Chicago's success must be bigger than the downtown boom - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Chicago's success must be bigger than the downtown boom

Our metro area was the only one of the nation's 10 largest to have lost population last year. Should we even care if we become the fourth largest U.S. city? Does it matter if we're becoming less racially and economically diverse? 

Image courtesy Crain's Chicago Business via Getty Images

This article first appeared in Crain's Chicago Business on December 6, 2018.

Downtown Chicago is booming with construction cranes, businesses and new residents, while some neighborhoods and suburbs are struggling with population loss and disinvestment. It’s the storied tale of two cities and it’s time to do something about it.  

The city of Chicago has lost population each of the last three years, as have Cook County and the greater Chicago region. Our metro area was the only one of the nation’s 10 largest to have lost population last year. Should we even care if we become the fourth largest U.S. city after New York, Los Angeles and Houston? Does it matter if we’re becoming less racially and economically diverse? 

As leaders of the independent Metropolitan Planning Council, our response to the 21 candidates for mayor of Chicago is an emphatic yes, it matters! In a speech emphasizing the value of reversing the population slide, one candidate set a goal of adding 300,000 people to regain that 3 million population threshold. While we may never repeat Chicagoland peak population of 3.6 million, balanced growth is a goal that every candidate for mayor or alderman can get behind.  

Here are some of our ideas on how to get back on the path to inclusive growth and maintaining our racial and economic diversity. 

Stabilize South and West Side Homes: We can’t have a successful city if local retail and residents disappear. Homeowners need predictability and equity in their property taxes through assessment reforms. Lower-income renters need Housing Choice Vouchers to be worth more so they have more choices in where to live. And aldermen need reasonable restrictions on their ability to quash new affordable housing developments in wards that lack affordable units. New resources for housing solutions could come in part from a graduated real estate transfer tax, asking more from those involved in sales of properties valued over $1 million.  

Close the Black Youth Employment Gap: UIC’s Great Cities Institute crunched the numbers for youth between ages 20-24 and found a 60 percent unemployment rate for African Americans versus 24 percent for Whites and 33 percent for Latinos. We need more companies to join Aon, Allstate, and Accenture in partnering with the City Colleges on apprenticeships that don’t require a four-year college degree and that lead to permanent, living-wage employment. 

Coordinate Neighborhood Investments: Whoever first used the phrase “spread like peanut butter across the landscape” may have had Chicago’s flat prairie topography and Byzantine political fiefdoms in mind. We are guilty of spreading a thin layer of resources across neighborhoods which are saddled with the legacy of segregation rooted in racism. And then we expect economic rebirth! If we target deep investments around anchors like hospitals, universities, and other employers, we’d see more turnarounds like Pullman’s. There are countless entrepreneurs who lack access to capital, mentors, and expertise that could catapult their small business into a larger one employing local residents. 

Create Transit Oriented Development in all Neighborhoods: 42 percent of the city’s land is located within a half-mile of a Chicago Transit Authority or Metra rail station, yet miles of lots lay vacant along transit stations on the south and west side.  We need policies that acknowledge the impact of segregation on local markets and provide targeted incentives that support investment in communities of color and mitigate displacement in emerging markets where low- and moderate-income residents and businesses are at risk. 

Embrace Immigration: Historically, immigrants have helped fuel Chicago’s population gains, most dramatically when the 2000 Census revealed the City’s first increase in residents in 50 years, a whopping 200,000 gain thanks primarily to Mexican in-migration. Today, that trend has slowed to a trickle, due to a combination of policies emanating from the current White House and barriers to economic mobility. Rolling out the welcome mat for immigrants could include adopting a local earned income tax credit, creating universal Child Savings Accounts, and promoting the Chicago CityKey which removes barriers to accessing government services. Everyone in the state would benefit from a growing and vibrant workforce to offset retiring Baby Boomers and to strengthen the tax base. 

Of course, there’s more ideas that need to be brought to the table, but there’s no better time to unite our “two cities” than now.  


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For more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area's toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

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