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Appropriating three to eight changes to the current Chicago Zoning would gain numerous benefits.
Omitting side yards, removing rear porch stairs, and raising basement levels would significantly transform
Chicago at no cost to anybody. Most importantly, affordable homes would be feasible and every
new home would have a back garden.

Chicago's lots

Chicago is made up of hundreds of thousands mostly identical sized lots.
They are 25' x 125' facing either exactly North-South or exactly East-West.

We see these Chicago standard lots as powerful agents for change. Our urban plan focuses on optimal placements of buildings on these ubiquitous lots.

Placing buildings correctly on their sites is the most effective and cheapest way to construct a sustainable city.

The City of Chicago owns 15,000 empty lots, which the City is prepared to sell to developers to build affordable housing.


1 - Chicago grid

2 - lot orientations in Chicago

3 - sun angle on north-south lots

4 - sun angle on east-west lots

5 - importance of building configuration

scroll cursor over titles to see images

Zoka Zola, Plan for 21st century Chicago, grid of Chicago

Chicago is a gridded city

Chicago city and region

Families are moving to the suburbs in search of better schools and back yards for their children.

Our current needs from the city are diversity, versatility, and also the comfort, safety, and contact with nature that many Chicagoans are familiar with having grown up in the suburbs.


1 - Chicago city and region

2 - urban density

3 - Chicago's areas to develop

4 - open spaces

5 - current back yards


Zoka Zola, Plan for 21st century Chicago, Chicago urban sprawl

Chicago city and region
These maps show the prediction of land cover in 2030 if the current trend continues, and the land use as in 1997, which should be sustained to prevent urban sprawl, to reduce pollution and to reduce commuting time. Source: Chicago Metropolis 2020


Zoning Recommendations
We met leaders from the City of Chicago in Feb 2006 to discuss this urban proposal.

These recommendations require a change of wording in the existing Zoning Ordinance and Chicago Building Code.

PDF of all 5 recommended changes

link to zoning matrix
zoning recommendataions when
applied to all residential districts


0 - current building

1 - omit side yard requirement
2 - no rear porches

3 - require 45' deep rear yard with tree in it

4 - reduce front yard requirements to 10'

5 - allow green houses on top of garages


Zoka Zola, Plan for 21st century Chicago, zoning changes recommendations

Basement Recommendations
We recommend the required basement depth to be raised up 1'-6" from the current min. of 4' to a proposed min. of 2'-6" below grade.

The windows will have 3' parapets, and therefore the space in the basement will be pleasant.

We recommend allowing these shallower basements as separate residential units.

The bottom of the footings will match Chicago's frost line and therefore minimize unnecessary excavation.

We recommend regulating the building height not, as currently, to regulate density, but to ensure sunlight and wind on each roof for the potential installation of solar panels and wind turbines.

The height of the building could also be regulated to give the facades satisfying proportions of 5:7, 5:8, and 1:2.
(RS1, RS2, RS3 = 35' to top of parapet,
RT3.5, RT4 = 45' to top of parapet,
RT4.5, RT5 = 50' to top of parapet)

  6 - define basement as 2'-6 below grade

7 - allow basement to be a separate
----residential unit

8 - regulate the building height

- to ensure insolation and proportion

Zoka Zola, Plan for 21st century Chicago, zoning changes recommendations, basements

define basement as 2'-6" below grade


Benefits of Zoning Changes
The current zoning reinforces the use of narrow buildings and narrow side yards as built throughout the 20th century in Chicago. These side yards are poor spaces, but if their area is given to the open space of the back yard, the back yard would be bigger and many benefits would follow.

Chicago's buildings are narrow and as a result have very similar layouts.This is particularly true for currently new constructed residential buildings. Many Chicagoans resent this uniformity.
With wider buildings of 25’ we can have a tremendous variety of building configurations.

The courtyard buildings may become Chicago’s 21st Century home type. People in the future may value these buildings for the quality of their courtyards.


1 - less heat loss

2 - better garden and air

3 - better light

4 - better views

5 - reduced theft crime

6 - less condensation damage

7 - energy savings in summer and winter

8 - better fire safety

9 - twice as many trees

10 - easier rat control

11 - versatility

-----A - east west lots

B - north-south lots

-----C - north-south lots


Zoka Zola, Plan for 21st century Chicago, benefits

less heat loss

Benefits of Basement Changes
are reduced costs to build affordable housing

By allowing an increase from 3 to 4 units per building and allowing 3 parking spots for 4 units, the City of Chicago would save $59,000 per lot, a total of $885,000,000, which could be used for more affordable units or improvements of schools.

How might we construct it?
link to detailed sections

12 - feasible affordable units

- current zoning
---- three market rate units

- current zoning
---- two market rate units +
---- one affordable unit

- proposed zoning
---- two market rate units +
---- one affordable unit

- comparison


current zoning, 3 market rate units - exhibit a

What it might look like?

These spacial situations illustrated here are improvements to current situations.

What it looks like now
side yard, affordable housing,
back yards and basements


1 - basement, back yard, and green house

2 - market rate single family home
----with courtyard

3 - condominium with private courtyrad

4 - affordable condominium

5 - affordable single family home

6 - street with mix of historical and
----new buildings


Zoka Zola, Plan for 21st century Chicago, vision for different housing types, single family home, affordable condominium, courtyard house

basement, back yard, and green house

Summary of Plan for
21st Century Chicago

Burnham created the Plan of Chicago in 1909 for the needs of the time and the foreseeable future. Burnham was designing Chicago for the massive growth of the city. He wrote: “Men are becoming convinced that formless growth of the city is neither economical nor satisfactory”. Burnham saw many needs to make Chicago prosperous for all. He believed such a city attracts “the sincere and unselfish” and further explained that such a city “impels to reach height not believed possible of attainment. The spirit still exists. It is present today among us. The spirit — the spirit of Chicago — is our greatest asset”.

Burnham's encouragement, much more than Burnham’s plans for Chicago, guided its development into a gorgeous city. His words “make no small plans” are a daily maxim to Chicagoans and are inherent in their mental makeup.

Since the Burnham Plan, the availability of the car allowed people to discover a newfound life in the suburbs and enjoy clean air and safety of their back yard. Chicago like most American cities was depopulated, leaving tens of thousands of vacant properties behind. The abandoned homes were eventually demolished.

Now the City of Chicago owns 15,000 lots, and at least as many vacant lots are privately owned.

At this point in history, Chicagoans are re-discovering the versatility and diversity of the city. That is what we share with Burnham’s time. Now that we are re-building Chicago, we need Burnham’s trust that “Men are becoming convinced that formless growth of the city is neither economical nor satisfactory”. We need that rigor to continue constructing our city. We must understand these momentous growths as infrequent opportunities, rather than a never-ending funfair. Building a city is no light affair. We have to build it for our needs now and for needs we foresee in the future.

Our current needs from the city are diversity, versatility, and also the comfort, safety, and contact with nature that many Chicagoans are familiar with having grown up in the suburbs.

When we think about our foreseeable future at the dawn of the 21st century, we fear that we might loose the battle for our wellbeing and the wellbeing of nature in the world.


This is a new condition that humanity never faced before and will mark history of the 21st century. Even if we find a way to stop polluting and to clean up the Earth, we must find solutions on how to live on our planet when there will be many more of us, and when there will be less space for us and for nature. How can a city respond to these needs and what is its role in the world it serves?

As Phylis Lambert recently said, ”We can name 10 wonderful buildings and five wonderful architects, but look at how much else gets built”. Chicago’s production of housing units and single-family homes lack variety. Citizens are understood as market only, and the building of the city is understood as a mere construction of saleable or rentable spaces.

Are we Chicagoans prepared for this rapid growth? Do we have a coherent plan, and an agreed, developed, and shared vision of how to build our great city for the needs of all Chicagoans and our future?

The Commercial Club of Chicago, the same organization that commissioned in 1909 the Burnham and Bennett Plan of Chicago, published in 1999 a document called Chicago 2020 that gives us a road map and the vision on how to make the Chicago region a more livable, easier to commute, and more productive region for all. Chicago 2020 argues that we need to plan the whole Chicago region in a coordinated manner, instead of regulating its parts by its many constituencies. It also argues that this regional planning needs to encourage denser construction within walking distance of public transportation.

Unlike the Burnham Plan for Chicago and Chicago 2020, our proposal here is focused on only one component of the city—the standard Chicago lot.

Our proposal optimizes the use of this lot by recommending slight modifications of Chicago’s Zoning Ordinance and Chicago's Building Code, at no expenditure to anybody.

It will allow all Chicagoans to enjoy a better life in the City.
What are we
doing next?

1 - We are further presenting and adjusting these recommendations in order to help the City of Chicago adopt these ideas.

2- We are working with the City of Chicago on a pilot project of 10 city lots.

3 - We are seeking grants to develop this urban plan of Chicago into a deeper and broader study, which will include public, commercial, and other urban structures.

4 - We are inviting developers to look at the variety of here presented building floor plans and to seek their further development.

What else should we do
to make a better city?

link to possible green building features


  • Burnham and Bennett Plan of Chicago
  • Lecture by Stefan Behling on sustainable architecture at IIT
  • Chicago Metropolis 2020
  • Proforma analysis:
    Stedl Construction & Development
  • Alexander Hartray
  • http://www.leahmissbach.com/

Should we still work on Burnham’s plan?
We know that sooner or later we should make the South Lake Shore as attractive as the North Lake Shore.
Now, that we are planning developments on the South Side of Chicago it should be a beginning of this large project, and we should use the excavation materials to create lagoons and new land for the South Lake Shore.


Creative Commons LicenseZoka Zola
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

download PDF of this project - 10.3 MB

Architects and Planners: Zoka Zola, LLC
Design: Zoka Zola, Tanja Reiche, Adi Kohn