Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: Strap It On?

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, News etc. No Comments »
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Chicago’s Divvy bike-share vehicles won’t come with helmets.

By John Greenfield

Last summer when I visited Copenhagen, I drank Carlsberg beer with Mikael Colville-Andersen, one of the world’s most influential and controversial bicycle advocates, in his lush back yard while his kids practiced soccer and picked flowers. Colville-Andersen heads the consulting firm Copenhagenize, advising politicians, planners and advocates on ways to copy the success of the bike-friendly Danish capital, but he’s probably better known for his wildly popular photo blog, Copenhagen Cycle Chic.

Among the many topics we discussed was his attitude toward bike helmets. He thinks they’re totally unnecessary for urban commuting, and he believes that promoting helmet use is actually counterproductive for making cycling safer. In northern European bicycle meccas like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, more than a third of all trips are made by bike, almost nobody wears a helmet, and yet injury rates are much lower than in the United States, where lots of people wear helmets. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Like CLOCC Work

Brighton Park, Checkerboard City, Green, Humboldt Park, Pilsen No Comments »
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Grant Vitale leads a walkability assessment in Pilsen. Photo courtesy of CLOCC.

“The built environment plays a huge role when it comes to people being able to be physically active,” says Grant Vitale, community programs manager for the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC). The group, based out of the Lurie Children’s Hospital, is an association of many local, statewide and national organizations working to help kids maintain healthy weight levels by encouraging better nutrition, as well as walking, biking and active play.

The rate of childhood obesity in the U.S. has more than tripled over the last three decades, and in 2008 Chicago’s obesity rate for young kids entering school was 22 percent, more than twice the national average. In some neighborhoods, mostly low-income African-American and Latino communities, over half of all children are overweight or obese. These areas tend to have less green space and higher pedestrian crash rates than wealthier neighborhoods, which discourages active transportation and recreation.

Over the last two years, CLOCC has partnered with the Chicago Department of Public Health on a $5.8 million, federally funded anti-obesity campaign called Healthy Places. The program has focused on creating safe streets and parks, as well as creating healthier schools, eliminating food deserts and promoting breast feeding. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Cosmetic Improvements

Checkerboard City 2 Comments »
Ash, dolled up for the Bike Winter fashion show / Photo: Steven Vance

Ash, dolled up for the Bike Winter fashion show/Photo: Steven Vance

By John Greenfield

Last week Dottie Brackett, co-author of the excellent Chicago cycle-chic blog LetsGoRideABike.com, put up a post that was completely unrelated to bicycling. While spending several days at home sick, too exhausted to even read books, let alone ride a bike, she found herself watching instructional beauty videos online for hours on end.I’m not that into makeup,” she wrote. “But listening to these women’s voices was oddly comforting and I felt like I was learning something while using very minimal mental energy.” She linked to videos by some of her favorite beauty experts, like Lisa Eldridge and Sali Hughes.

Dottie’s post jogged my memory about a makeup-centric article that I never got around to writing up, so here it is. Last year I got in a debate with my roommate Meagan, a non-cycling Texan who’s a bit of a Southern belle. She spends about an hour on her hair, makeup and grooming each day, and I was ribbing her about it. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Can Transportation Options Energize Englewood?

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Englewood, Green, Transit 1 Comment »
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Demond Drummer by Englewood’s Halsted/63rd Green Line Station/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Most Chicagoans associate Englewood with poverty and crime, but local advocates and activists see it as a neighborhood with untapped potential, with excellent access to public transportation being one of the keys to its future success. “From the beginning, Englewood was designed to be a transportation and retail hub, and that does not come up often enough in the conversation,” says Demond Drummer, a resident who works for the Teamwork Englewood community development organization.

Greater Englewood is a predominantly African-American area, roughly bounded by Garfield, Western, 79th and State. It includes two Green Line stations, three Red Line Stops, Metra’s Rock Island Main Line (although trains no longer stop here), and multiple bus routes. The New Era Trail proposal would turn a nearly two-mile, dormant rail corridor into an elevated greenway along 59th between Hoyne and Lowe. The city is also considering building bus rapid transit on Ashland, which would create yet another travel option. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Pedaling History

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Hyde Park, Museums No Comments »
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1839 McMillan bicycle, the first with pedals/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

The new exhibit “The Art of the Bicycle” at the Museum of Science and Industry does a fine job of tracing the evolution of the bike from the dandy horse, a primitive wooden contraption pushed along with one’s feet, to today’s high-tech steeds. While last year’s terrific “Bikes! The Green Revolution” show at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum celebrated cycling culture in general and the Chicago scene in particular, the MSI’s exhibit focuses on the history of the machines themselves. It features nine rarely seen historic bikes from the museum’s collection, newly restored for the show, plus a gaggle of modern rides.

“For 200 years people have continuously reinvented the bicycle,” reads the intro to the exhibit. “With each new decade new designs and technologies improved the popular machine, making riding safer, more reliable and more fun.” Amusement was probably one of the main motivations when German Baron Karl von Drais built the first verifiable dandy horse, a pedal-less, steerable, two-wheeled vehicle he dubbed the Laufmaschine (“running machine”) for cruising around his large garden. A 1931 replica of an 1818 Draisienne, as the French called it, is on display, and the clunky, green-and-gold vehicle looks like it would be a blast to scoot down the Lakefront Trail. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Raised (Bike Lane) Expectations

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
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Raised bike lane in Copenhagen/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

I’m a huge fan of the city’s efforts to get a total of 100 miles of protected bike lanes (which put a physical barrier between cyclists and moving traffic) and buffered bike lanes (conventional bike lanes with extra dead space striped on either side) by 2015. Protected lanes are crucial if we’re going to significantly boost Chicago’s bike mode share because they attract the so-called “interested but concerned” demographic, folks who would like to try urban cycling but are worried about getting hit by cars. The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) deserves major kudos for installing 11.4 miles of protected and 18.65 miles of buffered lanes in the last two years.

That said, there are some issues with Chicago-style protected lanes, created by moving the parking lane to the left of the bike lane, which is delineated by flexible plastic posts, so that the parked cars serve as the barrier. For example, this configuration makes it harder for right-turning drivers to see cyclists, which can result in the dreaded “right hook” crash. It’s common for motor vehicles, especially cabs and delivery trucks, to drive and park in protected lanes. And curbside asphalt tends to be in worse shape than the rest of the road and often has poor drainage, as demonstrated by the slush-filled puddles in the Dearborn Street protected lanes this winter.

European-style raised bicycle lanes, elevated a few inches above street level and sometimes located an inch or two below the sidewalk, could solve all of these problems. Also called grade-separated lanes, these facilities are the norm in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which each have more than seventeen times our bike mode share. Chicago’s Bike 2015 Plan, published in 2006, called for testing grade-separated lanes in two or three locations by 2010, but nothing ever came of this recommendation. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Picturing Safer Streets

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
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Better Blocks interns with a young workshop participant. Photo: Active Trans

By John Greenfield

Underserved neighborhoods are called that for a reason. They generally don’t receive their fair share of city services, and they tend to have less green space, worse conditions for walking and biking, and higher crash rates than wealthier areas, which can discourage residents from being physically active. Often part of the problem is that community members are unsure how to get help with issues like cracked sidewalks, broken streetlights and speeding traffic.

For three years the Active Transportation Alliance’s Better Blocks program has been working with folks in low-income neighborhoods to solve these problems. Staffers have led more than fifty workshops at community centers and block parties, brainstorming with adults and kids on ideas for making their block safer and more conducive to walking, biking and other forms of healthy recreation. Then Active Trans has helped the residents lobby the city government to make these infrastructure improvements a reality. Community liaison Cynthia Bell filled me in on the nuts and bolts of the program. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: When State Street Wasn’t “That Great Street”

Architecture, Checkerboard City, Chicago History, Green, Loop No Comments »
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State Street pedestrian mall in 1982/Photo: William C. Brubaker via UIC Digital Collections

By John Greenfield

When I was a bike messenger in the early nineties, the State Street pedestrian mall was the bane of my existence. In 1979 under Mayor Jane Byrne, the city closed the Loop’s main retail corridor to all forms of traffic except buses, taxis and delivery vehicles in an effort to bring back customers who had been drawn away to suburban shopping centers and the burgeoning Magnificent Mile. That meant I had to detour around State and access addresses along the strip via intersecting east-west streets.

Ultimately the pedestrian mall was judged a failure, and in 1996 under Mayor Richard M. Daley the wide sidewalks were jackhammered to make way for private automobiles again. That renovation, the $24.5 million State Street Revitalization Project, which included attractive Beaux Arts street lamps, ‘L’ entrances and other fixtures, is credited with turning the historically prosperous street back into a bustling retail district.

Laura Jones from the Chicago Loop Alliance provided background on the rationale behind creating the State Street mall. “When downtown started to empty out in the early seventies, business leaders from the Greater State Street Council went to the city with the idea of creating the pedestrian mall. They wanted to make State Street more like a suburban shopping mall, and also people were becoming more energy conscious, so they decided to try a transit mall.” Read the rest of this entry »

Growing Up: How The Plant is Making Futuristic Farming Today’s Reality

Back of the Yards, Green 1 Comment »

P1040823By David King

In 1915, a professor of geology at the University of Southern California by the name of Gilbert Ellis Bailey published a book that had the potential to revolutionize agriculture. In the sixty-nine-page treatise, Bailey outlined what he saw as a more efficient way to cultivate crops: use explosives to increase land mass vertically as opposed to horizontally. Inexpensive explosives, wrote Bailey, “enable the farmer to farm deeper, to go down to increase his acreage, and to secure larger crops, thereby offering more surface area.”

Bailey’s book bore the same name as his idea: “Vertical Farming.”

In the coming decades, a handful of people, from Buckminster Fuller in the 1930s to a Malaysian architect named Ken Yeang in the 1990s, took the idea in a decidedly modern direction. Why not, they believed, integrate plants into a literally vertical space—namely, buildings? Growing plants in open-air buildings, argued Yeang, would serve communal nutritional and climate control needs.

Also in the 1990s, Dickson Despommier, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University, went a step further. Not only would growing plants in buildings help feed a sharply increasing human population that won’t have enough arable land, he argued, weather would no longer pose a problem to growth; spoilage would become less of a concern, since food would be grown locally; empty lots and buildings would be put to good use; urban jobs would be created; and when abandoned, damaged ecosystems would have a chance to heal themselves.

Enter the man hoping to chart the next step in vertical farming—and he’s Chicago’s to claim. In a scruffy patch of the Back of the Yards neighborhood, forty-two-year-old John Edel is spearheading the creation of an industrial system that he hopes will not just grow plants in buildings, but also show the world that by using the waste of one food-production process as fuel for another, you can create a multipurpose manufacturing ecosystem—with zero emissions.

And it looks like he’ll do it, too. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: From Southern Africa to the South Side

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Hyde Park, Transit No Comments »
Dustin Gourdin / Photo: John Greenfield

Dustin Gourdin on 53rd Street in Hyde Park/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

“Parts of Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city, and the South Side of Chicago are actually eerily similar,” says Dustin Gourdin, a PhD student in the University of Chicago’s sociology department, over coffee at Hyde Park’s Valois Cafeteria. “You see a lot of the same issues, in terms of transportation challenges and youth opportunities. Hopefully we can figure out ways to make things better in both places.”

Since 2009 Gourdin, twenty-five, has made three research trips to Namibia, a nation of 2.1 million people just northwest of South Africa. He’s been studying the Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN) Namibia, a nonprofit that provides disadvantaged local people with efficient transportation and job opportunities, as well as other non-governmental organizations. Read the rest of this entry »