Can Slowdown in the Chicago Suburbs Lead to Smarter Growth?

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Chicago-area advocates of more sensible growth and land-use policies got a boost this week when Chicago Tribune columnist John McCarron urged the region’s public officials to see one upside of the painful economic crisis: a chance to put the region’s “suburban sprawl machine” into reverse.

McCarron, an expert on urban affairs and state and local fiscal policy, cited problems in previously booming Chicago exurbs, where higher gas prices have made long commutes painfully expensive, and where affordable housing and public transit are limited or non-existent. He called on the region’s public officials to rethink the “anything goes” development and land use policies that have led to massive traffic congestion, high commuting costs, “monster” mortgage payments, and the loss of agricultural land.

The editorial described the redevelopment of an old naval air station in suburban Glenview as an example of more rational, energy-efficient and compact suburban development based on accessible public transit. A recent report by Chicago Metropolis 2020, a business-oriented civic policy group, predicts that seniors and low-income immigrants (two groups leading the region’s population growth) will demand more such compact and transit-rich communities, as well as more affordable housing.

Even if the recession limits some smart growth investments, McCarron believes local governments can still require private developers to take common sense steps to increase energy efficiency, transit access, and the number of pedestrian walkways.

Besides McCarron’s suggestions, other smart growth measures, affordable even in a recession, include promoting the state’s little used “business location efficiency” incentive, which provides a moderately larger corporate income tax credit to companies locating near affordable housing and public transit. McCarron is certainly right to urge Illinois officials to respond to a bad economy with policies that both promote more sustainable development and save taxpayer dollars.

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