Yesterday’s zoning: New blog series examines outdated land-use policy in Chicagoland - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Yesterday’s zoning: New blog series examines outdated land-use policy in Chicagoland

Many of Chicago’s laws, procedures, and zoning regulations were enacted decades ago, prior to widespread calls for meaningful community engagement. The result are developments that challenge health, community, and connectivity. As the “We Will” citywide planning process works to build a better Chicago, MPC examines three examples of the unintended consequences of Chicago’s zoning policy

Eric Allix Rogers, flickr Creative Commons

A series about yesterday’s policies, today’s challenges, and tomorrow’s opportunities

What comes to mind when you think of industrial land use in Chicago? Maybe it is the Union Stockyards, or perhaps the massive steel production plants dotting the lakefront, or maybe it is the history of the Chicago River as an industrial artery. Historically, the picture of industrial development in the city could be described as one of conflicting land uses. Not only industrial uses that conflict with one another, but also with their surrounding neighbors. Industrial development continues to encroach on surrounding areas despite attempts to buffer and segregate disparate uses from one another. Ultimately, harms have not been successfully mitigated and remain a source of contention between landowners and community residents.

Why does industrial development—an important economic driver and source of manufactured goods and employment—become a junction where pollution, contamination, and environmental injustice intersect?

One possible answer: Outdated, structurally deficient planning processes that were instituted when city land uses were different and community stakeholders were left out of the dialogue. It may be easy to point to industrial landowners as bad actors, exploiting communities for profit, but the true story is structural: industry is, more often than not, simply following the rules set out by the City. 

It may be easy to point to industrial landowners as bad actors, exploiting communities for profit, but the true story is structural: industry is, more often than not, simply following the rules set out by the City.

In an upcoming series of blog posts, MPC will explore how new developments are able to be implemented, despite community opposition, by utilizing zoning designations from a time when the city’s land use patterns were dramatically different. Each post will focus on a single case study that examines why community input did not change the outcome, the impacts of outdated zoning codes, and the lessons we can learn to try and create more equitable development in the future.

Upcoming posts will include:

  •  Cougle Commission Company: A chicken processor that moved from Chicago’s Fulton Market neighborhood to Bubbly Creek, alongside two parks and new housing. An example of how community planning and input around changing visions for the riverfront was not considered because of persistent as-of right zoning.
  •  MAT Asphalt: An asphalt production plant operating across the street from McKinley Park and releasing carcinogens into nearby residential areas. This story demonstrates that existing government policy is far too lax and our existing zoning designations, obsolete. 
  • Prologis & Amazon: A warehouse and logistics facility along the south branch of the Chicago River recently aprroved by the city despite community opposition.  Approval was granted because the city and elected officials determined it met or exceeded all existing requirments for new development, determinations that were made largely behind closed doors, with little input from residents and community groups. 
  •  General Iron: The ongoing relocation of a recycling plant from the city's north side to the far South Side in accordance with Chicago’s own Industrial Corridor Modernization efforts. General Iron—with a documented history of negligence, pollution, and violations—epitomizes how regulation too often does not protect environmentally burdened communities.

These case studies will offer a glimpse into how developers and landowners benefit from Chicago’s relaxed and outdated development regulations and procedures, and how the lack of comprehensive zoning code updates that include considerations for equity, sustainability, and public health continue to fall short of balancing the needs of industrial land users and community residents. By looking in-depth at three examples we will assess the ways in which development in Chicago is not truly serving our community due to zoning policies in need of deliberate and inclusive updates.

Stay tuned as MPC takes a deeper dive into the flaws of industrial land development in Chicago. We will review lessons that can be learned, how those lessons can be applied to the new citywide planning process, We Will Chicago, and demonstrate opportunities for equitable, responsive dialogue between developers, communities, and the City of Chicago to prosper. 


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