Community Organizing

Over much of the past year I have had a real education in the power of community organizing around an idea or a vision. It started with my campaign running for president of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association. I had only recently joined in January 2015. I joined because I didn’t understand the opposition that the JPNA had towards many of the issues I cared about deeply – urban development and revitalization. Not to say the JPNA is against those things, but it was my personal and professional opinion that the things they were against would make revitalization more difficult.

I joined not anticipating that I would run for office, but really just to understand the thinking – what makes the members tick? I hoped to volunteer on technology related items – revamping the website, putting them on social media, making transparency and common things like the meeting minutes available. At the same time I met a number of other neighbors, new to the association, that had a lot of the same feelings I did.

When the past president announced her retirement there was an opening. Initially it looked like no one wanted the job. It looked like an opportunity to fill a void in leadership. Ultimately, that turned out not to be the case, as my opponent, Bob Bank, ran against me, and ultimately won.

The campaign on social media for the “future” of JPNA attracted a lot of interest and attention. Working with an allied slate, we developed what ultimately became the basis for a new group, but ultimately was a great campaign slogan. We were going to “move Jefferson Park forward.” I used this a lot in my writing, as I began to outline my position and reason for my candidacy. Forward meant progress and a new way of thinking. It meant shedding aspects of the past that was slowing us down. It meant a path.

That view was rejected by the Association and in loss, I met many, many wonderful people in which the “forward” message really resonated. Many of these residents had similar thoughts but not a welcome vehicle to advocate for the changes they want.

Initially, I had offered that I would help build a new organization with an eye only towards an initial public meeting to gauge support. If no one showed up and the support was not there, we’d know that the group did not have traction. In building the new group, I worked with my slate members from the election, Dennis Davis and Marie MacDonald, along with several other neighbors I had met at JPNA that offered their assistance and/or ideas. This group, about 10 of us, ended up gelling into the directors of the new organization, which we named Jefferson Park Forward.

We built a website and a Facebook group, worked Twitter and began publishing our message to every social and existing local media outlet available. We developed a preliminary mission and a vision, largely using language from the JPNA campaign but developing the ideas further. I became the spokesperson and lead the outreach.

At the public meeting, held November 17, 2015, we had an attendance of almost 70 people, including the Alderman, State Representative, head of the Chamber of Commerce and members of other neighborhood associations, including JPNA. I introduced Jefferson Park Forward and explained our mission and vision – why we were here. I led a group discussion asking what we want JPF to be, what we want JPF to do in the community and solicited volunteers.

The enthusiasm we generated has carried over and spilled outside the neighborhood boundaries and we have cultivated interest in our work, At the same time, I’ve begun working with the Directors to lay out a plan to build up JPF from concept to a registered non-profit group so that we can begin the work I began outlining in my campaign for JPNA president…to move Jefferson Park forward.

Community organizing is inspiring work. It means working with your neighbors and local businesses. And your local elected officials. It means being honest and transparent about what you’re doing. It means honoring and respecting the people who believe in you and who have in turn dedicated themselves to a cause that they believe in, to an organization that is theirs as much as it is yours. It means stepping up when there is work to be done and, also, stepping back when you’re on a team all pushing for the same thing.

Planning Nerd Tools

My work not long ago received a license for Transitmix, one of the coolest visual tools I’ve seen for planning of bus routes overlaid on a geospatial platform. What I like most is the ability to call up a transit provider, or import a GTFS feed and quickly ascertain particular details on a route. Details such as operating cost, hours of service, and frequency for bus service metrics. The geospatial overlay allows a planner to see particular census details such as environmental justice populations, population and job density. At work, we’re looking to use the tool for a client as we redesign a bus network.

Check out the video for a preview:


Recent Map Efforts

I’ve been playing around in Google Maps. Here are two maps made locally for my Chicago neighborhood of Jefferson Park.

The first, a map of all parking lots in downtown Jefferson Park.


The second, a map of election results from the February 24, 2015 municipal election in Chicago. I’ve mapped the results of the 45th Ward, where I live, by precinct.


The purpose of these maps is to illustrate and illuminate discussion amongst my neighbors. I find data visualization to be helpful in that regard. In my neighborhood, we often talk about a parking problem, but as you can see in the first map, clearly there is no shortage of land devoted to the storage of automobiles.

The election map is not surprising to residents of the 45th Ward that follow politics. The Alderman, John Arena, has his base of support in the southwest, near the Six Corners intersection of Milwaukee, Cicero and Irving Park Roads. His challenger, John Garrido, lives in the northwest part of the ward and has a base there. I’ve found potential precincts that might be in play and those precincts are notable for the issues that have occurred locally there. This map does a decent job of highlighting all of that.

Civil War Mapping

Another great use of GIS!

We are on day 2 of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Smithsonian has a fascinating look into the troop movements via an interactive map for the three days of the battle (July 1-3, 1863).




The above map is from July 3, the day of Pickett’s Charge. Troop movements were carefully digitized, informed on research on battle interpretation. As you zoom in, more details become clear as you see arrows showing how whole divisions of troops moved. A panorama image was developed to show sight lines as they might have looked from various vantage points throughout the battle. What is fascinating about this interactive map is how you can see that the Union recognized early in the battle where the high ground was. This was instrumental in winning or losing the battle, in the case of Pickett’s Charge. The power of GIS allows us to see the battle in a new light.


Over the past year, I have been taking my daughter to Wiggleworms, the renowned early childhood music program at the Old Town School of Folk Music. The program is great in that it makes music accessible to kids from a really early age. For this past session, I have been taking Wiggle-N-Strum, a class which combines the Wiggleworms classes into an adult class built around the teaching of the baritone ukulele.

It is here where I note that I am a percussionist by training. Which means that I am used to playing instruments with my hands but not by plucking strings. I am used to banging on drums, xylophones, timpani, you know, drums. And yet, I am in love with the uke. This poses a dilemma for me.

The baritone ukulele is at the deep end of the spectrum and is the largest of the four types of ukuleles (soprano being the smallest, or “standard” size). I suspect the baritone ukulele is being taught at Wiggle-N-Strum as an intro instrument to guitar, which is Old Town’s most popular class. The baritone, unlike the other types of ukuleles, is tuned D3-G3-B3-E4, the same as the highest four strings of the standard guitar. The other types of ukuleles, the soprano, concert and tenor, are tuned at G4-C4-E4-A4. The baritone is also 6 inches longer than the soprano. It makes for a deeper bass sound, thus taking away some of the distinctive sound of the ukulele that you commonly know. The baritone ukulele I am learning on is a Makai B-55 Baritone uke.

So, if the baritone ukulele is a vehicle for learning guitar, I need to decide if that is what I would like to do. However, I think I am in love with the distinctive sound of the ukulele, both the baritone and its other more common sizes. This means, of course, learning a new instrument, as the tuning is different from the baritone, but that’s OK. I think what sealed the deal with the uke was listening to stuff like this:


Regulations and Land Use

I am not saying that zoning, fire and safety codes, materials and workforce safety regulations would have prevented the West, Texas disaster. And as rigid and inflexible of a tool as zoning can be, it does have the ability to prevent the building of a school, hospital, nursing home and residences so close to the plant as to be obliterated in case of disaster. And these regulations matter. If I compare Texas to my own home state, Illinois, this is what happens:

Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation’s second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs.

One of the key reasons zoning codes are around is to separate incompatible uses. And while I understand the fertilizer factory was originally built outside of town, it was the town that grew all the way up to the gates of the factory. Since zoning is a police power, this is something the municipality of West, Texas might have been able to control. Or, maybe not. Texas is, after all, proud of its anti-regulatory culture and is proud of  having the largest city in the country without a formal zoning code.

Wealth, Generation Y and Cities

Abandoned Subdivision Construction
Abandoned Subdivision Construction (Photo credit: tykxman)

Reading this article in the New York Times (and this one) about the lag in wealth building by younger generations compared to their parents has had me reflectively thinking about my own situation. I have two degrees, including a masters. My wife and I even managed to save for a house, which we purchased in 2009 (in hindsight, it appears we bought too early as we’re likely underwater). We also have two kids. Needless to say, our finances are strained. The way things are looking, I’ll pay off all my student loans shortly before I am 60. That would be after both of my daughters complete college, in which case I’ll likely be paying loans off until death. And that’s OK. It’s a decision I made. And yet, I can’t help but feel something is deeply problematic with the financial situation facing much of my generation. The job market sucks, making it  difficult to build a life on a foundation of debt. And if you are fortunate to have a job like I am, then perhaps you are faced with stagnate or declining wages over the long term. But costs are going up. Housing, education, health care, transportation and energy costs have all risen dramatically while income has fallen.


I can’t say how this will play out over the long term. But these trends have an effect on the way people live and our cities are evolving to meet the demands that these trends are making. From a planning perspective we are likely to see the following trends continue, for better or worse.


  • Decline in the traditional household patterns. Forget the 1950’s married couple with 2.5 kids. That’s been gone for a long time and unlikely to return. My generation is getting married later (if at all) and not having children at nearly the same rate as our parents.
  • Continued influx of Generation Y to the cities. This, from an urbanist perspective, is overwhelmingly good. Gen Y doesn’t have the love of cars as previous generations (hell, we can’t afford them) and are looking at cities with new found opportunities. We’re reinvesting in places with existing infrastructure, thus reducing the need for greenfield development. What remains to be seen is whether my generation stays in the cities and that will largely be determined by whether we can make the city livable for all classes of people. Thus, how do we improve municipal finance, urban schools, gentrification/displacement of the poor, and clean up and adaptively reuse brownfield redevelopment.
  • Houses as we know them will be radically different. Gone are the days of large scale cookie-cutter subdivisions as the predominant residential building mode. To meet the needs of Gen Y (and the downsizing baby boomers) we’ll need a lot more multi-family and smaller, more efficient homes near transit. I also suspect the cookie-cutter houses that will go up for sale as the boomers downsize will not find enough buyers, as Gen Y is a smaller generation and seems, at this point, wholly uninterested in moving to the suburbs to the extent our parents did.
  • Public transit will face an existential crisis but will survive. The current financing model for public transit is outdated and does not reflect the economic or demographic realities of our time. Federal support will decline and transportation will increasingly be solved by local governments. However, the demand by Gen Y and the baby boomers (who will, inevitably, learn to ride transit not by choice, but out of necessity due to aging) for public transit will become overwhelming, in reality and politically. Now, what public transit looks like is another story. I can see room for private operators (e.g. jitneys, taxis, even ferries) as public providers contract services, particularly in outlying areas. I think we’ll see a refocus on urban areas where traditional transit has the greatest chance of success.

Our cities will experience a bit of a renaissance as people move back in. On the other hand, the suburban experiment is likely due for hardship. While appealing to some, I can’t see how it sustains itself in its enormity from a market standpoint and fiscal reality. There frankly isn’t a market for the sheer number of single family homes in cul-de-sacs out there. And governments cannot afford the replacement costs of the second generation of infrastructure that many of these suburbs will be requiring over the next 20 or so years. This may lead to a situation similar to many European cities (e.g. Paris) where the center city is luxurious and the suburbs surrounding it are falling apart.


If this is truly our future, I pray that I have made the prudent lifestyle decisions to support my family. We’ll see.



Phoenix skyline, looking west.

Phoenix. The Valley of the Sun. Soon to be home to my sister and her girlfriend. They’re moving at the end of the month to start the next phase of their lives together. I am sad, of course, and yet happy for them on this exciting adventure. I am no expert in Phoenix, having only visited the city once, but as an urban planner, I am adept at researching city data. So, here I present some interesting facts and observations about Phoenix from a planning perspective.

It’s Big!

Phoenix’s population is 1.469 million people. The city alone accounts for 22% of the State of Arizona’s population, making it the primate city in the state. It’s the 6th most populous city, behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia. It’s metropolitan area is home to two-thirds of all Arizonans. It’s footprint is gigantic as well. Lying in the Salt River Valley of the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix spreads out over 516 miles, more than twice the land area of Chicago. And for all that land, it’s not particularly dense, with only 2,800 people per square mile, or about a quarter of Chicago’s population per square mile. This kind of density is hard to support transit, but you might be surprised that one of the newest and most successful light rail lines was built in the city recently (more on that below).

Getting Around

Given the size of the urban area and the character of its urbanism (suburbanism), a car is essential for reasonable travel. Unfortunately, your visitors will be arriving via plane, as the last passenger rail service was suspended in 1996. Phoenix is the largest city without intercity passenger train service. However, visitors landing at Sky Harbor International Airport have the option of taking the train. The Metro light rail system, a 20 mile single line system serving 28 stations, opened in 2008. The line serves central Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa. Back to being big – Mesa, at almost 440,000 people, is the second largest suburb in the U.S., ranking above many major cities like Miami, Atlanta, and St. Louis.

Sky Harbor is the main Phoenix airport and has a Southwest hub, very important for travel back to Chicago. It’s the 10th busiest in terms of passenger traffic.

Roads are plentiful. The main interstates are 10 and 17. I-17 will take you to Sedona in 2 hours, Flagstaff in 2 and a half. I-10 will take you to L.A. in 7 hours or so. As a Chicagoan, I was struck by the size of the arterial roads in the Phoenix area. Six lanes with a double left turn lane are common. It’s no wonder everyone drives.

Similarities to Chicago

Not many as you might expect. But the obvious ones are sports related. The Chicago Cubs have the spring training home in Mesa, attracting a lot of Chicagoans to visit and retire. Also, not to be forgotten, is the fact that the Arizona Cardinals used to be the Chicago Cardinals until 1960. I also think Phoenix’s dominance as Arizona’s primate city and capital is somewhat similar to Chicago. And the prevalance of the cardinal direction street grid is familiar to Chicagoans.


Like all cities, Phoenix is fascinating and has an interesting story. From my perspective as an urban planner, particularly in the transportation realm, I am fascinated by the urban form of the region, how transportation or natural (or political) boundaries enforce the geography of a place. Phoenix has more stories to tell.

Cross posted at Transport Nexus.

The Trouble with Virginia

Today’s Republican Party has some serious challenges facing it. The demographics are not in its favor. It’s leaned perhaps too far to the right. It does not seem to have a coherent governing philosophy. It has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. So how does the party right the ship?

By disenfranchising the voters.

Go ahead and read the links above. It’s not pretty. What pisses me off about this coming from an urban perspective is the blatant acknowledgement that apportioning electoral votes is necessary because urban areas can outvote rural areas:

Sen. Charles W. “Bill” Carrico, R-Grayson, said the change is necessary because Virginia’s populous, urbanized areas such as the Washington, D.C., suburbs and Hampton Roads can outvote rural regions such as his, rendering their will irrelevant.

Which is the point, isn’t it? If you can’t win over a majority of the population, perhaps you don’t deserve to win elected office. But, by the GOP’s logic, let’s just change the rules.

The problem with this isn’t that it’s more democratic, as the Republicans would have you believe. It’s that it is a deliberate effort to maintain the power given to them by the gerrymandered districts in numerous states that would allow normally blue states to swing red. Hence this legislation is popping up in places like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. All states that voted for Obama – twice.

Why does this matter, you ask? Because of the gerrymandering that turned strengthened the Republican control of the House after the 2010 census, a strong majority of U.S. Congressional districts now lean Republican. If, for example, the entire country were to award its electoral votes by district, Mitt Romney would have won the 2012 presidential election despite losing the popular vote by 4%.

What a way to run a democracy.

My kind of town

Via Urban Demographics

I am a Chicagoan. Born and bred. I grew up on the northwest side, attended high school in the suburbs, left the state for college and moved back. I love this city and am raising my two daughters here. So I can appreciate it when pictures like this are posted.

It’s also nice to see things like this.

So let me add my two cents as a native to this Quora discussion.

Here are my thoughts as a native Chicagoan.

Like one post says, “Chicago is the most American of cities.” I think this is largely true. We’re more diverse than you might think and we bristle at the idea that people from either coast think of us as “flyover country.” We also don’t compare ourselves with other cities in the Midwest. There’s a reason why we have the moniker “the Second City.”

That said, we’re second to none in a few things that matter. Food. Beside pizza, which is our specialty, our street food can’t be beat. Where else can you get a decent Italian beef or hot dog? This is the everyday stuff. Sure, we have the James Beard winners, Grant Achatz and Stephanie Izard and Rick Bayless of the world are here too, but I guarantee that’s not what most of us are eating. And yet people are surprised.

We’ve got world-class architecture, art and music to boot – in these categories we really are second to none. And yet people are surprised.

Sure, our Midwest work ethic and family ties keep us here, but I suspect the same in New York, San Francisco and L.A. Just not in SoHo or Park Slope or Haight-Asbury or Hollywood.

Beside the weather, the Midwest pleasantries, the work ethic and pizza, I’ll tell you what differences are important – and unique – to Chicago. It’s our fear. Of never being quite good enough. Of knowing that we have some of the best things in our city that the world has to offer and wondering if it’s enough for the New Yorker or Angeleno or San Franciscan. It’s never taking the city for granted – knowing that we don’t have great weather, we’re not the capital of the nation’s media and finance or culture. It’s our hard work that continually strives to build and to better our city. I think you find this ethos more strongly in Chicago than in most other places.