Will the Future of Chicago Be Reached on Foot?

by James F. McClister

Suburban sprawl over the last 50 years has led to an expanse of drivable city space, but a recent study suggests walkable urbanization may be the direction of the future.

For the past half-century, suburban sprawl has helped define the trajectory of urban building. However, in recent years, construction has begun reflecting a growing desire to stay connected, which has resulted in drastic increases in walkable urban places, better known as WalkUPs, which essentially mean areas accessible by either public transportation, bike routes or by foot, according to a new report from The George Washington University School of Business.

In Chicagoland, have become especially prominent. Already the city is ranked fifth among walkable urban metros. Though, the vast majority of Chicago’s WalkUPs, over 90 percent, are found within the central portion of Chicago proper – think in and immediately around the Loop.

Walkability By the Numbers

The study, authored by professors Christopher Leinberger and Patrick Lynch, rates Chicago as one of the most walkable urban places in the U.S., behind Washington, D.C., New York, Boston and San Francisco. The scale is determined by a combination of population, the walkability of office and retail space, income and the overall number of WalkUPs in the metro. In Chicago, data showed:

  • Metro GDP per capita came in just above $51,000, which makes Chicago twelfth in the nation.
  • The city has 38 total WalkUPs with an average population of 224,000 per, which ranks tenth in the nation.
  • There is more than 893,000,000 square feet of office and retail space in the city, and 262,374,000 is located in WalkUPs.

To Urbanize the Suburbs or Not

From a cursory glance, assuming WalkUPs is the direction of the future, which they seem to be, Chicago appears in pretty good shape. However, because the majority of the city’s WalkUPs are found within the central city, future growth – at least in terms of walkability ¬– may be inevitably stifled.

Still, Leinberger and Lynch say Chicago has considerable development opportunities.

“Development confined to the city of Chicago limits the market for walkable urbanism,” the study reads. “Since many households and businesses would not consider a location in the city, Chicago’s greatest opportunity to add walkable urbanism ¬– and by extension, enhanced economic viability – is to urbanize its suburbs.”

The key, the pair says, is leveraging the city’s rail system. Several of the outlying suburb stations are surrounded by acres of surface parking lots, which offer a bevy of development opportunities.

As the study ranks the walkability of large metros, it also measures and quantifies development potential. As things currently stand, Chicago is ranked fifteenth, just behind Houston and Portland. Going by the study’s Fair Share Index (FSI), where anything above a zero signifies that a metro’s WalkUPs have gained market share, Chicago’s growth from 2010-2014 has been minimal. See our graph below to learn more, or read our infograph story!

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