The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Cities and the Knowledge Gap

A reasonable facsimile for the way my office looked when I started my planning career with the City of Chicago in 1990.  Source:

My first professional, after-graduate-school planning position was with the City of Chicago in 1990.  While in school I interned at the Village of Oak Park and the Chicago Park District, but my first real gig was with the City.

While I was a true believer that cities were among humanity’s greatest inventions, and full of idealistic views on how to uplift the modern metropolis, it was clear when I started at the City that very few shared that notion.  I was convinced that I was working in one of the world’s greatest cities; perhaps 90% of the people I worked with at the time were convinced that they were working in one of the world’s easiest gigs.  Many got their jobs there because they had directly worked on mayoral or aldermanic elections in the recent past, or had relatives who did so.  Few cared much about the city, other than what it did for them.

And trust me, 1990 was at or near the nadir of public perception for large American cities.  Some people might remember the Central Park jogger case, from 1989, which sent New York into an uproar when it was thought that “wilding” teens roamed the streets to create mayhem.  Certainly people remember Rodney King, the African American motorist whose brutal beating at the hands of the LAPD sparked the LA Riots in 1992.  Closer to home, Chicagoans will clearly remember the sad story of Eric Morse in 1994, a five-year-old who was dropped to his death from the 14th floor of a CHA hi-rise by two boys, ages 10 and 11, because he would not steal candy for them.

That’s the setting we were working in.

Meanwhile, suburbs were still pumping along.  By 1990 suburbs were wrapping up what I called the “split-level era” and about to enter the “McMansion era” — that time that finally ended with the housing crash when developers and homebuyers were doubling down on the Suburban Experiment by creating even bigger homes.  Teardowns became a thing, and 3,000 square foot homes on one-acre lots became the norm.

Strangely, though, the few of us who would’ve considered ourselves urbanists at that time saw the positive signs for the city.  We could see the growing demand for urban living, but we weren’t sure if it was an anomaly or a trend.  Lots of kids want to move to Wrigleyville after college to live the post-college lifestyle, but how long could that last?

We found that it did last, and it did portend a trend.  By the mid-90’s, there was strong evidence that many people who grew up in the suburbs were choosing — actually choosing — to return to cities, and the trend was moving upward.  Rudy Giuliani was making Times Square and all of Manhattan clean and safe for middle America, erasing memories of the kinds of tensions that sparked Bernhard Goetz-style vigilantism.  Remember Friends?  That show was an ode to the possibilities of city living.  Here in Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley did his best to mimic Baron Hausmann’s renovation of 19th Century Paris by creating landscaped street medians, upgraded parks and attractive wrought-iron fences wherever he could.  Millennium Park emerged from this.

The re-acceptance of city living coincided with an even larger phenomenon — the growth of technology in our society.  I, for one, clearly remember getting my first desktop computer for work — I was 31.  At the time the computer as something that would enable me to work a little faster, like a smart typewriter.  I saw the Internet as a media and information tool not unlike television.  Silly me.  It took some time for me to grasp its media and information impact on traditional sources, like newspapers.  But it did not take long for me to grasp the concept that technology would supremely enhance our productivity, our ability to gather and analyze data, and create even playing fields between those who collect and disseminate information and those who consume it.

One of the challenges of the early years of our technological revolution was deciding what old information was going to be brought into the new era.  It seems that by the late ’90s, one of the most in-demand positions was that of a data-entry operator who could input old data onto new systems.  It’s my sense that, after Y2K and the 2001 recession, this became less of an issue, as we as a nation elected to push our gaze forward.

What does this have to do with planning?  We have a generation of people today who reside at the intersection of these two trends — city living and technology.  The desire for city living and the application and utilization of technology in our society are truisms to them.  Millennials are certainly a bigger group than my Gen X cohort.  But I wonder sometimes how much they understand about how cities got to where they are, and the forces that made them what they are.

An old boss of mine whom I consider to be my mentor once said, “successes and failures in planning must be evaluated at the level of the generation, not the month, the quarter or the year.”  I still believe that’s true.  Planners make decisions on roads, housing types, setbacks, bike lanes, public spaces and other things whose full impact won’t be known for twenty years. What’s more, there are policy decisions that were made 50 years ago or more that still impact city neighborhoods today.  Urban renewal and slum clearance?  Public housing?  Redlining?  Blockbusting?  Those things still greatly impact many city neighborhoods at this moment.

Let’s bring this back to where I started.  When I started at the City of Chicago, one of the most valuable data resources for the city was the Local Community Fact Book for the Chicago Metropolitan Area.  Published every ten years following the Decennial Census by the Chicago Fact Book Consortium and funded by local foundations, the Fact Book provided a narrative and census data history for every Chicago Community Area and municipality with more than 25,000 residents going back to 1930.  The last one was printed in 1995.  They can still be found if you look hard, but they are not the ubiquitous manuals I remember at the start of my career.

I have the 1970, 1980 and 1990 editions at my side as I write this.  As I flip through them, I am fascinated by the amount of information that simply did not make it into our technology-driven era.  Did you know, for example, that the Auburn Gresham community of Chicago’s South Side, with 60,000 people in 1960, had 40,000 whites move out within ten years as 47,000 blacks moved in?  Auburn Gresham’s black residents made up 0.2 percent of the community area in 1960, 68.2 percent in 1970.  Did you know that in 1980, subsidized housing of all types (public housing, Section 8, elderly housing, etc.) made up more than one-quarter of all housing units on the Near North Side, just a half mile west of the Magnificent Mile?

I realize that I straddle a precarious position between elders who did their best to undermine and even destroy cities, and young people who might be excused for not knowing exactly how cities got that way.  I’m doing what I can to fill that knowledge gap.

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