By John Rice
I knew nothing about urban planning, so I took a crash course by interviewing Bridget Lane. She has a degree in urban planning from the University of Illinois and a master's degree in business administration from Harvard Business School. I found her views on Forest Park to be eye-opening and inspiring.
For example, I thought our hodge-podge of housing — apartment buildings next to houses — was a liability, but Bridget sees it as an asset. She explained that Forest Park is a "pre-zoning" community, as zoning didn't come into practice until the '20s. That is when many communities introduced Euclidean Zoning, separating properties for specific use: residential, commercial and industrial.
The problem is that the separation leads to suburban sprawl. It's simply too far to walk from one sector to another, so residents are forced to drive. Forest Park, by contrast, is eminently walkable. Residents can easily stroll to shops, restaurants and bars. Many can walk to their jobs, or public transportation.
"We are what every planning book advocates," Bridget said. She loaned me a cutting-edge planning book to study. Sustainable Nation by Douglas Farr calls for communities to create "third places," where people can gather between home and work. These places should be within walking distance and provide an environment that inspires conversation.
Forest Park is filled with third places. We have coffee shops, bars and other businesses that inspire conversation. The beauty of having all these gathering spots is that it provides more opportunity for chance meetings. I've often praised Forest Park for its serendipity. The way we run into people we know, or wanted to see.
We also want a community that is ethnically and economically diverse. Bridget sees her block as a perfect microcosm. It has a mix of different housing values and income levels. It has a wide range of ages, from kids to seniors. Bridget prizes this kind of variety and would never want to be segregated in a 55-and-over community.
Bridget sees Forest Park as being a "human-scale" community. Our medium- to low-rise structures help us keep this crucial scale. If we allow 20-story buildings, we will lose this asset. Sustainable Nation said that the "sweet spot" for new developments is 4-8 stories in height.
High-rises also increase population density. Forest Park is already dense enough. Data shows there are over 11,000 people living within a half mile of Madison & Circle, while Oak Park has about 10,000 people living near Oak Park & Lake. Bridget sees our biggest challenge as keeping our human scale, without losing density.
As for our actual population, Forest Park is relatively small. Bridget believes we lack the population to be the sole supporters of our local businesses. Many of them rely on visitors from other communities to remain viable. This also applies to our Roos Recreational Center and other park district facilities that attract visitors from neighboring communities.
She was first attracted to Forest Park, while studying the Madison Street reconstruction in school. She and her husband, Tom, moved here seven years ago. She fears that Forest Park will lose its feel if we imitate other towns.
We don't have pricey parking like many communities. No meters on Madison helps our brick-and-mortar retailers. Bridget believes these businesses should provide services along with products. Many Forest Park businesses follow this model.
Bridget believes we live in one of the hottest residential neighborhoods and we shouldn't trash what we have. Sustainable Nation says it in a different way: "Healthy neighborhoods invest in themselves. They get check-ups, self-improve, track their progress and, of course, dream."
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com