Revisiting Oak Park, IL, an original walkable suburb

During a recent trip to Chicago, I spent an afternoon in Oak Park, an older suburb abutting the west side of the City. Growing up in Chicago, I made regular trips to this suburb to peruse the latest collection of vinyl at the eclectic record store, Val's Halla, a mecca for music-lovers. Oak Park is known for its famous residents--architect Frank Lloyd Wright and writer Ernest Hemingway--and its impressive architecture, but it may not be on the radar of planners visiting Chicago. It should be.

What struck me during this visit was how the designers of this suburb had been able to achieve human scale in its planning while retaining sufficient density and diversity of urban form to make it walkable.

Oak Park describes itself as a "village," as do many other suburbs of Chicago. Perhaps they do so to distinguish themselves from the "city," since early on their residents sought out a more tranquil environment from the busy city centres where many of them worked. It seemed to be what Frank Lloyd Wright was seeking when he built his first house here.

Some history is in order.

Oak Park was planned along one of the many rail lines running into Chicago's core, which provided a quick trip to the central business district. That trip can now be made on the commuter rail line, Metra , or on the Green Line run by the Chicago Transit Authority. This transit spine serves Oak Park well, both from the perspective of infill and intensification, and because many local, thriving businesses line both sides of the elevated transit corridor.

Oak Park continued Chicago's small-block grid street pattern, allowing residents to reach many destinations by a short walk. There are high-street-style shops occupied by small businesses, and larger thoroughfares where contemporary larger-format stores are located. Streets accommodate all modes of travel--cars, buses, bikes, and pedestrians.

The housing mix includes single detached houses, many of them spectacular in size and architectural grandeur, and a variety of apartment forms. On most blocks, you'll find four-storey walk-ups, often designed around courtyards, a built form common to the City of Chicago. Most of these apartments supply outdoor space for their occupants in the form of green common areas or back porches. Also common are two- and three-storey buildings that usually contain two to four apartments. In Chicago, this style of housing was often occupied by multi-generational immigrant families who pooled their money to buy the building, but maintained separate units within it.

Oak Park has retained its walkable character because of thoughtful infill over the years, evidenced by high-rise development built in the 1960s and 70s and three- or four-storey condominiums built in this century prior to the recession.

In the 1970s, Oak Park responded to the "white flight" that was occurring in the City of Chicago by passing an ordinance forming the Oak Park Regional Housing Center to maintain an integrated housing market. The results are visible today. There is a noticeable diversity of residents in Oak Park, both culturally and in terms of age.

The planning of public spaces is exemplary in Oak Park. Murals and public art are abundant. Many streets offer places to sit. The parks, diverse in size and scale, are dispersed throughout the suburb. They connect streets and act as meeting places for neighbours, who may or may not have outdoor space of their own. Many of the seniors' residences are located near the parks, and schoolyards serve residents on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the middle of summer.

The short afternoon trip made me think: why can't this type of suburb be replicated today? At one time, we were able to plan a community at a human scale without giving priority to the car. Why not today?