Writings, research & portfolio

A harebrained scheme for the North Shore

Adding another portfolio piece to the online record. I took Rachel Havrelock’s Freshwater Lab in the Fall 2017 semester and fell in love with it. The humanities-focused look at nature and infrastructure is pretty unique for a classroom consisting of undergrads and professional-track grad students.

I used the class to look at ways to fund a new suburban downtown. I focused on Winnetka because it’s a very wealthy North Shore suburb that has a bit of a failing downtown. They are currently considering enacting a TIF district to bring more money in and revitalize their downtown.

I first looked at how TIF districts affect commute patterns in the Chicago area, using census commute data to show that they do not have much of an effect at all:

 Image made by the author

Image made by the author

I then examined Winnetka’s water rates in the Chicago context. Leaning on a fantastic Chicago Tribune report on unequal water rates, I mapped the work of the Tribune’s reporting team and showed who pays how much in the area.

 Image made by the author

Image made by the author

I then mapped these water rates on income, showing what proportion of the household median income for a municipiality was spent on water. This was normalized where the city of Chicago’s proportion of income spent on water equaled “1.”

 Image made by author

Image made by author

As you can see, some south suburban municipalities pay obscene amounts for their water. As the Tribune discovered, municipalities with low property values raise income by raising water rates in a predatory manner, similar to predatory policing.

Winnetka does not have this problem — its citizens pay the lowest proportion of their (very high) incomes in the whole Chicago area. I took this as a revenue gap problem: is Winnetkans were charged proportionally, they would have revenues that would obviate the need for a TIF district.

The next bit was a bit more theoretical. Raising $60 million from peoples’ use of Lake Michigan water, instead of from struggling businesses, brought in new questions of what Winnetka could possibly want from its downtown.

I argued that blight discourse limited Winnetka’s options, and that even in a wealthy area the emphasis was on blight and removal. I wanted to look at renovation a different way. The money came, essentially, from Lake Michigan. Therefore, it should be used to bring more people into the high-quality Winnetka lifestyle by emphasizing transit, building higher and creating more public space.

I called this a “Business-to-Beach” plan:

 Image made by author

Image made by author

It isn’t precisely a workable plan: charging Winnetkans more, and using that money to convert garages to start-up space, buy up private beaches, and flood their schools with Chicagoans…is not a politically viable scenario. The idea, rather, was to use water in order to emphasize the connectivity between Chicago and its suburbs — emphasizing that the community of infrastructure is divided politically along inequitable lines.