Monday, September 7th, 2009

Guest Post: Recrecational Hinterlands

[ I met John Vranicar when we served together on the board of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cook County. (It’s a fabulous organization – you should support it or your local CASA chapter). It turned out we were both urbanism aficionados. John is one of the best thinkers I know in this space. Every time I talk to him I come away with ideas for at least half a dozen new blog posts. I asked John to do a guest post for the blog and he thankfully agreed. I’m confident you’ll enjoy it. – Aaron. ]

Many Midwestern cities seem to take for granted a huge contributor to their overall quality of life: the outdoor non-urban recreational hinterland within an hour or so of their downtowns. It’s as if there’s an unwritten rule to render unto urban planners and economic development consultants the things that are man-made, and unto God (or others) the things that smack of nature. Big mistake. For, surely one of the things that makes a city a good place to live is the ability to escape from it into unspoiled nature.

Many have discussed how Midwestern cities can improve their downtowns and cultural/entertainment quotient, to keep and attract residents and businesses. Let’s call that the Yin of urban life. Yet there’s a Yang to urban life – the opportunity to retreat from the madding crowd, the noise, the built environment, and to reconnect with the peace and solitude of nature.

The Yin and Yang of urbanity is not exactly new. Imperial Rome had its villas; 19th century London was a short train ride away from its country estates and their more modest versions. But we don’t have to go back very far in history or cross the ocean. We need to look no farther than Seattle and Portland, OR – two cities famed for their proximity to ocean, mountains, rivers, forests, hiking, biking, kayaking, skiing, camping, sailing and fishing. These opportunities are almost always mentioned in the same paragraph with the cities’ clubs, restaurants, museums, concerts, shops, open-air markets and neighborhoods. The proximity and accessibility of cosmopolitanism and rural/wilderness pursuits are the things that make these two cities so attractive, not just to younger, active folks, but to retirees and families. The demographics of these two cities – am I wrong? Isn’t this the demographic the Midwestern cities are drooling over?

When we think about the Pacific Northwest, it seems natural, somehow, to expect people to be attracted to the region because of the rich mix of city and wilderness. We expect those happy, active, industrious, creative, consuming, civic-minded, tax-paying, likable folks to want to ski, backpack, mountain bike on Sunday, and show up for a power-breakfast downtown the next morning, shoes shined, with tickets for the symphony that night.

But when we shift the focus back to the Midwest, something seems to get lost in translation. Why is it that promoters of some Midwestern cities don’t apply the Seattle-Portland principal more enthusiastically? Is it because there’s no Mt. Rainier? Or do we actually think people are different here?

What got me thinking about this is something purely autobiographical. My partner and I, decades-long residents of Lincoln Park in Chicago, and lovers of the urban good life, have always been equally attracted to the outdoors. And I’m not talking about the parks and lakefront. I’m talking about the real outdoors, with hills and forests and stars at night, deep quiet, no litter, someplace you can actually get lost without a compass. Unless you’ve tried, you have no idea how blooming hard it is to get OUT of Chicago for a real outdoors weekend. Especially on a Friday after 3:00 p.m.

Yes, you can go to the Indiana Dunes or Zion State Park, an hour and a half from the north side, and once you’re there, it’s nature-lite. You can drive to the “harbor counties” along Lake Michigan in Indiana and Michigan (now you’re talking 1-1/2 to two hours in good traffic), and when you get there, you’re in the world of motels, shoppes, resorts and gentrified country houses – the Land of Brunch and Pick-Your-Own-Peaches. You can swing out west to Galena and the Mississippi River (2+ hours) and … golf! … or spa!! … to your heart’s content. The closest you get to wilderness is hooking into the rough or a massage with pine-scented oil. You can take a drive up north or west of Milwaukee (two-plus hours) in Wisconsin to – where? Lake Geneva? House on the Rock? The DELLS?

Am I being unfair? Will people protest that there are great prairie bike trails along the Fox River, along abandoned railroad rights-of-way and at the old Joliet Arsenal? There are. (Exercise: 10; wilderness: 1.5.) Are there pleasant bike and cross-country ski paths in the north shore up to the Botanical Gardens? You bet, and if your idea of wilderness is the Forest Preserves and the Skokie Lagoons, congratulations. There’s the Elroy-Sparta bike trail and the Kettle-Moraine State Park in Wisconsin. Both very popular. You’re bound to run into someone you know, and their kids. Don’t forget the Illinois Starved Rock State Park, too: beautiful, dramatic terrain overlooking the Mississippi; two hours away if you live in the right suburb; dogs must be leashed; trails all pounded hard as concrete; no camping outside of official sites; horseback riding by the hour. Been there, done it all. And, whatever these places are, the “wildest” things about them are the bumper stickers on the cars in the parking lots.

But trust me. If you want anything vaguely on the wilderness scale, even at the very lowest end, you are talking a three- to five-hour drive outside Chicago, a drive that’s going to be flat, industrialized, office-parked or suburbanized for at least half the distance, usually followed by another hour of corn or soybean fields.

We know this, because, after years of searching, we ultimately we found exactly what we were looking for – and could afford: 16 acres in Brown County, Indiana, in the Hoosier National Forest in south central Indiana. We finally had our stars, our quiet and our seclusion, prairie flowers, unlimited hiking and camping in the wooded hills, all-terrain biking, canoeing, rafting, fishing, sailing, orienteering – hoot owls, crickets, fireflies, eagles, endangered species. Not a soul for miles, nor will there ever be. But it’s 4-1/2 hours from Lincoln Park (5-6 hours if you leave on Friday at rush hour or when there’s road work on I-65, which is about 75% of the time). By the way, we could’ve found the equivalent (with two extra months of winter and lots more mosquitoes in the summer) by heading north into Michigan or Wisconsin – again about 4-1/2 hours if the traffic gods smile on you.

So what’s my point? It’s not the obvious one that the 8+ million people in the Chicago metro area are deprived of the Yang of urban life. Everybody who lives in Chicago knows that this city blows when it comes to its recreational hinterland. Chicagoans who want outdoor recreation embrace Lake Michigan, the parks and all the other amenities that provide exercise and fresh air – and it’s great, don’t get me wrong. But it is not “nature.” If it’s nature you want, you fly to Jackson Hole, go on a safari, or, like us, pound out 9-11 hours round-trip on interstates to get to places like Brown County, IN or Washington Island, WI.

My point is that while we Chicagoans conduct our hajj to find the Milky Way, we drive through – guess what? — other Midwestern cities that are in a losing battle competing with Chicago for the Yin of urban life while they effortlessly clock Chicago when it comes to the Yang. My point is that when it comes to “nature,” virtually every Midwestern city has Chicago completely beat.

Returning to my autobiographical example of Brown County, Indiana. Our place is only 75 minutes from downtown Indy, and only 75 minutes from the heart of Louisville. That’s at Friday rush hour. By the time a gal from Indy is flipping burgers at her cottage or campsite in Brown County after work on Friday, we’ll just be paying our second toll on the Chicago Skyway. And Brown County and the Hoosier National Forest are hardly the only outdoor recreational amenities within 90 minutes of these two cities.

For all the talk about Chicago-envy, and all the civic improvements Indy is making — and showcasing in its promotional materials – I haven’t found anything in those materials even close in level of emphasis regarding Indy’s amazing proximity to the Hoosier National Forest. Indy spends a lot of media and money telling people what’s IN Indy. But not so much on what’s OUTSIDE Indy. At least from what I can see.

The crowd that consistently gives Seattle and Portland high marks for quality of life should be very, very impressed with Indy and Louisville, it seems to me. But I rarely see Indy or Louisville mentioned in the same category as Seattle or Portland. In surveys of the great out of doors, places like Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland always rank high. Midwestern cities typically trail in the 25th place or lower. The exception: Minneapolis/St. Paul. The Twin Cities consistently rank high in surveys ranking outdoor recreation, even though many of these surveys subtract points for cold temperatures unless downhill skiing is part of the package. Do the Twin Cities rank high in these surveys “just because,” or is it at least in part because they do such a good job of telling their stories to the surveyors? Check out promotional materials on Minneapolis, and compare them to some other Midwestern cities, when it comes to the Great Outdoors. Anybody want a piece of the Twin Cities’ demographic? The line starts here.

I spent a morning on the Internet, conducting a non-scientific review of tourist/chamber of commerce/ things-to-do/promotional sites for cities like Cleveland, St. Louis, Columbus and Detroit. My impression was that none of these places do a very convincing job of promoting the riches of their recreational hinterlands. Yeah, they do it, kind of, in terms of day-trips. But not the way Seattle or Portland does. Granted, you can get the info about state parks and national forests without digging too hard, by going to state-sponsored tourism sites or sites devoted to hiking, biking, etc. But there’s a disconnect there. You’ve got to connect the dots between these sites and the websites that promote nearby cities. I couldn’t find a single city website that made the case explicitly that, folks, you can get an amazing Seattle-like balance between nature and cosmopolitan experience if you relocate to our fair city, not just weekend get-aways, but vacation homes. “If you lived here, you’d be gazing at the Milky Way by now.”

In reading the promotional materials for most Midwestern cities, I saw plenty that made the appeal to spectator sports fans and discriminating consumers of wine bars, health clubs, restaurants, museums, zoos, plays and concerts. But surely some of these people might like to don a pair of waders and fish?

To sum up: I’m suggesting that the Midwestern cities that are the subject of this blog should devote more effort to inventorying, laying claim to and promoting their recreational hinterlands. If you’re short on Yin and long on Yang, sell Yang. A lot of Yang can make a little Yin go a long way. Much attention has been devoted in this blog – and rightly so – to enhancing the inner-city urban environment, the cultural scene, sports stadiums, transportation systems, education, branding suburbs. All that’s important. But all of this focuses on the city and burbs. Flip the gestalt. Change the emphasis. Don’t always discuss how easy it is to get INTO the city; discuss how easy it is to get OUT. Don’t just make the downtown the destination. Make it the point of departure, too. Don’t only focus on housing prices downtown or in the burbs. Make a point of affordable vacation home prices and rents. What I suspect many cities will find – certainly Indy and St. Louis will – is that there is an existing resource – Cash in the Attic, so to speak — that is a critical component of the overall wealth of the extended metropolitan region. It just needs to be identified for what it is, and duly celebrated.

Two footnotes to the above:

1. When I use the terms “wilderness” and “nature,” I mean them in a relative way. There’s not a heck of a lot of wilderness anywhere in the lower 48. The accessible parts of the Hoosier National Forest are not anything like the Boundary Waters, but then again, there’s an equally big gap between the Hoosier and the Cook County Forest Preserves. So, whether or not there’s quotation marks around “wilderness” and “nature” anywhere in this post, please understand that I’m using these terms in a relative sense.

2. I make no claim that the Midwest has a Mt. Ranier or a Pacific Ocean or venerable old growth rain forests. Let’s stipulate there’s no real downhill skiing here. But only the uninitiated could be unmoved by the four seasoned beauty of the Midwest’s rivers, hardwood forests, bluffs, hills, prairies, wetlands, lakes and ponds. And stars are stars, eagles are eagles and absolute silence is absolute silence, wherever you find it.

John Vranicar has over thirty-two years of experience in the fields of real estate development and planning, more than twenty-five of which have been in the practice of law. John has worked in the private, non-profit and public sectors, including serving as Managing Deputy Commissioner of Planning, Real Estate and Development for the City of Chicago Department of Aviation in the 1990s. More biographical information is available on, where he can be reached.

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.

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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.

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