Chica-grow: Should creating a significantly more populous city be Chicago's priority?

February 15, 2011

When I was high up in Trump Tower a few weeks ago for that event I told you about, I couldn't get the words of a prominent Chicago urban planner out of my mind.

"You stand in a skyscraper and look out of a window facing east, and the view looks almost the same looking west and south," he said. "Just drier."

The point was profound: that downtown's height and density quickly fall away south and west of the Loop; that the South and West sides are generally so low-rise and low-density , that looking at them from a Loop high rise is not  much different than a view of the water where there are no buildings at all. And the planner's point wasn't that we need taller buildings for the sake of having taller buildings. His point was that Chicago needs to be a more dense, populous city, and vertical city.

The point resonated even more in the context of the current mayor's race. Which candidate has promised to find ways grow the city's population? Not one.  And this isn't at all a criticism of the solely of the current (or past) candidates for the job. Chicago was a city of 3.62 million souls in 1950, before the middle class flight and Rust Belt decline of the 1960s took a bite out the population so substantial, that we have never really recovered.  And no Chicago mayor since then has seriously talked about population growth since then. Sure, we had that uptick when the city's population went to 2.89 million 2000 from 2.78 million in 1990, but we've lost a bit of that according to US Census estimates from 2009: We're at 2.85 million now.

Maybe a smaller city is more manageable city? That's a theory, but I have doubts. On the South and West Sides in particular, the shrinkage has left vast empty lots, miles of broad streets. The lots are yielding little or no taxes, yet the streets running by them must be maintained. Public transit options are reduced because there are fewer folk around to ride the buses and rails. There is less of everything--and what there is can be expensive--when there aren't as many people around to support it.

So I turn the question to you. What should be Chicago's population by 2060? Should we be a city of 3 million again? 4 million? And not just stacked in high-rises in and around downtown, but spread throughout the neighborhoods as well. And how do we get there? Or do you think a city of 2.8 million or so is just fine?

Let's have a dialog in the comments section below.