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Chicago Needs More Classical “Main Streets”

A new study examines the walkable thoroughfares of mom and pop shops—and why cities need more of them to thrive.

Photo: Carolyn Variano/Chicago Tribune

The concept of a classic main street—a wide road lined with mom and pop stores—may seem like it has no place in a metropolis like Chicago. But University of Chicago urbanist Emily Talen says that model is exactly what the city needs to keep its streets active and thriving.

Earlier this year, Talen and co-author Hyesun Jeong published a study in the Journal of Urban Design examining main-type streets in Chicago and their benefit to city dwellers. They studied more than 40,000 blocks across Chicago, measuring factors related to services and amenities in daily life—services and amenities (like grocery stores, health clinics, libraries, and schools), pedestrian quality (like sidewalks, vacant lots, and parking lots), and opportunities for local businesses. The study found that only 13 city blocks met their criteria for a “main street."  

Talen became interested in these types of streets in 2016 after reading a New Yorker story in which Adam Gopnik criticized the philosophy that cities should not be built around car-dependent shopping malls, but around lively and pedestrian-friendly streets. “It just kind of upset me and it got me thinking, ‘What is happening to our streets?’” Talen says.

So what precludes a block from qualifying as part of a main street? Mainly, a lack of independent businesses and an abundance of chain and e-commerce stores. “If you’re corporate owned,” says Talen, “you don’t really necessarily care what’s going on in the neighborhood. But if you’re the owner, you care about what’s going on in front of your sidewalk.”

There are all sorts of reasons to promote the growth of main street blocks in a city, least of all a boon to the economy and job creation. Local businesses found on these streets can help provide what Talen calls neighborhood identify. “If you have a beloved neighborhood store on a main street, that becomes a piece of identity. Nobody is going to use Target as their neighborhood identity.”

Creating spaces where residents can build even weak connections, like a coffee shop where the owner knows your name, establishes a sense of community within a city, Talen says. There are also psychological benefits to knowing that storefronts around you are active. “Urban designers talk about wanting to have permeable windows so you can see that there’s life going on behind the facade of a building,” says Talen. “That’s important for our psyche, to know that there’s life going on in the city. It’s the whole street being more than car conduits.” Also attributed to active streets: Lower crime rates and the health benefits of walking.

So what can Chicago do to promote more main streets around the city? First off, recognizing that they’re just as valuable as a park. In terms of tangible steps, the city can create business initiatives to support local entrepreneurs through programs like Retail Thrive Zones, a city effort to help West and South Side businesses with financial incentives. Talen believes this kind of program should be expanded.

Adjusting city zoning codes could also help local businesses, says Talen, who points to excessive requirements like roadblocks to expanding a business or inattention to the pedestrian-friendliness of streets. “These are all things that the city could certainly do as a matter of policy,” says Talen. “Zoning is policy, so changing those policies to be more supportive of main street retail [can] make it easier for these places to thrive.”

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