I ever have thought we’d look to the Italians for infrastructure inspiration. Within my friend group of Europhiles, the Italian experience remains a running joke, most recently expressed in this quote from a NY Times Magazine posted on Facebook:

In his history “The Italians,” Luigi Barzini writes that one of the basic pleasures Italy reliably provides for visitors is “that of feeling morally superior to the natives.” I sometimes felt this pleasure myself. The inefficiency of the Italian bureaucracy, whether selling you a postage stamp or fixing a street, was often marvelous to behold.

When it comes to HSR though, they’re about the best example we might have to work from.

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The Italian HSR network is still growing with a mainline serving Milan, Florence, Rome, and Naples. (Source: wikipedia.org)

In spite of the jokes, the Italian rail system has managed to build an impressive HSR network that is effective, but small compared to the total rail network, and also overcame impressive engineering odds due to terrain and an ancient built environment. Over 320 out of 700 some odd miles of the Italian HSR infrastructure is viaducts, bridges, trenches, and tunnels because of Italy’s mountainous terrain. That is in addition to the need to engineer around centuries old cities and sites. That is a staggering accomplishment to consider. Overcoming this is not what has makes the Italian system such a strong example for the Midwest however.

The Italian network was not built at once. Incrementalism was and continues to be the best path forward for Italian HSR. The approach is simple: build a network that integrates true high-speed rail infrastructure with varying types of conventional rail infrastructure. By not clearly segregating trains by type a greater number of connections can be achieved and travel times can be cut by taking advantage of higher speeds when possible. The network is still incomplete, but the original plans are coming online; meanwhile plans for expansion domestically and internationally continue.

This results in what Stegher calls a “blended network”. It can dramatically improve the passenger rail experience regardless of whether HSR goes directly to a destination or not. For example, the network doesn’t directly connect Rome to Venice, but since the Italian HSR service can run on dedicated infrastructure and conventional rail infrastructure, a significant portion of the journey can be speed up ultimately cutting travel times by 90 to 120 minutes from previous travel times even when trains only run as true HSR (> 150 mph) for a portion of the journey.

In the context of the Midwest, the current Amtrak Empire Builder from Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul takes approximately 7 hours, 45 minutes. Even if the only segment of this route to get an upgrade to HSR was the Chicago-Milwaukee segment, that would still bring the trip to under 7 hours. At current average speeds on conventional tracks, a proposed route between Chicago and the Twin Cities via Milwaukee, Madison, and Rochester would take 8 hours. Upgrade just the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison and Twin Cities-Rochester segments to true HSR and total travel time drops to around 5 hours.

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The Midwest High Speed Rail Association envisions a blended network connecting Midwestern cities, with a core express network radiating from Chicago. Current projects including improvements in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. (Source: midwesthsr.org)

In total, there are less than 700 miles of dedicated high-speed rail lines in Italy. That constitutes less than 10% of the over 10,000 miles of rails in the country. Yet, this comparatively small network has dramatically changed how Italians move around the country. Since the Milan to Rome route became fully functional roughly 70% percent of trips between the two cities is by train with the other 30% by plane. The proportion used to be reversed almost exactly according to Stegher.

This is truly impressive and it speaks for the ability to develop HSR at a managed yet meaningful rate. According to Stegher, there is real possibility for the Midwest to replicate this. He points out that the region is like Italy in the 1970s when HSR was first planned. The basic infrastructure exists, but there are a variety of challenges: electrification is necessary, but this can happy in cities as part of intracity rail operations. Branding is important as is the purchasing of train sets that can utilize a variety of infrastructure. Indeed, a blended network can be used to increase the speeds of all train types from conventional to regional passenger trains to freight trains.

The ultimate challenge is bringing together the capital and political will. That may be easier said than done, and it’s not even that easy said these days. The upshot of going for a blended network however is that the initial costs are lower since it is more about complete a variety of small projects over time; they’re a gradual means to an end.