Suburban Design Evanston

Creating Healthy Mindsets in Car-Centric Suburbia

I grew up in suburban Chicago. Nothing special or unique about my town. It was your standard metropolitan suburb, which saw a surge in development after World War II. Mainly single-family homes. A small “downtown” with a train station, municipal buildings, shops, and a public park. Scattered throughout the town, or “village” as it is legally called, are schools and more parks, and of course a few strip malls and gas stations near the edge.

A good portion of the houses in the town were constructed by the same developer, either in full two-storey or split-level formats, with front doors opening to living rooms, attached garages, same-size lots, and faux shutters next to the windows. It was a “normal” (aka, uneventful) place to live, as are many areas like this.

‘Where’s Your Car?’

Like many areas, too, the 1950s-era neighborhood where I lived was car-centric. People still walked to get to a few places, even if the sidewalks were non-existent or directly abutted the side of the road. I was always envious of my friends who lived in other parts of town or other towns where the sidewalks were divided from the street by the boulevard/berm/nameless green strip of grass. I always felt that was a nice safety element, considering the multiple car accidents on my street (which was adjacent to a busy road). Collisions were not infrequent, sometimes even with cars running up into our front yard.

But aside from the fender benders, 911-level accidents, and DUIs that were in eyesight of my bedroom, everyone got around by car. Before I was 16, I rode my bike everywhere, sure, though some parts of my town certainly were not bike-friendly. But in high school, everyone wanted wheels. Badly. So much that if anyone over 16 was seen riding a bike, even for a short distance, they’d get laughed at, either in jest or seriously. “Where’s your car?” people would say. An absolute jalopy, rusted-out boat of a car was better than riding a bike, even a really fancy bike. (However, if recent research is any indication, the social mandate for a car might be waning a little.)

And it makes sense because the town was designed this way at the height of planned obsolescence in the auto industry and the need for a single-family suburban home. Unless you lived walking distance, which by suburban mindsets is no more than two blocks, you “had to take the car” to go anywhere. The closest elementary and junior high schools near my home were 20-minute walks away. The high school was on the far end of town, certainly not a central location, and would take over an hour to walk to from my home, something I actually did once or twice.

Stories like this in the U.S. are a dime a dozen. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately after meeting up recently with my friend Phil at a bar in a mixed-use area of Evanston, with buildings old and new, commercial and residential (this is important for later).

Phil and I studied abroad in Europe at the same time, but in different cities. We met up a few times, and talked about the different lifestyles and pace of life in all of Europe, even though each country is unique. We were in Amsterdam for a few days, and were awestruck by the ubiquitous adoption of the bike. So much so, that we took pictures of men and women dressed in their business suits for work, just cruising along on a bike — something we never thought we’d see in the U.S. A lot of this also related to the design of the cities, whether they were medieval or modernized spaces.

One time, Phil observed to me the lack of obese individuals everywhere he went, contrary to what we see in the U.S. (For the record, according to the World Health Organization, the U.S. obesity rate was 36.2% versus 23.3% for Europe). While many factors play into these data points, it is certainly an interesting correlation of the numerous walk- and bike-friendly European cities and lower obesity rates compared with the U.S. While not a topic of every conversation we have, urban spaces and the influence on healthy living are things we talk about a lot. The concept of health awareness and impact in urban environments has been broadly discussed by planners and health professionals alike, but two laypersons like Phil and I would fit nicely there.

‘Where’s Your Dad’s Car?’

Phil and I grew up together, going to the same school from kindergarten through senior year. We worked the same summer job in college and have always been close friends. Phil’s dad grew up on the south side of Chicago, but moved to my town after getting married. Phil’s family’s house was at least a 30-minute walk from the train station in our town.

One day when I was younger, I was playing in Phil’s front yard and I see his dad walking down the block in a suit with a briefcase. He says “hi” to us and walks inside. Phil thought nothing of it.

I was confused. Where was Phil’s dad’s car? Why was he walking? In a suit? Where was his car? Surely, he wasn’t walking from work? Where was his car???

I asked Phil this and he said his dad works downtown and walks to and from the train station every day. With my suburban mindset and being oblivious to the fact that people in urban areas do indeed walk long distances (and unaware of my parents’ upbringings in Rogers Park on Chicago’s north side), I pressed Phil further. No way did his dad walk; he had to drive some of it, I thought. There was a huge parking lot next to the train station. But nope, Phil said his dad walked to the train station. He loved to walk. A very gregarious person, he loved being one with the community.

I found out years later that not only did his dad make a 30-minute walk each morning and night, but he often got off the train to downtown a station early (which is at least two miles from the downtown terminus), and would walk to work.

Phil’s dad recently had a stroke. He stopped working a few years ago, and Phil’s parents had moved to a farther suburb/exurb in an enclosed community, with no walkable access to anything. Phil had told me that the lack of daily interaction with people or even going out for a stroll through the neighborhood (even if it were as suburban where I grew up) was impossible, as it was just the same circular walking route in their new “neighborhood.”

Then Phil said this: “If my parents had lived in an area like this [points to the other restaurants, bars, apartments, shops outside], there is no way my dad would’ve had a stroke. He needed to live in a place like this.”

I feel more people also need to live in places like that than they realize. As I’ve observed from some presentations I’ve attended and articles I’ve read, some suburban areas are discovering the benefits of walkability, bikability, and communal spaces and making efforts to improve their municipalities by scaling back car-centric designs.

It is certainly a grand effort, particularly with a large NIMBY mindset nationwide. But perhaps as more towns and villages take on these planning initiatives for the next generation, teenagers in high-density areas won’t “need” a car, suburbs will be friendlier to walkers and bikers, residents will have higher likelihoods of better physical and mental health, and more people will be like Phil’s dad and walk to the train station.

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