A few years ago, Emily Talen noticed something odd about her neighborhood on the north side of Chicago – yards.

“It was like suburbia was kind of invading,” she said.

Dr. Talen is intimately familiar with the differences between traditionally urban and suburban forms of civic design. She’s a professor of urbanism at the University of Chicago, where her  research focuses on the relationship between the built environment and social equity. While there’s nothing wrong with yards in urban neighborhoods, she couldn’t help but take note of where these new patches of greenspace were showing up – oftentimes, on parcels of land that had recently been occupied by multi-family housing, particularly near the city’s elevated mass transit line.

The desirability of living in close proximity to transit was producing a peculiar paradox: as more people sought residential real estate near “L” stops, prices naturally climbed. When they seemed to reach values that only wealthy Chicagoans could afford, owners were tearing down the traditional three and four-unit walkups that lined the streets in places like Dr. Talen’s Lincoln Park. Oversize single family homes were being erected in their place. 

Over the last few years, Dr. Talen has taken a closer look at this trend toward widespread downzoning. She shared her insights with Urban3’s Maxine Eng-Diaz and Taylor Schencker on a recent episode of the firm’s “Decoder” webinar series. The costs of replacing a multi-unit building – even a quite old one – with new construction that can only be inhabited by a single family effectively locks multiple families out of that community. By pressing families away from vital access to mass transit, this downzoning phenomenon was also pressing them away from their jobs, schools, and other places they needed to reach. 

To the degree that multi-family properties tend to be more tax-productive on a per acre basis, this trend also has the potential for being quite costly to the City of Chicago.

None of which is necessarily to say that all single-family construction is bad or that all multi-family is good. “You’ve got to look at the transect,” says Dr. Talen, referring to the rural-to-urban planning model that illustrates what level of density and intensity is appropriate for which parts of your city. 

In the Chicago example, what appears clear is that zoning is working against what the market clearly wants. There are approximately 8.86 million people living in the Chicago metro area, a large percentage of whom are young adults – a cohort that shows dwindling interest in car ownership for a variety of environmental and economic reasons. Urban3’s analysis showed that even while the City of Chicago’s population had increased overall between 2010 and 2020, density per acre actually decreased. The natural result will be rising home prices and transit costs as people must live farther away from the places where they want to live.

When transit and zoning work together, lots of people can get where they need to go while cities can hold and generate value over time. When transit and zoning are not in sync, economic potential goes unrealized while quality of life diminishes. Policy-makers, employers, and workers all share an interest in addressing this conundrum. As Taylor showed during the webinar, even adding or preserving “humble mixed use” development patterns (to use her term) around the city’s “L” stops would create enormous amounts of value. These are dollars that local government needs for all of its critical services – but which it is unnecessarily forgoing because of how they’re using – or misusing – land.

Of course, single family homes are not the problem. Outdated and misapplied zoning and a system that perpetually advantages the already-wealthy are enemies of a city’s progress. As Dr. Talen and Urban3 showed, Chicago still has time to correct this trend before it goes off the rails entirely – but every bad choice only makes the next bad choice easier.

Watch the video below to learn more about the collaboration between Urban3 and the University of Chicago’s Division of the Social Sciences.