What we do now writes the future Chicago needs - Metropolitan Planning Council

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What we do now writes the future Chicago needs

This "reset and rebuild" moment means deploying the next wave of federal, philanthropic, and corporate assistance far differently—not equally, but rather commensurate with needs

Image courtesy Crain's Chicago Business via Getty Images

This piece first appeared in Crain's Chicago Business on October 22, 2020 as part of a package on Regional Resiliency.

Like the three-legged race at a family reunion in years past, what this moment requires from metropolitan Chicago feels uncomfortable and precarious. An equitable recovery calls on all of us to name the fundamental unfairness—in truth, the structural racism—in who holds power and who has access to resources and opportunity. And it demands that we center the wisdom of local communities as we collectively chart changes that leverage our region's many assets to benefit all, not the lucky few.

Three years ago, the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Institute quantified the enormous "Cost of Segregation," measured in lost income, lost lives and lost potential. The unending turbulence of 2020—a year etched with economic devastation, death and disease, and racial reckoning—trained a glaring spotlight on what we already knew. There's no magic workaround or one solution to inequality. And neither the city of Chicago nor the state of Illinois can return to growth without coming together as a region defined by the assets and challenges we share, rather than arbitrary political boundaries.

There's a litany of urgent issues that cry out for coordinated regional solutions: crushing pension debt, high unemployment, racial wealth gaps, barriers to capital for small businesses and homeowners, chronic illness, poor air and water quality, inconvenient transit options, lack of affordable housing and health care, eroded safety and trust in the police. And the list goes on.

Are we paying the price today for not proactively planning in the past? That's true, in part.

Metropolitan Chicago's official plan is called On To 2050, and it is a sound blueprint. But it's lacking mechanisms to challenge local decisions that are out of step with its vision for the collective good.

Similarly, the Regional Transportation Authority has new capital funds from Rebuild Illinois to modernize transit. But it lacks the tools to knit the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, Pace, Divvy and Uber/Lyft into a customer-centered system of travel choices, especially for those without a car. And we wring our hands at Illinois' 852 school districts and 7,000-plus units of local government, wondering where the political will to streamline and consolidate could be found.

We—all of us—can create the political will. And we must.

The pain is real. Ask a family whose kids are learning remotely and who have lost a grandparent to COVID-19, whose father lost a job, whose mother is working in a high-risk setting. None of these adversities are the result of personal choices. It's limited choice, anti-Black policies and inequitable investments that have caused our region to stagnate.

Ask John Rogers of Ariel Investments, who told the Metropolitan Planning Council's 2020 Annual Event audience: "From 1992 to 2016, college-educated African Americans saw their wealth decline 10 percent, while college-educated whites saw their wealth increase by 96 percent over a roughly 25-year period. We need to make sure that people understand that we're much worse off" in reference to the economic prospects for Blacks in America.

This "reset and rebuild" moment means deploying the next wave of federal, philanthropic and corporate assistance far differently—not equally, but rather commensurate with needs. That deployment must be informed by active listening to the experts: local residents who love their community, want to embrace investment and deserve an assurance that they won't be displaced.

As we devise the road map to an equitable recovery, let's remind ourselves that we are not only residents of households, but also of cities and regions. We are interdependent humans—lonelier than before, but still part of a web, reliant on each other.

Returning to "normal" is unacceptable because too many people were robbed of the chance to achieve the American Dream. Regions are the most promising laboratory to change the status quo. This is our moment to redirect public and private resources, restructure for success and rewrite our region's unjust narrative.

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