Urban Infills – The Coming Wave?

Thursday, May 9, 2005

Much has been said about issues concerning development on the periphery of Chicagoland.  Sprawl – even the name sounds like a lethargic beast.  I’ve oft wondered what sort of commute times we’ve created for folks living in the new tracts.  Certainly, sprawl stands to diminish the quality of life by forcing one to spend lengthening times in daily commutes, by lessening the supply of agricultural land, and by investing enormous public funds into new infrastructure projects that serve the far flung reaches.

The notion of increasing density in existing communities often evokes arguments of crowding and increasing crime.  Yet, many older communities in the Chicago area historically have been more populous, more dense. When the city of Chicago hit its population zenith in the 1950’s, many would argue that it was more livable then, than in the intervening time until today.  While Chicago experienced population growth in recent years, it has yet to recover back to this population level. Some may observe that the inner city has become a more attractive place to live with the increase in population.  Not only is it desirable to live closer to work and cultural centres, density hits on a specific social quality that Chicagoans have been known for.  We like to schmooze.  And one may say that density assists one’s ability to conduct schmoozing.

By increasing density in established communities with well respected ‘urban images’ and reputations, wanton urban renewal would simply destroy the very qualities that are desirable.  Infill development, respectful of existing infrastructure, may be designed in such a way to maintain those very qualities that are desirable in an existing community.  For a municipality, carefully thought infill may bolster local tax bases to fund services.

Infill development may take different shapes and sizes, and may seek many different settings to accomplish its goal.  The former Dearborn Station yards are an excellent example of large scale infill redevelopment of existing land that triggered a renaissance of the Near South Side. In Bucktown, the abandoned “Bloomingdale Line” became a pocket neighbourhood providing housing and commercial activities.  One only needs to gaze at the large tracts of vacant land seen from the CTA Green Line to envision future potential.

Yet, these examples are all larger scaled, and sought to bring about change to existing urban context.  What about established communities looking for densification strategies? Beyond “downtown densification’ and ‘transportation corridor development’ – both excellent strategies – imagination provides a wealth of solutions done caringly with an existing context so as to not disrupt scale and urban image.

One easy example of small scale, yet effective densification is the potential of the coach house – the ‘granny flat’.  When done properly to respect overall site coverage and setbacks from property lines and other buildings to allow sunlight and open space, the notion of an apartment over a garage on a residential alley addresses many issues.  The overall site coverage increases minimally, a neighbourhood known for open spaces and gardens can still maintain that image.  The notion of people living off of alleys helps to police those spaces by giving a full time human presence.  The notion of smaller living units addresses affordability.  As for what this may look like, one only needs to conjure images of quaint London-style ‘mews’ of flats located off of the main street on lanes.

London-style ‘mews’ provide a further example of creative densification when applied to other neighbourhoods.  Think of the sort of artist studios that could be created along alleys.  The idea of a community having its own ‘Gallery Walk’ along its backside has an attraction.  Growing from this, some small commercial galleries could blossom along alleys.  Home offices could flourish, with addresses based on “Randolph Lane” rather than “Randolph Street”.

I wonder….what if a neighbourhood put very small theatres and cinemas along its alleys, and used this to generate festivals for the locals…

Urban infills offer countless creative solutions to urban problems.