more on towns

In relation to Jim’s post on small towns, it’s interesting to look at Roger Scruton’s essay in the Spring issue of City Journal about the architect Léon Krier and his ideas on town planning. One of Krier’s core commitments is the “ten-minute rule,” according to which people should live no more than a ten-minute walk from work, recreation, worship, and so on. Interestingly, in light of Jim’s claim that towns are most fiscally efficient at a population of 10,000, Krier thinks that that’s close to the upper limit of optimal community size. When a town gets larger than that, Krier would like to see a new one being created nearby, with its own center, rather than encouraging suburban expansion. Krier put this idea into practice when he designed Poundbury, a new town on the outskirts of Dorchester in Dorset.

I wrote a post some months ago — not at the moment recoverable from our archives — about the varieties of suburbia, and I mentioned the fact that the place where I live, Wheaton, Illinois, is commonly and rightly called a suburb of Chicago, but also has its own integrity: a downtown area with shops, restaurants, and so on. (It’s a fifteen-minute walk from my house, which I think might be acceptable to Krier.) And this is true of many suburbs that surround the Big City; they offer the features of town life that Jim celebrates and Krier tries to implement, though they do so not as a result of wise planning but through historical accident: most of them came into being at around the same time that Chicago itself did, and developed independent identities long before the Urban Beast extended its four-lane tentacles and embraced them.

But these towns only partially realize Krier’s dream, because many of the people who live in them work in Chicago, usually taking the Metra train in. And almost all of the suburbs are too big, which means that only a portion of their residents get to benefit from the remains of the original small-town structure. Those four-lane tentacles are key here: I live just north (just townwards) of Roosevelt Road, otherwise known as Illinois Highway 38, which runs basically from the Chicago lakefront to the Mississippi River, and it makes a highly effective if informal boundary. Much of Wheaton lies south of Roosevelt Road, but people who live on that side don’t gravitate to the downtown area nearly as much as those of us who live on the north side of the road. People rarely think of walking into town who have to cross a frantically busy multi-lane road to get there; but for those of us who only have to walk tree-lined sidewalks, it’s a much more comfortable prospect. Nearly 60,000 people live in Wheaton, but for how many is it, functionally, a town rather than a suburb? About 10,000, I’d guess.