Chicago River Day 2015: Using play to engage - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Chicago River Day 2015: Using play to engage

At MPC's party on a bridge on Saturday, May 9, kids drew their visions for the future of Chicago's rivers.

We have all been to community meetings that involve a city official listing off the nearly final plan for a corridor in your neighborhood or revealing the design for your local park. Not only are these meetings often aggravating, since participants feel left out of the process and unable to contribute meaningfully, but the meeting is designed so that people are usually talked at and then expected to get in line to ask questions into a microphone.

At the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), we are constantly looking for ways to creatively engage people in the planning, design and development of our city and region. We use text polling to engage people that can’t make it to night or weekend meetings. We use building blocks and financial models in our Corridor Development Initiative to guide community visions for city-owned land that is slated for development. Through Great Rivers Chicago, a new effort that the City of Chicago, MPC, Friends of the Chicago River and others are embarking on to create a vision for improving the city’s rivers, we’re undertaking intensive outreach to business owners, community leaders and residents to gather input. To commemorate Chicago Rivers Day 2015, MPC threw a party last weekend on the north bridge of Goose Island to celebrate our volunteers and collect ideas on strategies to improve the river.

We collected ideas in a range of ways, including surveys, interactive maps and a drawing table. Through a drawing contest, dozens of children drew and submitted photos of their vision for Chicago’s rivers. Despite the kids’ ages (or maybe because of them), the children’s table was full of ideas—from dragons to boats to swimming, the drawings spanned a range of realistic proposals! I was astounded by the creativity, excitement and energy that the children put into their visions for the rivers and encourage everyone to follow suit: Take the survey and stay engaged in this process.

Here were some of my favorites:

When asked to describe her vision for the rivers, this excited nine-year old wished that they were clean enough to swim and dive in and bike along, and that new birds and “sea creatures” could grow. In addition to the new trees and wildlife, a mermaid was also requested.

This vision for the Chicago Rivers is packed with great ideas—from more boat rentals to swings that allow you to jump in to the river to fishing and more ducks—the need for more recreation is alive and well in this kid’s vision! To complement the previous request for a mermaid, this vision included a beached pirate’s boat to play in.

Last but not least, this girl’s vision for the Chicago Rivers is that there will be additional animals and wildlife. While I’m not sure what animal this is, I agree with her hope that the water quality be improved so additional fish, birds and animals can thrive in our waterways.

Community engagement comes in a range of shapes and sizes. Engaging our children now will not only produce great ideas and inspiration but will create young people and students that proactively engage with their neighborhoods and communities. We have a lot to learn from each other and I look forward to continuing our work in communities across the region.


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For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

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