Last week I climbed on the redeye from San Francisco to Chicago O’Hare, giving up a couple of hours on the clock and the cold summer this area is known for, for the heat and humidity of northern Illinois in August. Map and GPS at my side, I journeyed from site to site, a West Coaster in the Land of Lincoln. What struck me was the meandering, sometime erratic road system of what was once rural Cook County. The landscape is as flat as Sacramento or Phoenix and yet the main thoroughfares twist and turn as if they were mountain roads.
You might wonder why would I notice such a thing while surrounded by the Chicago sign-scape. Well, my degree from the University of Oregon was in Architecture and Planning. I have always had an interest in the built environment and cultural geography; how people settle on the land. In 1975, I wrote my thesis on how the city of Eugene, OR grew and the forces that guided the development. So whenever I travel, whether I’m gazing out the window of the airliner or traversing the streets and trails, I am usually observing how the land has been developed.
After some reflection, I arrived at a few contributing factors that might have lead to Chicagoland’s bent and crooked transportation configuration. Long before there were cars and trucks veering across paved paths, the principle means of getting to and from anywhere was on foot (the Native Americans) and later in horse drawn wagons. These paths needed to follow the gently rolling topography, avoiding the wet, sloppy lowlands, dense forests, rivers, etc. Railroads eventually radiated out from Chicago, serving distant cities and local communities and new trails were established to get goods to and from the train depots. People settled around the depots and cities grew around these many meandering paths.
In the 1890’s and 1900’s the City Beautiful and Garden City movements emerged, advocating urban beautification and the use of monumental grandeur in cities. The first large scale presentation of City Beautiful occurred during Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition of 1893. The presentation posited that the classic urban grid was too impersonalized, too alienating for the suburban masses. Create curves and freestanding homes where straight lines and tenements had failed, and you can improve both the city-scape and the quality of life of the inhabitants.
These combined factors, along with advents in transportation and economic trends, have resulted in Chicagoland. Getting from store to store was a bit of a challenge, but the Native Americans and the City Beautiful proponents knew what they were doing. For the most part it was beautiful, and it was never boring.
Skip’s expertise in signage is enhanced by the breadth of his knowledge of architecture, engineering, planning and design. The BMA staff relies on his knowledge to guide their work, and BMA clients get the full advantage of that knowledge on every project. Now that’s what we call “value added”!