A Decade of Change: AAG Returns to Chicago

The AAG is pleased to be holding its next annual meeting April 21-25, 2015, in the world-class city of Chicago.  The AAG last met in Chicago in 2006, and in the newsletter issues leading up to the 2015 meeting, the Local Arrangements Committee (LAC — chaired by Professor Euan Hague, Chair of the Geography Department at DePaul University) will provide articles that highlight some of the more dramatic changes in Chicago since then. This first article provides an overview of some of the themes of change discussed by the LAC at its first Chicago meeting on May 24, 2015 — these themes will be presented in greater detail in coming issues.


The AAG 2015 conference hotel, Hyatt Regency, 151 East Wacker Drive, Chicago


Population Redistribution

The 2010 Census reported that the 16 county multi-state Chicago–Naperville–Michigan City, IL–IN–WI Combined Statistical Area (2004 definition) had a population of 9.68 million.  That means that the Chicago region grew by 4 percent between 2000 and 2010, which was considerably slower growth than the previous decade (1990 to 2000) when the same 16 county metropolitan area grew by 11.1 percent.  The population loss in Chicago proper (with the exception of its Downtown) and the inner suburbs was largely responsible for the growth slowdown, for instance between 2000 and 2010 Chicago lost over 200,000 residents.  Meanwhile, the outer suburbs helped offset these latter declines, for instance the 3 largest outer suburbs of Chicago (Aurora, Joliet, and Naperville) together added 109,616, a little over half the amount that the City of Chicago lost. This reflects a continued long term trend in the Chicago region of population decentralization from Chicago’s core to the edge, despite a slight pause in that trend in the 1990s when the City of Chicago actually gained population for the first time since the 1950 Census.  Meanwhile Downtown Chicago deserves special attention as its population saw a 114 percent increase from 1990 to 2010.  This population increase was paralleled by a residential housing boom that has included the conversion of former Downtown office spaces to residential units and new high-rise apartment buildings and condominiums have sprouted up in and around Downtown – a theme that was highlighted in a special map provided to AAG attendees at the 2006 AAG meeting.

The LAC is working on field trips that will showcase various aspects of Chicago’s recent population redistribution trends and an upcoming newsletter will go into greater detail on these population shifts.

A Greener Chicago

The 2006 AAG meeting publications highlighted Chicago’s efforts to expand upon its rich heritage of city parks and greenways and those efforts have continued.  The Openlands Project was founded in 1963 and since then it has helped secure, protect, and provide public access to more than 55,000 acres of land for parks, forest preserves, land and water greenway corridors, and urban gardens.  Participants of the AAG meeting will be able to link up with this vast network of greenways within walking distance of the conference hotel.  Just blocks away is Millennium Park which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary and special events continuing into 2015 will celebrate this magnificent park space by showing off its world-class art, music, architecture, and landscape design.  Another “green” milestone reached by Chicago’s is its commitment to bicycling as it has built over 200 miles of on-street bike lanes including one that weaves 1.2 miles through downtown within a buffer that separates it from cars.  Chicago also has a Divvy (divvybikes.com) bike sharing program with the largest number of stations of any city in the United States.


Corner of Monroe and Canal Street, Chicago, by author 24 May 2015.


The LAC is already working on field trips that will visit components of the greenway system of Chicago and an upcoming newsletter will go into greater detail on many other aspects of the greening of Chicago.

Chicago’s Food Systems

The Chicago region is the command and control center for U.S. industrial agriculture (center of the Corn Belt) yet it is also a leader in alternative agricultural systems including a very active local food movement that emphasizes organic and natural choices.  The Chicago food theme is one that the LAC is particularly interested in as several members are actively researching the issues, so upcoming newsletter stories will review the status of the region’s ties to traditional industrial agriculture as well as the growth in alternative systems.  As coincidence would have it when the LAC met on Memorial Day 2014 weekend a massive crowd of protestors assembled in the Loop to demonstrate against the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and to promote a call for locally grown organic alternatives.


GMO protest at Federal Plaza on Jackson Blvd and Clark Street, Chicago, by author 24 May 2015.


The LAC is working on field trips that will visit parts of the corn-belt within range of Chicago and it will also show case locally grown components of the new Chicago food system including retail configurations that attempt to turn food deserts into food oases.

Lake Michigan and other Regional Water Resources

Chicago sits adjacent to Lake Michigan and the growth of the metropolitan region’s population and spatial extent have caused concern among regional planners over the potential for future water supply shortages.  The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) is promoting a regional approach to sustainable water supply planning and management.  Chicago and many of its inner suburbs are already withdrawing Lake Michigan water to meet their needs and as the outer suburbs speculate about their own future shortages from dwindling local ground water supplies they are being warned that Lake Michigan water may not be available.  All of this may seem odd given the vast size of Lake Michigan, but international laws with Canada limit withdrawals.

The LAC is working on the development of a field trip to showcase these and other regional examples of innovations in water resources management.  Views of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan are a close walking distance from the conference hotel and just a little further, just a mile, is Navy Pier which puts you slightly above and out onto the Lake.


Chicago is a large centralized gateway to international trade and traffic for the United States.  Chicago continues to grapple with the growth in freight flows that often test the capacity of the region’s transportation infrastructure.


Photo taken from a freight yard in Southwest Chicago on 28 May 2005.


As in 2006, almost all of the container freight on these railcars is transferred to and from trucks which take up twice the road space of cars on the region’s highways.

On top of the container-freight issue, the Chicago region is grappling with a host of other transportation issues including the goal of expanding public transportation services.  The edge cities toured during the last AAG meeting have matured and exhibit both traditional and reverse commuting patterns.  The Loop is still the dominant job center of the region and the peak commuting flows reflect this, however, there is a growing gentrifying population that works in the suburbs but lives and consumes in the city, which only adds more complexity to the pattern.  New retail configurations in the suburbs like Lifestyle Centers are adding to non-work related trips and suburban gridlock is common place on the weekends.  The Local Arrangements committee is working on field trips that will show-case some of the problems identified here as well as some of the existing plans that are in place to alleviate the problems.  The conference hotel is also directly accessible to public transportation, particularly the “L”, and extensive bicycle paths are within walking distance toward the Lake.

Race, Immigration, and Ethnicity

The LAC will write a newsletter piece prior to the meeting that articulates some of the changing dynamics and patterns of Chicago’s racial and ethnic diversity since the last meeting in 2006.  Topics to be covered will include the degree to which multiethnic neighborhoods have expanded or contracted or whether classic patterns of segregation have reemerged.  The piece will examine the tension that gentrification has posed to the stability of some of the city’s more stable ethnic enclaves.  The geographic dimensions of the growth in Chicago’s China Town will be described.

The Local Arrangements Committee already has plans to visit the Pilson neighborhood, a Latino neighborhood that has seen continued pressure from gentrification since the last meeting in 2006.

So as you plan your trip to Chicago, save time to explore these and many other aspects of change that Chicago has experienced since 2006.  Bring your walking shoes and depending on the weather you may even consider renting a bicycle to tour on the greenways of Chicago accessed in front of the conference hotel.  Venture into some of Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods for unique dining experiences.  Or possibly even plan a journey from Downtown to the Edgeless exurbs of Chicago.