“Design is not just what it looks like…it’s how it works.”  ~ Steve Jobs

The village of Arlington Heights, not far from my hometown, has long exemplified a vibrant suburban Downtown and entertainment destination.  It was an early example of using “TOD” Transit Oriented Development, urban planning and design concepts,  to create local energy and economic growth.  If you look more closely, these points are simply illustrated here.

The elements for a successful suburban Downtown were covered at the recent annual walking tour sponsored by my DePaul-MDRN town organization Chaddick Institute;  and the picture captures the key aspects of:  1) quality design, 2) ongoing flexibility and 3) dedicated staffing. 

First, the view shown is a primary street which includes the Railway station and relatively tall buildings — but features site design adjustments and parkway landscaping.  Second, the nearby area was recently adapted as an Al Fresco dining district for expanded outdoor seating. (Also see Local Outdoor Dining) Third, the picture spotlights the hands-on involvement of a long term dedicated Arlington Heights  Community Planning Director (center).

Various practical examples on the MDRN Tour also highlighted these principles.  The reflected background buildings are tall – but were situated and thoughtfully designed – so they could economically and aesthetically allow for affordable housing units.  The Village is also actively engaged and creative in supporting popular uses like bars and restaurants which have added to the lively setting.

The picture also includes my colleague Prof. Joe Schwieterman (and me now standing idly by ;)) during a more serious moment discussing the balancing of economic development and quality design.  That is what MDRN (the Municipal Design Review Network) is all about!

Beyond the key appearance and amenity aspects noted above, the tour highlighted some more complicated  planning and zoning issues, including: A). building height, B) resulting “density” and C) public participation.

A. Height:  Arlington Heights was early to allow significantly taller buildings than most Chicago metropolitan area suburbs. This is the proverbial lightning-rod in many towns!  But staff pointed out that developers and designers recognize this as a local trade off.  So enhancements like quality building materials, architectural stepbacks, and design details (like decorative rooftop cornices) are routinely included in the design review process.

B. Density: Taller building height allows greater zoning “density.”  This is commonly thought of as more living units per area.  See https://www.planetizen.com/definition/density. And commercial real estate development can be very formulaic in this regard.  Most retail chains and popular amenities, e.g. drugstores, will require a minimum number of resident-customers within the nearby neighborhood.

C.  Participation:  The above considerations involve complicated calculations which require professional insights and thoughtful analysis.  Design professionals, municipal staff, and local residents can all provide complementary input IF effectively engaged.  That’s why community events like these are so important in bringing people together for constructive dialogue.

The initial Steve Jobs’ quote indeed applies to all types of Design – including “community design” – where there’s more than looks to make the vision work!