Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Chicago (and New York) Stories

I’ve written a lot of articles on a lot of subjects over the past three and a half years, and while I’ve got topic and city listings on the left sidebar, I haven’t necessarily created good thematic indexes. So I’m starting an occasional series where I will highlight articles from my archives on various subjects. Today I’m going to highlight posts about Chicago and New York.


Chicago: A Declaration of Independence – A major survey post from early 2009 examining the city, its transformation in the global era, and challenges it faces for the future.

Economic Development

Corporate Headquarters and the Global City – A look at how a reconstituted concept of an executive headquarters is bringing corporate HQ’s back to the Chicago Loop.

Metropolitan Linkage – Part of a series I did called “Reconnecting the Hinterland” about seeking ways to profit from re-establishing relationships between Chicago and its traditional Midwest economic region.


I was actually honored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce for my innovative ideas on public transit in Chicago. Here are some of my writings on Chicago transportation.

Chicago Transit at a Crossroads – A recent series of CTA doomsday cut threatens the very nature of Chicago over the long term.

Before the CTA cuts described in the article above hit, I wrote a five part series called “From Good to Great”. With apologies to Jim Collins, its a look at how to take transit in Chicago the next level, with a meta-program applicable to most cities.

High Speed Rail – A lengthy post talking about the proposed Midwest High Speed Rail system.

Transportation and the Burnham Plan – A look at Daniel Burnham’s prescription for Chicago transport.

Architecture and Design

The Streetlights of Chicago – It is no secret that I am not a fan of the Chicago streetscape design approach, which is epically banal and explicitly suburban. This post takes a look at one aspect of it, street lights, and shows how Chicago went from world class to an also ran. (Contrast with New York below).

High Mast High Jinks in Chicago – A post about how IDOT started lining Chicago expressways with huge cell phone towers, I mean high mast lighting towers, instead of human and urban scaled light standards.

Pride of Place – A nice flourish on Chicago’s traffic control signs.

A two-part review on the fantastic Modern Wing at the Art Institute:

By the way, as part of re-imagining Monroe St. I propose adding a separate and protected bicycle track along it through the Loop, linking the West Side to the lakefront. Rumor has it that the Central Area Plan Committee is looking at this. I hope they plan to give me credit for the idea.

Pecha Kucha: Urban Design Disasters – This 20×20 presentation was actually given in Indy and designed to have some fun at Chicago’s expense, so is not to be taken entirely seriously – though there are some good points in there!

Burnham Plan
Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Burnham Plan of Chicago. I did several articles on this in addition to the transportation one above. Here are some of them.

What Made the Burnham Plan Successful? – A look at a few of the key points, with lessons that are still applicable today.

Quotes from the Burnham Plan – A few choice passages.

New York

For New York most of what I’ve written has been about the amazing transportation transformation that is happening at scale there. I think it is fair to say that New York has seized the mantle of transportation leadership in America under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Leadership in Transportation Design – Highlights of the winning program in the Big Apple.

Another Epic Public Space Win in New York – A look at the winning entry in New York’s sidewalk shed design competition.

Janette Sadik-Khan on Changing the Transportation Game – Sadik-Khan tells us how to make it happen.


Cities: Chicago, New York

15 Responses to “Chicago (and New York) Stories”

  1. the urban politician says:

    My question for Aaron is,

    Do you still believe Chicago has “declared its independence” now, as you had stated over a year ago?

    Unemployment being where it is, job growth being stagnant, Olympics a failed venture, etc etc?

    Just curious what your thoughts would be in the thick of this miserable recession…

  2. TUP, Chicago has huge challenges, there is no doubt. But it is clearly far from most other Midwest places and has huge reservoirs of strength too. I think it is still largely true what I wrote, but the city’s financial situation has totally crumbled. It’s one of the worst in the country.

    I do believe the city has taken its eye off the ball recently. Not necessarily the mayor, but the city more broadly. Clearly the Olympics were, in hindsight, a big distraction. We’ve got a few infrastructure projects going on with Wacker Dr. in and such, but it has been status quo for quite some time here while other cities have moved forward with much more innovative ideas in street design (New York), use of public data (Boston), and trying to pull forward massive transit investment (LA). Chicago needs to step it up.

  3. pete-rock says:

    Aaron, some 10-12 years ago, a co-worker and I would frequently talk about Chicago’s shortcomings in the new global landscape. We were both planners with the city, and felt Chicago was doing its best to imitate other global cities rather than be confident enough to be innovative.

    That’s when we realized that Chicago was never innovative. I think Chicago rose to prominence as an American city because it was a way to funnel Eastern capital into Midwestern agriculture and industrial might, not because it had a better idea on city-building. In fact, Chicago’s strength has always been location, and not ideas. Chicago prospered because of its proximity to Great Plains agriculture and Great Lakes lumber, and it took Eastern capitalists to recognize its value and tie it together with a rail network.

    We used to joke that Chicago was like the BASF commercial on TV in the ’90s: “we don’t make the products you use, we make the products you use better.” And that describes Chicago to a T — Chicago wasn’t the first Midwestern meat-packing and food-processing center, but it refined the role. Chicago didn’t invent the skyscraper, but it built on its development. Chicago didn’t even invent the big-city political machine; it just took it to another level.

    My point is, Chicago has never been as creative as New York and Boston have long been, or as Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area have become. Chicago has always been the dutiful and capable colonel to New York’s four-star general, carrying out its capitalist orders. Unfortunately for Chicago, more ambitious lieutenants have become colonels, and have the potential and creativity to move to the general level.

    Sorry if the military metaphor gets out of hand.

  4. pete, thanks for sharing – interesting observations.

  5. the urban politician says:

    Pete-rock, it’s an interesting and fun intellectual exercise, but ultimately it falls short.

    Most great cities’ great “innovation” has been location (and luck), not ideas.

    New York’s location has benefited it immensely. Los Angeles’ location, again, is by and large its greatest advantage.

    If anything, I would argue that location is ultimately what has worked against Chicago more than pretty much any other global city in the world, especially in the past 50 years. That Chicago has managed to be relevant and even thrive by certain innovations (most recently financial derivatives just to name a more prominent one, but others come to mind) in this global economy speaks to that fact.

    There is innovation in transit design, innovation in technology, innovation in fashion, etc etc but I think where Chicago has succeeded is in staying relevant against an otherwise very harsh, anti-middle America tide of sentiment that has characterized the more recent generations that make up this country.

  6. the urban politician says:


    I think you overstate the importance of NYC’s design projects in an overall scheme of evaluating a city’s well-being. It just isn’t that important in the big picture.

    Regarding LA building a mass transit system, one can easily take the point of view that it was LA that needed “stepping up” for a very long time, and only now it is stepping up to the plate with transit investments. Where have they been for the past century?

    See where I’m going with this? While NYC is designing cool streetlights and LA is finally building a mass transit system worthy of a city its size, Chicago is sitting perhaps on a transit system TOO large for its own needs. One innovation that stands out is Chicago having recently created the nation’s largest interconnected public camera surveillance network to assist in fighting crime & guiding the emergency response system. Given Chicago’s needs, I think that is far more pertinent than cool streetlights.

    For a blogger who has a self-proclaimed focus on practicality, I’m surprised you are overlooking that. I’m sure if Indianapolis did something of the sort, you would have been far more forgiving and have lauded such a forward-thinking accomplishment.

  7. Aaron M. Renn says:

    I don’t approve of Chicago’s London-style big brother surveillance system. It hasn’t reduced crime, as the 25 shootings over the weekend will attest, as will Chicago’s sky high murder total. I would not support such a system in Indy. I think you might be overly inclined to give Chicago the benefit of the doubt or sing its praises on most matters.

  8. cdc guy says:

    Innovation isn’t doing something first. It’s doing something better. Ford didn’t invent the car, or mass production. But he perfected both. Apple didn’t invent the multi-function phone or the personal computer. But it is considered (by many) to sell the epitome of both.

    I think it’s fair to say that Chicago has found ways to capitalize on its advantages.

    Locationally, Toledo has similar geographic advantages: Great Lakes port; close to Michigan timber and furs in the early 19th century; close to developed Lower Midwest agriculture (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan) in the mid-to-late 19th century; close to the heart of Midwest manufacturing in the 20th century. Closer to eastern markets. Why are we talking about Chicago today instead of Toledo?

  9. pete-rock says:

    OK, so I took a little bit of a hit with my comments on Chicago. I do love this city; I live on the outskirts of the region now (not by choice) but I’ve been here for 23 years. In my opinion it is the jewel of the Midwest and is without question a global city in every sense of the term.

    I overstated my original point. There are two key frustrations I’ve had with Chicago over the last 20 years — 1) the region’s economy doesn’t seem to nurture or support business creativity and innovation, forcing creative entrepreneurs to either coast for support; and 2) the region seems to import global city ideas rather than develop and export them.

    Chicago’s critical mass of population means there will always be a certain level of business innovation energy, but it’s always seemed to me to be covered with a low ceiling. We have the local research infrastructure to be competitive with every other major city in the world. But where are the local venture capitalists who could invest in keeping businesses here? Where is the local and state government support to keep the creative pumps primed?

    We’ve become a global city by emulating other global cities. I don’t know enough about the financial industry to know if financial derivatives were originally developed in Chicago, but that’s the first time I can recall hearing that. Mayor Daley has famously gotten his ideas for streetscape design and public spaces like Millenium Park through his frequent visits to other global cities like Paris. Even the camera surveillance system we have is one imported from London.

    I guess I’ve been looking for the next big idea being developed in Chicago that stays here and is exported out, thereby solidifying its position as a global city.

  10. pete-rock says:

    @ cdc guy: we talk about Chicago over Toledo today because it is 200+ miles closer to the Mississippi River and the Great Plains, and the rail barons made that a deciding factor in choosing where to center the national rail network.

    @ the urban politician: you raise a good point about location working against Chicago over the last 50 years. Chicago has managed to stay more than relevant during that period. However, I would argue that the bias you identify is not anti-Middle America over that period but pro-Sun Belt. Chicago’s global profile has grown, while the Midwest has faltered and the Sun Belt has prospered.

  11. the urban politician says:


    The problem with your argument that Chicago has been an “importer of ideas” or an “emulator of other global cities” as you suggest, is that it is a very easy argument that can be made about any global city, to be honest. Global cities are constantly looking about the globe and seeing what other cities are doing, and implementing their version of those ideas locally. New York didn’t invent the subway, but they became famous for it; nor is pedestrianizing Times and Herald Square at all novel ideas. London didn’t invent the ferris wheel, but they created perhaps the world’s most renowned one. Chicago didn’t invent the park-as-civic reinvention but it built a kick ass one in Millennium Park.


    If you’ve seen me comment on the forums you know that I don’t sing Chicago’s praises. I’m pretty critical of a lot of the development and planning mishaps that have occurred over the years, as well as Chicago’s horribly corrupt leadership. Your series on its mass transit problems is spot on. But in fairness’ sake, by stating it is “status quo” while other cities are “moving forward” and following that by using an example of NYC’s latest transit design choices, you seem to derailing from your overall theme of being focused on practical, common sense solutions to urban problems (as you essentially have put it yourself).

    Whether it is working or not, the massive public surveillence system is as common-sense and as meat-and-potatoes as it gets. So has Chicago’s completely redeveloping its CHA housing into entire new neighborhoods. Other things like Bus tracker and (the still being debugged) train tracker come to mind. While your criticisms about the city are almost always spot on and gain my support, I think you have taken the ever popular route known as “oversimplification”. Chicago has different problems than cities like NY and LA–higher crime being one of them–and has had to focus more energy on this issue.

  12. cdc guy says:

    Pete, by your logic, St. Louis should have had the location advantage over Chicago: it’s on the Mississippi, it is another traditional Class I east-west US railroad divide/interchange point, it’s as close to the Great Plains as Chicago, and it was a settled trading and transportation center longer.

    “Financial derivatives” trace their roots to futures contracts that were synthetic representatives of the underlying commodities (corn, wheat, etc.), created for the purpose of hedging (betting on) their future prices.

    If the CBOT and CME didn’t invent derivatives, they certainly led in their popularization as financial instruments.

    Clearly, Chicago has something going and has for 100+ years.

    I should point out that I’m not a resident but an occasional visitor and an admirer of the city’s successes over the past few decades.

  13. cdc, you are missing the two big geographic factors no other city had:

    – Chicago’s location at the sub-contintental divide.

    – Chicago’s location at the location at the tip of a major geographic barrier in Lake Michigan

  14. cdc guy says:

    Toledo and STL also share the geographic barrier feature, and STL is much nearer to the geographic center of the lower 48. But I agree: Chicago has used its connection between the Great Lakes and Mississippi Basin to its advantage.

    (BTW, Toledo had such a connection, via Indiana’s Wabash & Erie Canal, and that connection was later replaced by the north/south Detroit, Toledo, and Ironton RR…which was one of the last mainline eastern US railroads to be bankrupted, consolidated, or merged out of existence.)

    Aaron, I’ve pressed the Toledo and STL arguments precisely to help show that there’s just something about Chicago that geography and locational economics can’t fully account for, and which differentiates Chicago from its mid-continent brethren.

    The re-engineering of the Chicago River over the Atlantic/Gulf divide illustrates clearly one of the triumphs of the “can-do” Chicago spirit. The leaders of the time didn’t do it just because they could make their slaughterhouse waste and sewage flow away from their drinking water…they did it because they wanted to solve a problem and create an opportunity simultaneously.

  15. Aaron M. Renn says:

    cdc, I agree that Chicago clearly has something going on. I’d argue it exists up until the present day. But I’m not convinced just any city could have become Chicago.

    Incidentally, Chicago bridged the divide twice. The first was the Illinois & Michigan Canal, built in the original canal era. It was clearly a transportation first initiative, though it was hoped this might reverse the river flow (it didn’t). The Sanitary and Ship Canal was built after a severe poisoning incident following some torrential rains. It was clearly more sanitation oriented, but had transportation benefits as well. As you know, this shipping route is still in use.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures