The Metropolis and the Regions of Chicago

A working paper from Governors State University and the South Metropolitan Regional Leadership Center

April, 1997



A series of initiatives and conversations have emerged in relation to regionalism and to regional development and action throughout the Chicago metropolitan area. In the past 18 months we have seen the work of the MacArthur Foundation with its support for “Regional Conversations,” including the Orfield reports on “Mapping the Future,” along with regional initiatives supported by the Chicago Community Trust and other foundations and organizations in the Chicago metropolitan area. Much of this work is now reflected in a variety of new programs across the metropolis, including the regional initiatives at Governors State University.

In June, 1995, the Metropolitan Planning Council published their report on “Creating a Regional Community: The Case for Regional Cooperation.” The Commercial Club has initiated a "Metropolis Project." The Center for Neighborhood Technology, the Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations, and others support regional alternatives. The Chaddick Institute at DePaul University issued in January, 1997, a paper entitled, “Towards a Regional Plan of Chicago: Shaping a Burnham 2000 Initiative.

Six county regional organizations such as CATS, NIPC, and the RTA continue their planning for the future, particularly with CATS' and NIPC's Year 2020 planning processes. Various transportation corridor alliances have emerged, crossing county and municipal boundaries. Across the metropolis we see the regional efforts of organizations of suburban mayors, the Northwest 2001 project, the RAP/2000+ and South Metropolitan Regional Leadership Center at GSU, and the Northwest Indiana Forum.

These initiatives are receiving significant attention from the metropolitan media. In the Sun- Times, Dennis Byrne has written on “How to build a region” (January, 1997) and our essay viewing the Chicago area as “a metropolis with interdependent regions” appeared in late March, 1996. In the Chicago Tribune, Bryon White advocated overcoming regional differences (Dec. 22, 1996), and Laura Washington wrote of the need to adopt regionalism (Feb. 17, 1997). Editorials and other articles in these papers and in the regional media have explored various ideas and options for regional cooperation.

All of these efforts are contributing to a new sense of regionalism. However, almost all of these have focused on the traditional view of Chicago and the six counties of northeastern Illinois as somehow the limits of the metropolis. We are now convinced that it is critical to move beyond the six county discussion.

This essential issue was raised in an editorial in Crain’s Chicago Business in November, 1995. In discussing a “Burnham Plan sequel,” the authors pointed to an essential element in the Burnham Plan of 1909. According to the Crain’s article, not only did the Burnham Plan seek a re- fashioning of the City of Chicago, but “it also envisioned city, suburb and farm as a single socio- economic engine. The Chicago in Burnham’s drawings did not stop at Howard Street, Harlem Avenue or 130th Street; it stretched 60 miles from the Loop north to Kenosha, Wis., west to DeKalb and east to La Porte, Ind.”

This view is also reflected in the DePaul University paper which suggests that the first planning principle for a new regional plan is to “Focus on Regionalism” and “take Burnham’s broad geographical vision to heart . . .”

It is this metropolis, stretching across 16 counties in three states, for which we need to plan and act. We must now grapple with the metropolis in new and fresh ways that recognize the new shape of the metropolis since also every public concern crosses municipal and other geographic boundaries. Global needs demand a new “intellectual construct” to enable us to envision and act as a metropolitan whole.

It makes sense to see that we are already, in many ways, functioning as regions within a metropolis, and that to further understand, explore, and support a multi-region or multi-sectored metropolis will lead to a variety of innovations in regard to the complex issues facing our shared urban environment. Seeing the intensity of regions will also enable us to see the intensity of the whole of the metropolis.

As a result of our work in the South Metropolitan Region, with a wide range of organizations and individuals in the RAP/2000+ process, the Regional Leadership Center, and our computer-based regional networking, we see a series of practical steps that can lead to stronger regions within the metropolis. There is before us a long term process, but we believe there are practical models for developing regional coalitions, forms of collaborative action, and regional identities.

This approach toward an inclusive vision of the metropolis coheres with the ideas of urban regionalism advocated across the country. Henry Cisneros has written of “Regionalism: the New Geography for Opportunity.” Anthony Downs, David Rusk, Joel Garreau, and others are seeking to describe and influence the new patterns of metropolitan interconnectedness. Neil Pierce advocates an understanding of American “citistates,” seeking to define our metropolitan areas in ways that are inclusive and seen in the context of global competition.

In terms of our direct practical experience in the south metropolitan region with the evolution of the LincolnNet as a regional information and communications network, it is exciting for us to see discussions in the Spring-Summer, 1996, issue of the National Civic Review, in which Pierce and others are looking seriously at the role for information technologies in shaping and defining metropolitan areas and their regions.

To continue the dialogue and to consider the possibilities for significant action and a sustainable future across the complex metropolitan area that includes the City of Chicago, we believe that there are several essential elements that need to be clarified for further research and policy development. The metropolis should be seen as growing within 16 counties across three states and it should be defined as multi-sectored with six identifiable regions. There are now and there can be a great variety of cooperative networks, alliances, and coalitions for action within these six regions. Now and for the future, the metropolis and its regions can be well served by the new information technologies and we can see ourselves collectively as an economically competitive global city.


A fundamental dilemma emerges every time discussion focuses on the “problems” and needs of Chicago and its metro area. Almost invariably, the focus is on “Chicago versus the suburbs,” Chicago (or Cook County) and the collar counties,” or “northeastern Illinois.” None of these is an adequate or totally helpful description of the actual urban environment within which we live and work.

Whether we reflect on a satellite view of our metropolis at night, with its band of light wrapped around the southwestern edge of Lake Michigan, or develop visual representations of journeys to and from work for people throughout the metropolis, we find a complex fabric of interaction and various nodes of activity and patterns of movement. The City of Chicago is integral to all this, but it is no longer the only focus; and, in fact, a remarkable amount of both employment and residential activity has developed outside the City itself in the past twenty years. (We all now use in various ways the symbol of sprawling growth identified by NIPC: that from 1970 to 1990, population grew by 4.1% and land use grew by 46%!) As noted in a report to the Commercial Club, in considering just the six county NIPC area -- in 1970, Chicago had 48% of the population and 60% of the jobs, and in 1990, Chicago dropped to 38% of the population and only 37% of the jobs.

We live and work in a metro area of over nine million people with slightly less than three million in the City of Chicago. For over 150 years, the metropolis was defined as Chicago plus its environs; now we need to see the full urban environment that includes Chicago. A “Chicago plus” vision continually hampers us from seeing the larger, more complex realities. It may be politically easy to pit Chicago against the suburbs, and it may be statistically expedient to chop off the metropolis at the Indiana border, but these approaches are no longer helpful.

From a global perspective, Chicago is known -- our metropolis is recognized. Yet what we see as significant differences in terms of municipalities, counties, and even states will become increasingly insignificant as we compete in the global economy. Our competitors for economic growth will be metro areas like St. Louis, Houston, Tokyo or Beijing, rather than one another’s industrial parks within our own urban area.

If we have the demonstrated capacity to cooperate on public policy, provide research and economic data, and maintain networks for communications and transportation on metropolitan and regional levels, we will be well positioned for the next century.

Therefore, we propose the following as we further explore the problems, needs, and possibilities for a sustainable future for us all.

  1. That the metropolis be defined as growing within 16 counties encompassing southeast Wisconsin, northeast Illinois, and northwest Indiana.

    This area includes:

    In Illinois:Cook, Will, Kankakee, Grundy, Kendall, DuPage, Kane, De Kalb, McHenry, and Lake Counties
    In Indiana:Lake, Porter, and La Porte Counties
    In Wisconsin:Kenosha, Racine, and Walworth Counties

    In 1909, Daniel Burnham saw this tri-state area as the context for planning the City of Chicago. Attached are two views from the published Plan for the City of Chicago (1909). One is an artist’s rendering of the context for the metropolis gathered around the southwest edge of Lake Michigan (Map 1). The second is Burnham’s suggestion for the highway network to serve the metropolitan area (Map 2). Note that it reaches from Kenosha to De Kalb, and from Kankakee to La Porte.

    This regional construct is specifically reflected and refined in the 1956 publication of Planning the Region of Chicago (Burnham, Jr. and Kingery) published by the Chicago Regional Planning Association. They define the region as “a fifty mile belt surrounding the present City of Chicago. In this metropolitan region of 7,813 square miles, or roughly 5,000,000 acres, are fifteen counties . . .” The base maps accompanying this essay are derived from that 1956 report. Map 3 is their basic map, identifying the fifteen counties and the metropolitan spread.

    In the 1990 U. S. Census, the Chicago-Gary-Kenosha Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSA) also crossed the tri-state area and added De Kalb County in Illinois. In Wisconsin it includes Kenosha County, and in Indiana, both Lake and Porter Counties are included. In Map 4, we have added De Kalb to the 1956 map of fifteen counties to provide an image of what we see as the necessary metropolitan framework for the metropolis with its regions. The decision of the Census Bureau to add in DeKalb County is reinforced by a variety of northwest regional interactions and interconnections, some of which are symbolized by the engagement of Northern Illinois University at the Sears headquarters and in related regional activities. Map 5 indicates the urbanized area based on estimates for 1997. Map 6 marks the Chicago-Gary, Kenosha CMSA.

    1992 summary statistics from the US Census:

    Illinois --ten counties7,659,636
    Indiana --three counties725,668
    Wisconsin --three counties391,049

    Although we are suggesting with this that the metropolis needs a far larger vision, we also recognize that there are limits on most commuting patterns, various land based economic activities, and human perceptions as to what is the “Chicago area.” The proposed 16 county context for understanding the metropolis may serve us well not only as the new inclusive context, but also as a means of establishing clearly defined new boundaries for such work. However, given that assertion, an additional set of questions can be raised about the actual relationships and patterns of activity that connect our metropolis with the four counties of the Milwaukee-Racine CMSA to the north and the three county Rockford CMSA to the northwest.

  2. That the metropolis be defined as multi-sectored and multi-centered in six identifiable regions, each of which includes existing regional networks, alliances, and coalitions.

    An analysis of the metro area and its various regions will reveal that a significant amount of activity is already organized around these understandings. Patterns of business activity and private sector associations regularly cross county and state boundaries in establishing and responding to market areas. (Consider, for example, how real estate interests, telephone systems, and metropolitan newspaper advertising are organized).

    Historically, a set of public institutions have been formed across the traditional six county view of northeastern Illinois: NIPC, CATS, RTA, etc. However, from a practical and action driven perspective, there are emerging metropolitan policies and activities from federal and state and local sources that function at the level of the metropolis and at the level of these regions within the metropolis. (Consider, for example, the service areas identified for the Illinois Department of Aging, the Illinois State Board of Education or consortia for higher education.)

    Within the various regions of the metro area there are a wide array of regional organizations that reflect years of building cooperative alliances, coalitions and networks. These are very often overlooked when evaluating the connectedness of the metropolitan area. These include councils of local governments and mayors’ associations, human services alliances, transportation corridor planning groups, and other public entities that often cross county boundaries.

    This view of regional cohesion is reinforced by our experiences in the south metropolitan region, where it is clear that there a wide range of regional level activities, decision-making processes, and collaborations that both reflect and reinforce the sense of the region. Parallel to this, we see the emergence of six identifiable regions in the Chicago metropolis. Certainly there need to be creative conversations about the identifications and definitions of each region, but we present the following as an initial way to look at this as a multi-sectored metropolis.

    We see the following as the six regions of the metropolis (see Maps 7 and 8). Using 1990 U.S. Census county and township summary data, we have provided totals for a sense of the comparative sizes of the regions. 1997 estimates push the total for the metropolis above 9,000,000.

    City of Chicago --
    (The Central Metro Region)
    Northwest Indiana --
    (The Southeast Metro Region: Lake, Porter, and La Porte Counties)
    The South Metro Region --
    (southern Cook, Will, Grundy,and Kankakee Counties)
    The West Metro Region --
    (west Cook, Du Page, Kendall, south Kane and south DeKalb Counties)
    The Northwest Metro Region --
    (northwest Cook, north Kane, north DeKalb and McHenry Co.)
    The North Metro Region --
    (north Cook and Lake Counties, 1,095,000 and southeast Wisc., 378,000)
    1990 total

    These summary statistics and the county and township boundaries used are helpful in comparing regions, However, it is important to recognize that in terms of patterns of collaboration for action and forming public policy the “shape” and boundaries of a region may overlap with other regions. It is also crucial to see that appropriate sectors of the City of Chicago fit into the identification of the other regions.

    We are not proposing unified or metro levels of government, nor are we proposing yet another “let’s start from the beginning” planning process. Rather, we advocate the recognition of the complex patterns of regional and community activity already underway in each region and, with that recognition, a major commitment to building new forms of both metropolitan and regional levels of collaboration and common action.

  3. That new information technologies provide the tools for interactivity, analysis and decision making within regions and across the metropolis.

    Although we each live within a region of the metropolis, it is difficult to envision and discuss this without a “language” of regionalism. We end up talking about Chicago, or about a particular community in which we live. Yet the reality is that for most of the six million people outside of Chicago, and for many who reside within Chicago, the places where we live, work, shop, participate in social or religious activities, send our children to school, etc., represent a large cluster of communities -- our lives are spread across a region, not isolated in one town or neighborhood. In addition, although each of us may have our lifestyles and activities isolated to one region, there is a recognition that, of course, this is all part of the metropolitan area.

    It is now possible, and relatively easy, to identify and talk about those regions of activity because of the new information technologies. If need be, we can quickly identify, display, evaluate, and describe regions in the metropolis in ways that make sense to people. Using the technologies to develop a language and a sense of regionalism, both at the metro level and at the regional (subregional) level, could be an extremely helpful process, not only to talk about regions, but for regions to “talk” with each other. Among other things, this could help to break the over- simplification of “Chicago versus the Suburbs,” or “my community” as opposed to “your community” or “all other communities.”

    With the development of the LincolnNet in the south metro region, the Northstar Net in the northern suburbs, the variety of community networking sources in Chicago, and other emerging information technology activities, we can develop a practical picture of the metropolis and its regions. More explicitly than the others, the LincolnNet is deliberately building a regional framework for information and communications for the South Metro Region. The LincolnNet assists in focusing on and providing the context for regional action. The very existence of the framework and the ways it is being used serve both to support and advocate regional cooperation and common action. (See the LincolnNet at

Along with orienting the metropolitan discussion in these ways, we see three cross-cutting issues throughout that are crucial to the whole endeavor:

We must clarify the statistics of the metropolis -- it would be helpful to develop some hierarchies of understanding and therefore communication about the metropolis. Such hierarchies would begin with this inclusive definition of the metropolis based on the counties that would allow for the easy use of data as it is currently generated. Within this wide definition, we are proposing the development of statistics and descriptions that are unique to the six regions of the metro area. Of course, this would be based on the data readily available and generated by counties, municipalities, special districts, etc.

We can be far more sophisticated in how we interpret the needs, strengths, and interrelationships at the metropolitan, regional, and community/neighborhood levels. This could be useful in a variety of decision-making contexts for commerce and public planning and development. In addition, this would assist in evaluating local community needs. All too often, communities and neighborhoods in the metro area are compared with little regard to their population size and other characteristics.

We must acknowledge the "American dilemma" of race -- much of our growth, the dynamics of settlement and the location of work places, have been shaped by issues of race, and by racial interpretations of economic differences. Although many tools have been developed to measure and counter the effects of racial attitudes and actions, the issues of race will persevere in this metro area for the foreseeable future. Parallel and interwoven with this are the dynamics of class differences and their impact on housing development, transportation needs, etc. Our metropolitan and regional collaborations and actions might be well served by the development of some significant forms of evaluation and reporting on the racial and class impacts in regard to significant plans or action. Such reporting might be akin to the current practices with environmental impact statements.

We must recognize the necessity of "overlapping or 'fuzzy' boundaries" -- Significant areas of mutual interest exist, and are reflected in existing organizations in all the regions. Also, new areas of mutual interest can be identified and pursued, and the nature of coalitions and alliances can be far reaching. They often bring together unlikely partners or foster collaboration that reaches across regular boundaries.

It is important that regions are seen as overlapping. The northwest sectors of the City of Chicago are integral to the northwest region and should be included in the conceptualizing of the Northwest Metro Region. In a similar way, the southern areas of Chicago are part of the South Metro Region. The complex Lake Calumet area is tied to northwest Indiana and to the South Metro Region.

In the past, most planning and development activities grew with clear lines clearly drawn -- e.g., “this is a county economic plan (with little or no consideration of other plans).” However, with information technologies and the dynamics of collaboration and cooperation, there is no compelling reason to always be limited by precise boundaries dictated by municipal, county, or state lines. In this common work, to affirm that overlapping of boundaries is inevitable and manageable, we suggest that a notion of "fuzzy boundaries" can be useful.


As metropolitan discussions continue, we are advocating that this metropolis be seen as growing within 16 counties across three states, and that it be defined as multi-sectored and multi-centered in six identifiable regions, each with its own regional networks, alliances, and coalitions. This is essential for supporting collaboration that builds a sustainable future and global competitiveness. This is practical because we now have new information technologies that provide the needed regional and metropolitan tools for interactivity, analysis, and decision making. This is possible with a public commitment across the metropolis.

South Metropolitan Regional Leadership Center Governors State University
University Park, Illinois 60466 708.534.4487 FAX: 708.534.1165