A citywide plan in Chicago? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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A citywide plan in Chicago?

In her transition report and during her first 100 days in office, Mayor Lightfoot has advanced the idea of a citywide planning process. So what can we learn from other cities’ comprehensive plans?

Community-led planning efforts help us envision what we want our city to become.

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During the mayoral election and Mayor Lightfoot’s transition earlier this spring, MPC argued that Chicago needs a citywide plan. As a shared vision for our city’s land use, parks, transportation, housing, and economic development, a citywide plan coordinates investments, rebuilds trust among residents, and unifies our path forward. Mayor Lightfoot seemed to take the message to heart: her transition report recommends citywide planning as a strategy to reform government and engage residents.

As a starting point, MPC has been talking with other cities who have prepared award-winning or otherwise noteworthy plans in the last few years. We’ve been on the phone with people from Boston to Los Angeles, asking people what’s worked well, what was challenging, and how planning has transformed their cities. Here are some of the top lessons that Chicago should keep in mind as it embarks on a citywide planning process.

It’s possible to overcome inertia

Chicago hasn’t had a communitywide plan since 1967. Sometimes, it can feel impossible to overcome that inertia. Not so: after 50+ years without a plan update, Boston released 2016’s Imagine Boston 2030. If Boston can do it, so can Chicago.

Planning comes in different forms

Denver’s Comprehensive Plan 2040 is a sweet little plan, about 75 pages long and easy to read. Contrast this with Minneapolis’ 1256-page behemoth. They’re both great plans, but they’re meant to be informing, read, and circulated in different manners. We’re especially fond of the broad overview of Denver’s plan, which is supplemented with four additional, more topically specific plans (land use, health, transit, pedestrians and trails).

Leadership matters

When we asked different cities what allowed their plans to get off the ground, pretty much all of them pointed to the importance of a strong commitment from the Mayor’s Office. Mayors ensure that funding is allocated, departments coordinate and cooperate, and that there’s consistent public attention on the planning process. The centrality of planning in Chicago Mayor Lightfoot’s transition report – and her recent hiring of Detroit’s Maurice Cox as Commissioner of Planning and Development – are good signs that she is serious about planning in Chicago.

Start community engagement early

Thankfully, it seems that the days of planners in musty rooms drinking Scotch while opining on the future of the city have mostly come to a close: all the cities we talked to had robust community engagement efforts in place from the get-go. Both Boston and Minneapolis, for instance, started talking to residents before any other steps occurred in the planning process.

Make it count

Everyone’s favorite phrase about plans is that they “don’t want them to sit on a shelf and gather dust,” a phrase so ubiquitous in the planning world that one is tempted to think planners invented it. The best plans create policy goals and project criteria that can guide implementation and funding. To make it count, the resources – staff, money, political and private capital –  have to be there, too.

Planning can move us toward a more equitable region

In 2018, MPC released our policy roadmap for achieving a more equitable region. Here’s the thing: if done right, a citywide plan can weave a lot of these recommendations into the very fabric of city policy. Minneapolis made racial equity a guiding principle of their plans, permeating all their recommendations.

We’ve been known as the City of Big Shoulders, City in a Garden, the Windy City. Chicago’s changed from a river town to a meat-packing town to an industry town. And as our city changes, so should our path forward. This is the beauty of a citywide plan: As communities across the nation show us, the first steps—and all of those thereafter—are best when taken in alignment with a vision. The collaborative act of planning is one step forward toward a better, more equitable future.


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