Suburbans in Chicago and elsewhere are trying to get out of town

A advertisement full of smiling young adults inviting you to live in a “the coffee is perfect” place. There, you can browse “urban-esque” shops and try on new clothes with your best friends. You'll walk to your workplace, a “caffeine-fueled think tank,” to meet the “impossible due date” of your project. When your work day is over, wine and garlic toast await.

When I read this, I wondered: Who are you? And where is this toil, play hard in a wonderland?

North River in 2000? West Round in 2015? Lincoln Yard in 2030?

No. Schaumburg—one of a growing list of suburbs in Chicagoland and across the country who aspire to get out of town.

There is history behind the movement, and the 225-acre Schaumburg site Veridian rich projects with lessons. In 1976, Motorola built a bucolic world headquarters campus there when such a site was billed as anti-city. Serene and green, they were seen as an escape from the perceived overcrowding, overpriced and taxed real estate, racial tensions, labor disputes, and stress associated with urban locations. They are exclusive, predictable, and safe islands — that's the point. Companies like UrbanStreet Group LLC, developer of Veridian, see this era as a rock bottom.

By the early 1990s, a pattern of office development similar to Schaumburg had emerged nationwide. “Surround cities”, as journalist Joel Garreau calls such places, are unique. But the different uses are still separated into neat zones – and people of different incomes don't mix.

In the 2000s, global companies came back to town. This time, they wanted a less isolated and more collaborative space with nearby facilities for entertainment and recreation. A new generation of white-collar workers wants to live near work. In Chicago, the once devalued land around the Loop is coveted by developers pitching new housing projects for higher-income residents. Motorola is once again keeping pace with the times as it moves the dismantled portion of its company to various sites in the Loop.

An ‘urban-feeling aesthetic', but for whom?

These days, office building is happening on the outskirts of town, but with a few changes. Championed by a design philosophy known as “new urbanism”, several of these developments involved the fortification of sprawling suburbs with dense, walkable communities that integrated retail, living, and employment.

For a developer committed to this type of filler, a more agile and resourceful suburban project can be easier than a similar project in the city. Schaumburg created a tax-raising financing district for the Veridian effort and offered offering tax breaks for Zurich North America and Motorola Solutions to serve as job anchors.

Veridian's ad called the “urban-feeling aesthetic” a “new (sub)urban experience”, set in a “bustling northwestern suburb”. Neighboring Hoffman Estates also converted the 150-acre former AT&T campus to channel “neighborhood classics like Chicago's Lincoln Park and Brooklyn's Park Slope”. Both developments claim to set the “best urban neighborhood”, as the UrbanStreet Group puts it.

It's an interesting moment when suburbia stakes claim to urban ‘best'. But my fundamental concern is more pragmatic: Who does this vision include?

As the suburb-urban gap in household income narrows and US poverty becomes more peripheral, advertising claims for “getting along” must cover a wide range of income groups.

In the brochure for one particular building, UrbanStreet Group said that as “Veridian evolves, multiple uses translate directly into a diversity of users — bringing us all closer to people of different histories, ages, socioeconomic status, and racial makeup.”

Unfortunately, development students know that mixed use doesn't translate directly to mixed users. It takes intentionality on the part of municipalities, counties, and states if diversity is more than a marketing tool, especially in terms of socioeconomic status. In a housing system with more carrots than sticks, luxury is just the safer bet.

However, recent policies have put affordable housing on the suburban agenda more than ever and recent policy tools (such as the 2021 Affordable Housing Special Appraisal Program) have made it more defensible to developers.

Do we believe a walkable, dense and versatile community where neighbors from diverse backgrounds know each other is important enough to be supported by public money?

Then shouldn't the server in the ad offering a “second glass of wine” to a customer who lives nearby also be able to walk the few blocks home?

John Joe Schlichtman, a professor of urban sociology at DePaul University, is a co-author.Softer“and author”Showroom City

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