How Regional Transportation Networks Can Equalize OpportunityDowntown revitalizations can combat disinvestment-- but the secret weapon is a good public transportation network.
Adam Quigley, AIA
Ted Haug, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Municipal and transportation design has long been at the center of successful city or neighborhood planning. Well-located and well-designed public spaces such and city services, libraries, parks, and transportation hubs can serve as the seed of commercial growth, enhance civic pride, and promote safety for communities. Reinvestment in municipal design can help address long-standing environmental, health, and economic disparities in disadvantaged communities.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “these communities face an array of challenges such as proximity to polluting facilities, barriers to participating in decision-making processes, disproportionate levels of chronic disease, neighborhood disinvestment, high crime rates, security concerns, and poor or no access to jobs and services. Many of these challenges are related to how communities and regions are planned and built.”
Jane Jacobs, an influential critic and activist in early 20th century New York, coined the phrase “eyes on the street” about the importance of a vibrant street life to create neighborhood safety and community connections. A hundred years ago, railroads and architects put a great deal of effort into the design of train stations. As a focal point, the station linked the town and the outside world. It symbolized progress, while giving its community an identity. Every day, hundreds of thousands of commuters across the nation drift through train stations to catch a ride to work.
Despite the growing popularity of commuter services, many train stations are in a sorry state of disrepair. Commuters see these stations as nothing more than a place to take shelter from the rain or cold while they wait. Community members ignore the stations or, even worse, complain that the facilities cast the community negatively. If the people served are respected with good design, the neighborhood will respond by protecting it and this can significantly impact a stations long-term use, safety and become a point of pride for the neighbors. The station is the face a community displays to all those on the train. If the station is attractive, commuters draw positive conclusions about the city spurring growth.
A regional transportation system’s primary role is to connect residents and businesses to opportunities, which plays a crucial role in promoting inclusive economic growth. The train station can be so much more than a place to wait—it can present a positive image about the community to the outside world, add to local economic development efforts, and enrich a community’s civic value. By reestablishing the train station as a community focal point, cities and villages can inspire growth. New stations often sprout on the fringes of up-and-coming areas. Other times, they appear more toward the center of an urban area partially or totally developed. In either case, the appropriate station can inspire change like new commercial and housing developments or the rejuvenation of city centers.
One example is the Village of Clarendon Hills located in suburban Chicago. The centerpiece of its downtown revitalization a new train station that supports the village’s focus on public outdoor spaces and sustainability. It features indoor and outdoor waiting areas and a green roof. The village anticipates that the station will become a new entry point that promotes economic development by attracting more businesses and residents.
Another Chicagoland suburb, the 150-year-old Village of Tinley Park, exists because of the rail. Named after its first railroad station agent, the village developed a master plan with a train station as a focal point. The Oak Park Avenue Station (completed 2003) inspired a community transformation and even earned a spot on the American Institute of Architects’ “200 Great Places in Illinois” list. Ten years later, the new 80th Avenue Station further reinforced the village’s rich rail tradition.
Many cities find that, over the years, their downtowns have been neglected. Development of large shopping malls along with related dining and entertainment venues in the late 20th century favored the periphery of the city. As a result, the original center of activity, the downtown, has often become a place of empty storefronts and minimal activity.
However, that’s changing as municipalities are rediscovering the value that a vibrant and active downtown can have on their entire community. Hidden behind the vacant warehouse and neglected lot may be the seeds for a community cornerstone: the multimodal, which adds retail, hospitality, entertainment, and parking to the transit mix. This entices people back to and resuscitates forgotten urban areas. Multimodal facilities accommodate a variety of commuters: rail, bus, automobile, bicycle, and pedestrian. They integrate into mixed-use developments to create vibrant hubs that encourage alternative transportation. Also, they encourage commuters and residents to spend more time downtown.
The Quad Cities consists of two Iowa cities and two Illinois cities, but also encompasses other surrounding communities. A recent project converts the first floor of a vacant six-story building into a transportation hub in Moline (Illinois), one of the four Quad Cities. The multimodal facility, part of a full-block redevelopment, has kicked off a revitalization of downtown Moline, but is also expected to reestablish passenger rail service from Chicago to the Quad Cities.
The World Health Organization defines a healthy city as “…one that is continually creating and improving physical and social environments and expanding community resources that enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and in developing to their maximum potential.”2 Community engagement is a critical component to successful public planning and design. The Moline project brought the lager Quad Cities community into the planning process. Community members asked questions, presented challenges, and offered their thoughts on the design of the facility. The resulting project represents the residents and is a point of civic pride.
Ever since humans first began to live collectively in cities, people have striven to build healthier and more sustainable communities. In the 6th century Hippocrates, wrote about the location and planning of human settlements and the Romans undertook monumental engineering and public works programs to provide clean water and sanitation. Today, many communities still struggle with basic needs like health and safety. In the 21st century, we have the responsibility to reinvest in our most under-served communities. Transportation and municipal design can be the catalyst for business development, greater safety, and improved civic pride through the prioritization and thoughtful development of these public spaces.
Adam Quigley is a project architect at Legat Architects Chicago. He works with a variety of transportation and municipal clients.
Ted Haug works as Legat Architects’ Director of Design. He primarily works out of the Legat Architects Gurnee office and likes to swim.
1. Smart Growth and Equitable Development. (n.d.). Retrieved from US Environmental Protection Agency: https://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/smart-growth-and-equitable-development
2. What is a Healthy City. (n.d.). Retrieved from World Heath Organization : https://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/environment-and-health/urban-health/who-european-healthy-c...