Songs of the City (Special Announcement): Geschichten aus dem Wienerwalden

Genau drei Monaten von heute wird Urbanelijk von Chicago nach Wien umgezogen haben. Es freut mich offiziell anzukündigen, dass ich eine Stelle als Englischsprachiger Fremdsprachenassistent bei Gymnasiums in zwei Vororten von Wien nehme. Diese Stelle bietet mir die einzigartige und spannungsvolle Gelegenheit in einem neuen Land und in einer neuen Stadt zu leben und nicht wie einem Austauschjahr während der Unizeit vorstelle ich mir, dass ich länger als ein Jahr dort wohne. Gar nichts könnte mir mehr fantastischer sein. Obwohl ich auf jeden Fall (und fast jeden Tag) Chicago vermisse werde, bin ich überhaupt dankvoll für die Chance diesen nächsten Schritt in meinem Leben zu nehmen und sowieso bereit ihn zu nehmen.

Ja, ab Oktober mache ich etwa totals anders als Stadtplanung. Aber das bedeutet nicht, dass meine persönliche Ausbildung in diesem Fach zum Ende gekommen ist oder der Weg zu einer Karriere in Stadtplanung für mich endet. Ganz im Gegenteil! Ich glaube fest an der Macht von Beobachtung und Erfahrungen aus der ersten Hand. Schon habe ich erfahren erlangt man mehrmals mehr in seinem echten Leben als in der Klassenzimmer. In Wien leben ist eine Chance die Stadt von einer anderen Perspektive zu entdecken. Die ist auch eine Chance mein Deutsch zu verbessern und in einer (spezifischen) Art Lehrer werden.

Es ist die Zeit für neue Erfahrungen und neue Fähigkeiten

Wegen der Natur dieser Ankündigung finde ich passend Wien mit einem Waltz zu feiern. Und kein Waltz wäre ebenso passend wie ein Waltz von Johann Strauss II und insbesondere Geschichten aus dem Wienerwalden.

Exactly three months from today Urbanelijk is moving from Chicago to Vienna. I’m thrilled to officially announce that I am taking a position as an English TA at a pair of high schools outside of Vienna. This position is going to offer me the unique and exciting opportunity to live in a new city and country, and unlike a study abroad year in college I can imagine staying longer than a year. There couldn’t be anything more fantastic. Although I’m going to miss Chicago (and probably everyday) I’m absolutely thankful for the chance to take this next step and ready to do so.

Yes, from October I’ll be doing something totally different from urban planning. But that doesn’t mean my personal education in the field has come to an end or that the path to a carrier in urban planning is over. Au contraire! I firmly believe in the power of observation and first hand experience. Already I know that you can often gain more from real life experiences than time in a classroom. Living in Vienna is a chance to discover the city from a new perspective. It’s also my chance to improve my German and (in a way) become a teacher.

It’s time for new experiences and new skills.

Because of the nature of this announcement it seems right to celebrate Vienna with a waltz. And no waltz would be more fitting than one from Johann Strauss II and particularly Tales from Vienna Woods.

Sounds of the City: Springfield! Springfield!

There are famous cities like New York and London, Tokyo and Shanghai, and then there is perhaps the most absurdly famous of them all: Springfield, USA; or, the hometown of the all-American family, The Simpsons. The fictional city, located somewhere in the United States, is certainly one of the most famous cities in the United States and much of the world even. Characterized by the inaneness of its history (founded by a former pirate named Jebediah Springfield), its lack of culture, the hold a certain billionaire has on the town, the corruption of its mayor, the insanity of its citizens, and the uncompromising pride residents show towards this town (especially when they have to face down the residents of neighbor and rival Shelbyville).

In addition to its fame, Springfield can also boast some of the best music about cities around. This post is an homage to that music, because when it comes down to it, these songs go well beyond being just jokes and satires of American life and pop culture.These songs really speak to the a variety of feelings people develop towards the cities they live in and are from. They’re songs of pride, defense for local institutions, and hopes for the future (be them poorly conceived hopes even).

The songs below, while full of humor, also say something about the special relationships we have with home and the pride we take in our cities because of the good and in spite of the bad. They are songs that honor local institutions, high and low, famous and uncelebrated; these songs poke at the plight of cities looking to rebrand themselves or reinvigorate their economy with grandiose projects, worth it or not; these are songs about cities and everything that is honestly crazy about them.

In the best way possible of course.


Springfield! Springfield! (Season 5, Episode 8 – Boy-Scoutz ‘n the Hood)

We Put the Spring in Springfield (Season 8, Episode 5 – Bart After Dark)

Monorail Song (Season 4, Episode 12 – Marge vs. the Monorail)


Transport to O’Hare: It’s a puzzle, just put the pieces together

In the bowels of Block 37, right along State Street in the center of the Loop, is a tomb for former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s dream of ultra-fast express trains to O’Hare International Airport. It’s an empty tomb. While that particular project may have been a little off-the-mark there is no reason the city should continue its struggle for better airport transit to no avail. All the pieces are there, and while City Hall is working towards making such connections a real thing, other parties aren’t carrying their weight, preventing meaningful progress. If Metra and Amtrak worked better with City agencies the true potential of transit connections can easily be achieved at O’Hare. It is truly ridiculous that there is less movement, and one has to question the role of the latter parties in restraining this.

In recent weeks, mentions of a O’Hare-to-Loop train link have started to crop up. It started with an open letter Chicago Tribune transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch recently wrote to the new Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) President Dorval Carter, Jr. emphasizing the need to revive plans for such a service during the new president’s tenure. It came up again in the Tribune in a feature about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goals for his second term in office, where the O’Hare-Loop link fell under the umbrella of Emanuel’s potential legacy projects. Conveniently just days later the Mayor’s Office published a press release announcing the ground breaking of a new intermodal facility at O’Hare consolidating major parking and car rental facilities and includes an extension of the automated people mover.


Theoretical proposals for a new station at O’Hare includes the ability to connect to multiple rail options, something possible at airports like Frankfurt Flughafen in Germany or Schipol in Amsterdam (Source: Chicago Architecture Blog)

While this project is just another step forward in Emanuel’s own perpetuating struggle to make O’Hare a better airport it also reopens the possibility of an express rail link that alludes the city. Although Daley’s proposal was truly a dream train based on Shanghai’s maglev airport link, the underlying concept is very attainable–impressively so. What eludes Emanuel and the City’s renewed efforts is a coordination amongst several agencies. Hilkevitch puts pressure on Carter and the CTA to make a future rail link reality. This is in spite of the fact the CTA is the only transit operator in the region making a concerted effort to maintain and improve connections to O’Hare. The CTA can only do so much and finding a solution shouldn’t burden just them; taking Hilkevitch’s lead its time to revive a realistic plan for better rail service to O’Hare, but don’t make the call just to the City and CTA, but now bring Metra and Amtrak into the fold.

O’hare could have a system of rail links similar to Heathrow International in London or Frankfurt-Main Flughafen in Germany–a layered system, which includes local metro, regional/commuter, intercity, and express airport trains and high-speed rail. To make this happen though planning needs to more aggressively engage all potential parties involved (every transit agency serving Chicago). How much the City can cajole Metra and Amtrak to play a part is up for debate. Certain facts should indicate that involvement of the two agencies should happen with ease. Lots of adjacent rail infrastructure is already under the control of Metra and low freight use in the area means passenger trains are at an advantage. But then again both agencies are cash strapped and Metra has given no indication that it is interested in making major service changes.

What’s a girl to do?

Metra however presents the best opportunity for vastly improved services and the onus of pressure has to be increased. The agency already fails miserably in terms of what it provides to travelers at O’Hare. Metra operates its North Central Service (NCS) along Canadian National tracks that pass just east of O’Hare with a remote stop (O’Hare Transfer) at the airport and adjacent to the intermodal facility. While the City is failing to include an improved the station as part of the current project it wouldn’t matter much, because the current service is so infrequent it would likely get little use anyhow. Metra only runs 11 trains in each direction a day (most during rush-hour) … on weekdays only! To say the least, Metra doesn’t really cut it.

Jamaica Station

The Jamaica station, located on Long Island in New York City, provides riders the opportunity to transfer between every Long Island Rail Road line, the NYC subway, and a train link to JFK airport. This is the kind of facility that would be a huge benefit to transit riders in Chicago if it were built on the Near West Side near the current Western stop. (Source:

Frankly they don’t even have to think very hard to make improvements. Two primary improvements exist: one is simply increasing service. This could also be a micro scale effort with potentially macro scale benefits making major investments more reasonable as they have broader positive impacts. Increasing service on the North Central Service means travelers have more access to the city and suburbs improving travel options for visitors and locals, something that gets lost with express options to the Loop alone. While this obviously includes getting more trains a day 7 days a week it should include a long-term effort to improve transfers between other Metra lines and the NCS, progressively bringing more people and places closer to O’Hare by train, especially where the NCS intersects with the other Metra lines in the suburbs.


This is the interior of an Heathrow Express train in London. The interior of the cars are designed specifically to benefit air travelers who need spaces for their luggage as well as comfortable seats. (Source: Wikipedia, Heathrow Express)

The second option would ideally be done in combination with the first: running an express train from the O’Hare Transfer stop/intermodal station. Currently it takes 32 minutes to get from Union Station to O’Hare on Metra, while an express train would take less than 25 minutes. Metra could operate this in partnership with the CTA and Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) to lower operating burdens too. Meanwhile, an intermediate stop at Western on the Near West Side facilitating transfers to other Metra lines would make the service an option for residents and visitors alike and facilitate transfers to Metra outside the Loop. This could even be used as an incentive to improve connections all around. For example, a new station just east of the current one at Western would provide riders the opportunity to transfer between four Metra lines (the Milwaukee District lines, Union Pacific West, and the North Central Service) and airport trains. This is more than just Metra going above and beyond, it is designing and planning in a way that reinforces transit use by improving existing problems, while role in new services along the way.

Where Metra can play its cards to improve access within the metropolitan region, Amtrak provides the chance to connect communities further afield by train. The proposed Black Hawk service is a good place to start. The new route will run from Chicago Union Station to Rockford with a future extension to Dubuque, IA. Using the Milwaukee District West tracks between Union Station and Elgin, it passes immediately south of O’Hare. Yet despite its proximity there is no air-to-train connection under development. Granted this requires one of three things: a new station entirely, a line configuration that spurs into the existing O’Hare Metra station and out again to the mainline, or new tracks looping north of O’Hare and back south again onto the mainline.

That said, the Black Hawk service if it stopped at O’Hare would play an even better role improving transportation in the Midwest compared to at the service sans an O’Hare stop. This is especially pertinent considering the possibility for extensions into Iowa to Waterloo/Cedar Falls and north towards Madison, WI. Ideally Amtrak would have figured out the benefit of stopping at O’Hare, and by not doing so it systemically let’s a major improvement slip through the cracks.

O'Hare Rail Access

The number of and extent of rail connections at O’Hare is significant even at its most basic. (Source:

This all costs money of course and financing continues to be a major if not the major roadblock to improvements. But it would be worth it and provide huge benefits even if high initial investments were part of this. The argument active parties need to take is that by bringing as many parties into establishing better connections they can share the costs of this system or others already proposed making it that much more attainable. Even at its most expansive a massive new infrastructure network inspired by connections to O’Hare would likely cost more than $2B. Shocking at first, it is similar in price to much less beneficial projects with a much smaller breadth of beneficiaries (such as the Illiana Tollroad) though. When one considers the number of parties involved it is clear the costs would be significantly less for each involved. That $2B suddenly seems much smaller.


This is the shelter at the O’Hare Transfer stop. It has no direct connection the the airport terminals and requires travelers to transfer to a shuttle to the automated people mover to get to the main airport campus.

Done right O’Hare has every chance of becoming as much an important multimodal transportation center as it is an important airport. And such a center would vastly improve access to the airport and its role as an international gateway to the entire region. The fact few well established plans exist to develop the kinds of intermodal connections brought up here and proposed by others is frustrating for the sheer reason that all the pieces are right there. The city is slowly beginning the process, but needs the full participation of every transit provider in the region, because they clearly all have a stake. And even though the costs may add up, taken into context they’re actually rather manageable. It’s finagling others to take part needs to happen now, because there is no reason it should be all on the City of Chicago.

One of Chicago’s great assets is its airports and rail connections. It has remained a major transportation node in the United States despite decades of change since it first emerged as such. But this can’t be sustained if the utmost connections between the different transportation networks aren’t developed and maintained. The involvement of the City, local transit agencies, and Amtrak will fuel the airport and city’s economic growth in relation to O’Hare and the growth of the agencies themselves through new passengers. It’s a puzzle with a clear end product that just isn’t being pieced together. Getting everybody to play their part is going to be the key to solving this conundrum.



In Other News

I am proud to say that this little endeavor of mine is starting to grow. In the past week I have had something published or a mention in two local planning/development news sources.

I made my Streetsblog Chicago debut with an article about the planned parking lot to be built at the Whole Foods in Sauganash on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

And AJ LaTrace linked to my piece calling for better planning at the redesigned intersection of Elston/Fullerton/Diversey on Curbed Chicago.

I think that deserves a pat on the back.

And on a final note: the Illiana Tollroad project is still news. Although it’s been on hold since Gov. Bruce Rauner took office early this spring it isn’t dead. The petition I’m hosting via this blog is still up and running and is just shy of the 500 signature goal with only 34 more needed.

If you want better transportation planning and more fiscal responsibility in Illinois and Indiana, SIGN THE PETITION NOW and help get those last signatures in.

Schaumburg and the City: Proposal Calls for a Giant Parking Lot at Elston/Fullerton/Damen with a Commerial Element

Travel east-west along Fullerton Ave. in Chicago and you go from Lincoln Park to Logan Sqaure, two incredibly walkable and bikeable neighborhoods. The same can be said for Damen Avenue; if you begin in Roscoe Village and go straight south you hit Bucktown/Wicker Park. But, right in the middle of this urbanism you find yourself in what appears to be Schaumburg. The intersection of Elston, Fullerton, and Damen is a cluster of strip malls, big box stores, and parking lots that is conspicuously suburban. Despite a redesign of the intersection to improve traffic flow there is no sign it’s going to get better. Indeed, a proposal for the site may make it much, much worse… farewell Schaumburg, hello Hoffmann Estates?

Whether traveling by car, bus, or bike getting through this intersection is no easy nor pleasant experience. Everybody slows down here and that is the whole purpose of a cut n’ dry redesign and rebuild of the intersection: move traffic through the area more efficiently than ever before and relieve the unbearable congestion that currently results from the awkward ‘almost, but not quite’ six-way intersection.

The only problem is what’s being proposed so far for the site. Announced yesterday by Curbed Chicago, the plan brought forth by Mid-America Real Estate and under consideration by Ald. Scott Waguespack’s (32nd Ward) office, calls for over 100,000 square feet of disconnected commercial space surrounded by 437 parking spaces (covering much of the project area). The project includes no multi-use components and spreads over almost six city blocks. The only dense component would be a three-story commercial building at the new intersection of Damen and Elston.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 9.24.24 AM-thumb

This is a conceptual plan for the site showing the re-designed intersection and the location of parking lots and commercial developments. Image from Curbed Chicago.

Cue le sigh! As I’ve already made clear on Twitter, this whole proposal is utter insanity and quite frankly it’s hard to take it seriously. But considering Ald. Waguespack is holding a public meeting about it there must be some serious thought being put into it (at least within his office). This is troubling, because the site presents nothing but fantastic potential, yet the whole proposal is so regressive in its current form.

While certain big box stores still need to find an urban home, it is amazing to me that this style of development is the immediate go-to when it comes to the redesigned intersection. Building more car-oriented developments here will do nothing to help relieve congestion. Congestion is the result of an over-reliance on car use and development patterns that encourage car use and a lack of alternatives. Regardless of whether the intersection is redesigned or not, car use and congestion won’t mitigate until infrastructure is developed that decreases the need for car use all together or discourages people from uses cars unnecessarily.

By falling into a trap of a building more big boxes and strip malls, developers and the Alderman are reinforcing a trend recognized by planners and sociologists citywide that might be hurting us more than we thing: fewer housing units being built in desirable neighborhoods and related population losses. Unlike Ald. Pawar (47th) who recognized the need to increase the amount of housing in his ward, Ald. Waguespack has shown no indication there is a recognition for the need to increase and diversify housing units in this part of the city. With population loses citywide more housing units need to be built to recover from this and a diverse set of housing types need to be built to increase the social diversification that results in economic diversification and retain existing residents as their lives and needs change. And this site is ideal for such kinds of mixed-use development with massive residential components.

Condos and apartments can be built above grocery stores and parking without looking like a row of strip malls and big box stores in Anywhere Suburb USA. And Anywhere Suburb USA is exactly what should be avoided at this intersection. Why more big box style developments are needed is questionable, but fail not to realize even at their most unreasonable they still get built in the city.


SoNo East and SoNo West were built along the North/Clybourn corridor in Lincoln Park, which was once dominated almost exclusively by strip malls and big box stores. These two towers and the under construction New City apartment tower will add hundreds of new units to the intersection in just three buildings and dramatically change the character of the area. A similar result could be produced at Elston/Fullerton/Damen with one or two well-planned multi-use developments.

A more (aggressive) progressive planning approach must (MUST!) be taken towards this intersection. Located within easy access of a number of desirable neighborhoods it could easily support a massive program of densification without taking away from the character of the surrounding communities.

In many ways, this intersection is the Roscoe Village/Bucktown answer to the intersection of North/Clybourn and Halsted in Lincoln Park. Yes, it’s surrounded by strip malls and rather mundane commercial developments, but packing in density is totally possible here and really rather appropriate. Between the SoNo East, SoNo West, and New City towers almost 900 units have been built in only three buildings in an area formerly dominated by strip malls transforming the neighborhood. On the new lots being created by the street redesign similar densification could occur without displacing a single business or residential structure nor overwhelming surrounding buildings. It would provide housing for multiple neighborhoods, and hopefully breathe some life into Elston Avenue.

Moving forward with the plan as proposed or even similar to the current proposal would be a huge mistake, but is all too within the realm of reality. Alderman play a big role in how developments in their wards turn out and right now Ald. Waguespack is giving no indication he is ready to embrace a dramatic physical change for this corner of the Chicago that embraces densification and people first infrastructure. This is especially frustrating considering the ripple effect a good development here could have on surrounding communities.

This isn’t an issue of terribly innovative urban planning. It’s practically a case study in logical urban planning. All the arguments against this parking lot development are perfectly available. The question is will that logic prevail, or that of a confused need for more parking?