Suburbs in Chicago and elsewhere are aspiring to out-city the city

It’s a fascinating moment when suburbs are staking claim to the “new urbanism” in development. But new suburban communities must be intentional about bringing together people of different backgrounds and income levels, a DePaul University sociologist writes.

SHARE Suburbs in Chicago and elsewhere are aspiring to out-city the city
A rendering of the 225-acre site of Schaumburg’s Veridian project.

A rendering of the 225-acre site of Schaumburg’s Veridian project.

Provided: Antunovich Associates

An ad filled with smiling young adults beckons you to live where “the coffee is perfect.” There, you can explore “urban-esque” shops and try on new outfits with your besties. You’ll walk to your workplace, a “caffeine-fueled think tank,” to meet your project’s “impossible due date.” When your work day is done, wine and garlic toast await.

When I read this, I wondered: Who is the you? And where is this work hard, play hard wonderland set?

River North in 2000? The West Loop in 2015? Lincoln Yards in 2030?

Nope. Schaumburg — one of a growing list of suburbs in Chicagoland and around the nation that aspire to out-city the city.

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There’s a history behind this movement, and the 225-acre site of Schaumburg’s Veridian project is rich with lessons. In 1976, Motorola built its bucolic world headquarters campus there when such sites were billed as the anti-city. Calm and green, they were seen as an escape from the perceived over-density, overpriced and overtaxed real estate, racial tensions, labor disputes and stress associated with urban locations. They were exclusive, predictable, secure islands — that was the whole point. Firms like UrbanStreet Group LLC, Veridian’s developer, view this era as a low point.

By the early 1990s, a pattern of office development similar to Schaumburg’s had emerged nationally. “Edge cities,” as journalist Joel Garreau called such places, were unique. But different uses were still separated into tidy zones — and people of different incomes didn’t mix.

By the 2000s, global corporations were returning to the city. This time around, they wanted less isolated, more collaborative spaces with nearby amenities for entertainment and leisure. A new generation of white collar workers wanted to live near work. In Chicago, once-devalued land around the Loop was coveted by developers who pitched new residential projects for higher income residents. Motorola was again in step with the times when it moved parts of its pared-down firm to various sites in the Loop.

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

These days, office development is occurring in the suburbs, but with a twist. Championed by the design philosophy known as “new urbanism,” some of this development involves retrofitting sprawled suburbs with dense, walkable communities that integrate retail, residences, and employment.

For developers committed to this type of infill, a project in a more agile and resourced suburb can be less cumbersome than a similar project in the city. Schaumburg created a tax-increment financing district for its Veridian effort and offered tax break deals for Zurich North America and Motorola Solutions to serve as employment anchors.

The Veridian ad bills the “urban-feeling aesthetic” as the “new [sub]urban experience,” nestled in the “bustling northwest suburbs.” Neighboring Hoffman Estates is also transforming its 150-acre, former AT&T campus to channel “classic neighborhoods such as Chicago’s Lincoln Park and Brooklyn’s Park Slope.” Both developments claim to curate “the best of urban environments,” as UrbanStreet Group put it.

It’s a fascinating moment when suburbs are staking claim to the “best” of the urban. But my foundational concern is more pragmatic: Who is included in this vision?

As the city-suburb gap in household income narrows and U.S. poverty becomes more suburban, the ad’s claim to “togetherness” must include an array of income groups.

In a brochure for one particular building, UrbanStreet Group says that as “Veridian develops, the wide range of uses translates directly into a diversity of users — putting us all closer to people with different histories, ages, socioeconomic statuses and racial makeup.”

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Alas, students of development know that mixed use doesn’t translate directly into mixed users. It takes intentionality from the municipality, county and state if diversity is to be more than a marketing tool, especially when it comes to socioeconomic status. In a housing system with more carrots than sticks, luxury is simply a safer bet.

Still, recent policies have put affordable housing on the suburban agenda more than it used to be and recent policy tools (such as the 2021 Affordable Housing Special Assessment Program) have made it more tenable for developers.

Do we believe walkable, dense, mixed-use communities where neighbors of different backgrounds know each other are important enough to be supported by public money?

Then shouldn’t the server in the ad offering a “second glass of wine” to patrons who live nearby be able to walk a few blocks home too?

John Joe Schlichtman, an associate professor of urban sociology at DePaul University, is co-author of “Gentrifier” and author of “Showroom City

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