Urban Patterns | Chicago, Illinois USA
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A
Chicago is the third-most populous city in the United States with over 2.7 million residents. It is also the most populous city in both the state of Illinois and the Midwestern United States. The Chicago metropolitan area – commonly referred to as “Chicagoland” – has nearly 10 million people and is the third-largest metro area in the United States after New York and Los Angeles. In terms of wealth and economy, Chicago is considered one of the most important business centers in the world. The town of Chicago was organized in 1833 with a population of about 200 near a portage between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River watershed. Within seven years it grew to more than 4,000 people. In mid-1835, the first public land sales began and the City of Chicago was incorporated in 1837. For several decades, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world, making it was one of the five largest cities in the world by end of the 19th century. Before the growth of new Chinese cities during the 21st century, the urban growth of Chicago in the 19th century was largely unprecedented in human history (Source: Wikipedia).
Chicago has the most pervasively-realized, regular grid street network in the world. In fact, the scale of the regular grid in Chicago is so large that it is almost impossible to truly appreciate its scale. From one extreme to the other, it is about the size of southeast England or the European country of Luxembourg. However, it is only by examining the Chicago urban pattern at the very large scale (for example, satellite view from 90 km above) that we can appreciate there is a distinctive center-to-edge logic to the metropolitan region; most notably along the alignment of the Chicago River/Stevenson Expressway from the Loop in a southwesterly direction. This diagonal logic is replicated at the large-scale in the northern metro area as well along the alignment of old Indian trails, which were incorporated as roads into the urban fabric over time; most notably a series of diagonal streets associated with the Northwest Highway in north Chicago.
When we zoom in on the Chicago urban pattern (for example, satellite view from 25 km above), the crucial role of the Chicago River as a water-based transportation artery in the city becomes much more apparent. So does the multitude of skyscrapers in the central business district of “The Loop” (north and west of Grant Park on shores of Lake Michigan). We can also see the large building footprints of many Industrial land uses gathered around the entire length of the Chicago River from the southeast into the center of the city and then northward. All of these topographical, geographical, and infrastructural components are woven together with the ‘relentless’ regular gridiron logic, which serves to privilege downtown Chicago (and The Loop, in particular) within the metropolitan urban pattern in the city. This begins to barely scratch the surface of why the Chicago urban pattern plays such a significant role in its magnificence as one of the greatest cities in the world.
Urban Patterns is a series of posts from The Outlaw Urbanist presenting interesting examples of terrestrial patterns shaped by human intervention in the urban landscape over time.