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

 

Don’t Forget the Boulevards (Just a Reminder)

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Plan of Chicago 1909 (source: afterburnham.com)

Since I first wrote about better utilizing Chicago’s boulevards for biking much has in Chicago: new rails-to-trails projects are being planned in in Pilsen, Little Village and Englewood, Divvy is expanding, and curbed protected bike lanes are finally making an appearance. Additionally, the city announced plans for 50 miles of new “low stress” bike lanes (often the same as barrier-protected bike lanes, or PBLs), thus swapping quantity for quality. In spite of all this though, the boulevards still don’t seem to be getting any love? Progress is being made in terms of biking, but then again, just focusing on this mode undercuts the potential for the entire boulevard system.

Chicago’s boulevards are an amazing piece of infrastructure that are sadly under utilized. Beginning in Logan Square at Western Ave. on the North Side, the system of boulevards and squares connects some of Chicago’s most important parks and numerous neighborhoods and the lakefront at Jackson Park while creating an arch around the city’s core.

The product of Daniel Burnham’s vision for Chicago and archetypal urban design of the city beautiful movement, the boulevards currently fall flat. Unlike in European cities like Paris or Vienna, which also have famous boulevards, Chicago’s are a quiet affair with light traffic of all kinds, even in popular neighborhoods like Logan Square where the focus is Milwaukee Avenue.

Humboldt Blvd Looking South (Source: Google Maps)

Humboldt Boulevard looking south towards the 606 is virtually empty. (Source: Google Maps)

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A segment of the Vienna Ring Boulevard (Ringstraße); the Ring is broken into different segments for its entire length, which includes bike and pedestrian lanes, streetcar lanes, and traffic lanes each lined with trees. (Source: Michael Podgers)

Avenida-da-Liberdade

This boulevard in Lisbon, Portugal features an attractive park-median with a variety of usable spaces. (Source: travelvivi.com)

Aside from the incorporation of the boulevards into some transportation plans such as the Active Transportation Alliance’s Bikeways For All or the Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) Cycling for 2020 as well as smaller, localized concepts there is currently no guide specifically addressing the boulevards.

A plan for the boulevards is overdue.

The boulevards are one of the best, overlooked assets in Chicago, but they offer so much more. They can’t be treated as mere elements of other plans and projects though, because that undercuts the potential for how the city can utilize them. What makes the boulevards unique is how well they can be used as public spaces, green space, and corridors of active transportation. This needs to be viewed in a way that takes in the boulevards’ full extent. A complete program could radically change the character of the city.

Chicago Blvd System (Source: Google Maps)

Chicago’s boulevards make arc around the Loop and connect Logan Square on the Northwest Side to Hyde Park and Lake Michigan on the South Side via Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, Washington Park, and Jackson Park.

Although over time piecemeal changes to the boulevards could change a lot, a master plan would help bring about cohesive change to how they’re used in a way that allows for more radical ideas to be examined and potentially carried through. This includes everything from road diets along the boulevards to improving recreational spaces along the system, building kiosks for cafés and other small businesses to developing an advanced boulevard based transportation system like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or streetcars.

Michigan v Ohio State

Here’s an idea of how big one football field is, in case like me, you couldn’t visualize it. (Source: buckeyesnews.com)

What such changes would look like varies depending on the segment of boulevard in question. Humboldt Blvd between Palmer Square and Humboldt Park is a good candidate for conversion to green space for example. It’s wide, but underused express lanes are little more than speedways, while the local lanes serve real purpose. Converting these four lanes (approximate width 10 feet per lane and about 0.7 miles long) into green space would add 147,480 ft 2 or 3.4 acres (or, two and a half football fields) of new parkland to the city.

This is only one segment of the boulevard system though and is a project that functions in relative isolation from the rest of the system. As a transportation corridor, the boulevards still hold real potential both unto themselves and as parts of other city projects. On Western Blvd. for example, the double-wide layout from 31st to 55th streets could be used for building out a BRT network that would eventually extend the entire length of Western Ave. (in addition to an Ashland BRT route of course). This roughly three-mile long segment has potential other redesign options, but would be a good place for a starter BRT route.

Another example of this is the potential of the boulevards to be used for reintroducing the streetcar to Chicago. A route following Garfield Blvd./55th St. from Hyde Park to Midway has great potential for success for multiple reasons a particular one being the ability to build dedicated lanes due to the available space on the boulevards. Four miles of a 9 mile route from the Museum of Science and Industry to Midway could easily be built with dedicated lanes (critical for developing a successful streetcar network) and another 1 mile of dedicated lanes could be shared with BRT on either Western or Ashland avenues.

Chicago Blvds (Source: Michael Podgers)

The boulevards offer the potential to introduce new transportation modes to Chicago and experiment with other urban planning/design concepts not widely seen in the city yet. (Source: Google Maps, Michael Podgers)

This doesn’t even speak to the ability to build a “Circle Line” along the boulevards using streetcars rather than a new ‘L’ line, which would be significantly more expensive. It’s too bad discussing the boulevards’ future isn’t part of a very active conversation about Chicago’s future. The boulevards and streetcars are not included as part of the Active Transportation Alliance’s Transit Future campaign and Chicago Streetcar Renaissance has focused on starter lines along Clark St., Lake Shore Drive, and in the Loop. A 55th/63rd Hyde Park to Midway streetcar would be a huge asset to the South Side and probably a heavily used route considering it would connect three ‘L’ lines, the South Shore Line, Metra Electric and all of it to Midway.

Regardless of what’s included a plan for the boulevards is necessary. All of the boulevards have the space to facilitate the easy and unobtrusive construction of better bike and pedestrian infrastructure and transit infrastructure not to mention improve accessibility to public green spaces also. Such types of complete streets and seamless modal connectivity is what advocates are calling for in Chicago, but the conversation keeps overlooking a critical asset in establishing these things. Fundamentally, the boulevards are not being capitalized on.

Stepping back and acknowledging what the boulevards can be in Chicago alters the role they play in the city’s structure. Not only are they visually lovely elements of early American urban planning, they’re spaces ripe for improved infrastructure and experimentation with projects so far unseen in the city.