Flickr user Art L (CC)
Chicago, continue to develop assets like Millennium Park—open spaces where people of all walks of live can enjoy themselves—in our neighborhoods.
Hindsight is 20/20, and now that it’s 2050 and I’m 86, it’s easy to see that the years from 2015 to 2020 were pivotal for the future of Chicago and the region. I remember these highs and lows very well. Our city was attracting tourism and business from all over the world; at the same time our inequality was ranked alongside El Salvador’s. We were adding beautiful destinations like The 606 elevated trail and parks and the downtown Riverwalk expansion while families were struggling to find affordable housing options in communities with easy access to good jobs, transit and schools. We had a glorious lakefront while long segments of our three rivers remained inaccessible to residents.
Chicago’s story, like so many of its peers’ in 2015, was gradually becoming a tale of two cities: The glitzy, tech-savvy, glamorous one and the high-poverty, low-opportunity, struggling one. There were two paths to take: one down the road to further disillusionment and isolation, and the other down a path toward a stronger city.
Here are a few pointers from the future to avoid the former and seize the latter scenario.
- Keep finding better solutions for flooding. You were right—climate change is causing much heavier rains, and we need you to pick up the pace on the response. Even with gargantuan stormwater storage improvements like the 17.5 billion gallon Deep Tunnel, rain is still getting the better of us. It’s a colossal mess (literally) and a drag on the economy’s growth.
- Don’t give up on creating diverse neighborhoods. Chicago is thriving economically and socially today in no small part because we made the tough decision 30 years ago to invest boldly in infrastructure, retail, workforce training and placemaking in our most challenged communities. As a result, crime declined and schools saw big achievement jumps. Don’t abandon our neighborhoods; you’ll be surprised by how they can be reimagined and transformed.
- Turn your attention to our rivers. Just like Great Rivers Chicago did in 2016, your efforts will pay off in a beautiful asset that winds through Chicago’s neighborhoods. The lakefront may be our front door, but the rivers are our heart—and in 2050 we can actually swim in them!
- Build for growth. People want shopping, jobs and schools to be easily accessible, and they don’t want to have to drive—both in the city and the suburbs. Help more communities enact incentives to build dense and close to transit, so retail amenities and other necessities are a short trip away. We’ve added hundreds of millions of dollars to the regional economy just by allowing people to live in smaller homes and apartments by transit, if that’s their preference. This has made Chicagoland more welcoming to singles, seniors and people with disabilities.
- Remember to take care of what you’ve already built. New infrastructure projects may get everyone excited—you’re going to love the 10 new Bus Rapid Transit routes—but what people really need are water pipes without leaks, roads without potholes and transit systems that get them where they need to be quickly and reliably. It was hard work, but we finally invest in capital improvements every year in Illinois, without fail. Keep fighting: The vehicle miles tax is the fairest way to go!
- Don’t be afraid to experiment with new sources of funding. New funding streams—capturing untapped dollars through private sector collaboration, parking prices tied to demand or setting aside specific tax revenues for certain projects (like development above and around Union Station, funding its rebirth into the coolest gastro-tourism hotel, entertainment and transportation hub you’ve ever seen)—help cash-strapped governments get the job done.
- Make government more efficient. Units of government that don’t operate effectively keep dollars from going where they need to and waste taxpayer money. I remember when we had 7,000 units of local government in Illinois in 2015, far too many for voters to hold accountable. Today, we have hundreds fewer—putting us much more on par with peer states—thanks to the functions of many of those single-purpose governments being subsumed into counties and municipalities. Are you shocked to hear that it was a very noisy, bumpy ride?
Looking back, 2015 was the beginning of a challenging chapter in Chicago’s creative and turbulent history. That history has shown that we’re a city that constantly reinvents itself, from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to the urban revival we’re seeing today.
People of all walks of life are returning to urban areas like Chicago because they want what cities have to offer. I’m counting on you to make sure Chicago is ready to welcome them and keep them here.
This post is written as a part of the Meeting of the Minds group blogging event on October 6, 2015.