Reinventing investment for a more livable Chicago region - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Reinventing investment for a more livable Chicago region

The second event of the MPC-CAF summer discussion series, "Reinventing Public Investment", focused on how federal policies in housing, transportation and economic development have shaped decisions and community development in the Chicago Region.

Investment decisions made in Washington D.C., profoundly affect our built environment.  The results on the ground – housing with little transit access, massive stormwater projects that do not solve local flooding, and highway expansion rather than maintenance of existing assets – are too often guided, or even dictated, by the goals, rules and definitions that guide federal expenditures.  While there are signs of change, most notably the proposal for coordination between the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Dept. of Transportation (DOT), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we live our lives in communities shaped by past practices.  The critical question, then, is what change is needed in our nation’s capital to encourage more livable communities in the Chicago region and beyond?

That was the central issue of the second installment of the summer lecture series, Reinventing Public Investment, presented by MPC and the Chicago Architecture Foundation.  On July 14, four panelists presented their perspectives on the relationship between federal investment and our region’s ability to create equitable, sustainable and livable communities.   (Audio for the event is available online through Chicago Amplified.)

A major concern for all the panelists was the historical disconnect between issue-specific funding streams and agencies, such as housing and transportation.  Most, 69 percent of attendees agreed, indicating through a follow-up survey that a lack of coordination between federal, state and local agencies is the biggest roadblock between Chicago and cleaner air, ample supplies of water, and better connections between jobs, homes and transit for everyone.

Todd Brown, vice president of ShoreBank and MPC board member, shared lessons from Reconnecting Neighborhoods and focused on the importance of pushing for a “multidisciplinary approach,” whereby services and public facilities are improved in conjunction with neighborhood revitalization and new commercial development.

Catherine Baker, principal at Landon, Bone, and Baker Architects, strongly affirmed a “bottom-up approach based on community involvement” is the best strategy for neighborhood planning, and projects are most efficiently accomplished when oversight comes from the city and state.  Too often, she believes, federal policies constrict local flexibility rather than allow local decision-makers to pursue federal goals – for instance, in housing affordability or access to jobs and transit – in ways that fit local goals.

Doug Farr, president of Farr Associates, wittily elaborated on that point with an anecdote about building the “first ever circular intersection” in Normal, Ill.  As the community sought federal funding to increase pedestrian activity and reduce auto emissions by building a modern roundabout, they were rebuffed because that style of intersection was not recognized by federal regulations.  After more than a year of negotiation, Normal was informed it would not receive any DOT funds after all.

Finally, Don Chen, program officer for Urban Opportunity at the Ford Foundation and founder of Smart Growth America, expressed both excitement and concern at what he believes is a window of opportunity, opened by the sudden public interest and obvious urgency of our nation’s housing, infrastructure, environmental, and transportation needs.  Chen believes we are in the ideal political climate for real change in how the federal government supports states, regions and communities.  The reauthorization of the federal transportation bill and state revolving loan funds for water infrastructure, HUD/DOT/EPA coordination, and proposed climate change bill all create opportunities for new growth to be harnessed to generate equitable, sustainable outcomes.

The Reinventing Public Investment series coincides with the release of an MPC white paper - Goal-driven, Right-sized and Coordinated: Federal Investment Reform for the 21st Century – which outlines principles for wiser investment policies and highlights five examples of them in action.

The next event in the series, Sustainable Choices for a Greener Chicago Region, will be August  17, from 12:00p.m. to 1:30 p.m., at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.  Register online now.  Panelists will discuss opportunities to affect change in Washington, D.C. – through federal legislation on climate change mitigation, water infrastructure funding, and renewable energy – in order to spur more innovative solutions closer to home, such as the Chicago Climate Action Plan and Milwaukee’s innovative green infrastructure systems. 

For more information about the lecture series or MPC’s commitment to federal investment reform, please contact Josh Ellis at or (312) 863-6045. 


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