Smooth growth: A challenge to traditional urban redevelopment

A Chicago landscape architect says a new approach could allow neighborhoods such as Washington Park to gracefully accommodate depopulation.

October 31, 2013

On the corner of 57th and Lafayette, an old green house displays a certain charm, despite the fact that the porch sags, and wildflowers and tall grass fill the yard. The surrounding blocks have wide lots of open land.

This portion of the South Side’s Washington Park neighborhood is a textbook target for conventional redevelopment strategies: moving houses, invoking eminent domain or wholesale urban removal (dubbed ‘negro removal’ in black communities).

But those are not the preferred tools of architect Marshall Brown, who shows me around Washington Park during a brisk fall day. Instead, he says, we should imagine country living being possible in the middle of the Chicago. That kind of vision is an outgrowth of his urban planning brainchild: a development strategy called smooth growth.

Brown’s idea is to move beyond just refilling empty space or razing entire urban grids. Instead, he says, we should also consider reorganizing streetscapes or adding layers. For example, it could involve bundling abandoned lots on a block so residents could collectively manage them — in exchange for tax abatements or other incentives. Right now, residents have to pay taxes on properties transferred to them, and that’s enough to make people say “Forget it!” and accept a garbage-strewn lot.

“We’re not talking about ruralizing the city or suburbanizing the city,” Brown said. “It’s about trying to create some sort of hybrid in which we can have some of the best aspects of city, country, suburb together.”

The terms “blight, “empty” and “vacant” are often ascribed to Washington Park, but Brown chafes at their use. After all, he said, vacant space isn’t always negative — at least in the suburbs. There, it’s called open space.

Washington Park, which sits between a lush park of the same name and the Dan Ryan Expressway, is considered a candidate for smooth growth principles. It was a wealthy enclave in the 1800s. During the Great Migration, Southern African-Americans moved in. Over the past four decades the neighborhood’s population declined from a high of 46,000 to fewer than 12,000.

Brown challenges the idea that places like Washington Park necessarily need to repopulate.

“In cities all across America, all around the world, you have challenges of uneven development. ...  Especially in a democratic, free market society where people ideally can choose where they want to live,” he said.

Smooth growth, then, is about quality, not quantity.

The physical changes are supposed to accommodate lower density, make the land less of a burden and look less empty. This collective stewardship is radical compared to traditional redevelopment strategies, but consider this: block clubs, condo associations, subdivisions in the burbs also participate in communal living and management.

Brown’s idea has caught the attention of Bridget Gainer, a Cook County Commissioner who also acts as the point person with the new Cook County Land Bank, which was created to find creative uses for abandoned land and clear away red tape associated with nuisances such as title transfers. 

“When he came in and I saw what his vision for Washington Park could look like, I was totally blown away,” she said. “It was the visual representation of why are we stuck on what the past is, let’s look at what the future could be.”

She says a smooth growth approach could change our view of vacant lots.

“Instead of just looking at these things as liabilities, let’s flip it around and say this is the opportunity,” Gainer said. “If you had all this open space, what would you do with it? And just ask people what they want.”

Smooth growth is still probably some years out. Next steps include corralling local support — in particular, finding a specific city block to act as a model.

Sara Thomas, who owns a home on Lafayette Street, lives around unkempt land. She says it attracts homeless men.

“The city owns the property but they haven’t come down to tear down any of the trees. So now they’ve grown to the fact where they’re absolutely just a forest,” she said.

When introduced to some core smooth growth concepts, Thomas says she has some ideas.

“From 58th all the way to 57th Street, these are mostly senior citizens. We would be more interested in sidewalks available because as you can see the sidewalks haven’t been taken care of as well as clearing the brushes and the forestry so if seniors would want to walk around the block, they would feel safe enough in doing that,” Thomas said.

But until then,Thomas will continue to complain to the city about how it isn’t being a good steward of the surrounding land.

Natalie Moore is a WBEZ reporter. Contact at nmoore@wbez.org Follow Natalie on Google+, Twitter.