By Sandra Svoboda/Bridge Magazine contributor
When Dawn Barry and her husband, Mark, decided to sell their townhouse and buy a house eight years ago, they had a few criteria common to couples in their early 30s.
It had to be affordable on their teacher salaries, located in a safe neighborhood with good schools for the children they planned to have and allow reasonable commuting in terms of time, distance and the aggravation that comes with congestion.
But the Barrys also did not want to leave Lake County, the region on the northern edge of Chicagoland and just south of the Wisconsin border along Lake Michigan. They had lived in the area for three years and liked its rural-to-suburban transformation and lower cost of living than is found in inner-ring suburbs closer to Chicago.
They found a house and settled in Grayslake, one of the several municipalities in Lake County that saw huge growth in the last decade as formerly farmland was rezoned, redeveloped and redesigned. Grayslake, which jumped from 7,400 people in 1990 to nearly 21,000 in 2010, has a train station on the commuter line, a centralized downtown with municipal offices, restaurants and a few bars, and parks and connections to all of those destinations traversable by biking and walking.
“And being halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee is a good thing,” says Barry, a high school biology teacher who grew up in the suburbs west of Chicago. “We have both airports to fly out of or for people flying in. … We go to downtown Milwaukee as often as Chicago, and the open land that we have in Lake County is such a nice thing.”
The Barrys represent in microcosm a demographic trend called “amenity-driven” growth, or the idea that people will seek places to live and work based on what an area offers in scenery, warm — or at least moderate — climates, and access to desirable outdoor and cultural features for recreation.
Generally applied to the Sun Belt, the amenity-driven growth concept is now being seen elsewhere, such as in Lake County and southeastern Wisconsin, says Mark Partridge, a professor in Ohio State University’s Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics and one of the pioneers of the theory.
“If people have reasonable economic opportunity, they feel comfortable. They’re going to want to live in nice places,” he explained. “When I say, `nice places,’ it’s really broad. I’m talking about living near lakes, the Great Lakes, nice landscapes, pleasant forest landscapes interspersed with agricultural land. … The natural environment and, of course, people have other kinds of the things they think are nice, such as access to urban amenities and access to transportation.”
Positive growth in theses areas is best realized, Partridge says, with a more regional approach to development. “Cooperating and thinking more of how the regions thrives, both the rural and urban part of the region,” is what policy-makers should consider, he said. “The mind-set is generally that we have cities, we have rural areas and they tend to fight with one another, instead of recognizing that they’re linked.”
East across Lake Michigan from Lake County, Partridge points to western and northern sections of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula as having potential for amenity-driven growth. He noted, however, that Michigan communities generally do not have the same access to mass transit or immediate access to larger cities such as Chicago (population 2.86 million) and Milwaukee (population 595,000).
Mary Beth Graebert, associate director for programs and operations at Michigan State University’s Land Policy Institute, says Michigan’s circumstances have affected its progress down the path to amenity-driven growth.
“There are many reasons for it. We have a very auto-oriented state, so a lot of people have cars and they’re willing to drive into the city for jobs and look for homes outside of the city,” Graebert says. “Other reasons for that migration are the cost of land is relatively low, tax rates seem to be a little lower outside of the city and there were some concerns about urban schools and their quality.”
With the state’s relatively good network of highways and interstates, commuting longer distances is easier than in other urban areas if people are looking for rurally based amenities.
But what Michigan residents consider to be amenities is changing and becoming more urban, Graebert says. For example, people are seeking walkable neighborhoods or at least communities with better connections and options for non-motorized routes between them. “It’s partly due to gas prices and partly a cultural shift. They want to be able to walk their kids to school, to walk to the restaurant down the street. They want things in their communities to be a bit more connected,” Graebert says.
But Partridge cautions that some coastal Michigan cities — Detroit in particular — would have to address its industrial legacy to create more waterfront amenities, he noted.
Much of the infrastructure of America’s industrial era was located along waterways, so cleanups and redevelopment pose a special challenge before housing or new job sites could be created. “We need to put in policies that protect the assets,” Partridge says. “We can use regulatory and tax policy.”
Partridge suggests “reasonable environmental regulations” to protect places and clean up sites and a “small use of tax incentives” that would benefit both households and businesses. “Economists don’t like particular incentives for particular businesses,” Partridge says. “Instead of incentives, there should be investment in a good infrastructure, greenways, making the environment a nice place so people will want to be near it. Businesses will see that and they’ll want to locate there.”
Rhett Taylor, the mayor of Grayslake, Ill., says local governments have worked hard to do just that. For two decades, Grayslake has been rebuilding its municipal water system, keeping rates low, for example. And Taylor points out that Lake County, in general, has lower sales and gasoline taxes than Cook County, making Lake a more hospitable place in the eyes of any new residents.
Grayslake also planned housing developments of subdivisions that are connected by bike paths, left some agricultural land untouched, except for bike and walking trails, and promoted some transit-oriented development around the town’s train station.
The formerly sleepy small town now attracts mostly families who want a little more “breathing room” than more urban neighborhoods provide, Taylor said, but still with a downtown center.
Traffic on the county’s roads remains a problem, he said, as they have not kept pace with the population growth and mass transit isn’t able to handle the increase in the area’s commuters.
Still, Grayslake has managed to retain the feel of a smaller town in its walkable commercial district and housing located not too far from places of work, Taylor says. “People say they wanted to get away from the congested feeling of the inner suburbs,” Taylor said. “They get that here.”
Sandra Svoboda is a Grosse Pointe Park-based freelance journalist and formerly a staff writer at the Metro Times in Detroit and The (Toledo) Blade. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and history from Indiana Universityand a master’s degree in public administration from Wayne State University.