NORTH LAWNDALE — When writing a plan for the future of North Lawndale, community leaders didn’t go it alone. They included the voices and ideas of hundreds of residents to ensure the plan for the neighborhood was created by the neighborhood.
For its work, the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council was given an award for creating one of the most exceptional neighborhood plans in the state, according to the Illinois chapter of the American Planning Association.
The council’s North Lawndale Quality of Life Plan was awarded the Community Outreach Award, recognizing the participatory planning process that brought in hundreds of neighborhood residents to help craft a vision for the types of resources, amenities and opportunities they want to see in the area, and to design strategies that leverage existing neighborhood assets to reach those goals.
The plan was unveiled in November of 2018 after two years of work. According to Brenda Palms Barber, who is head of the North Lawndale Employment Network and leads the Workforce Development Committee for the council that developed the plan, the participation of residents allows the plan to continue to have the enthusiasm and energy as things shift from planning to implementation.
“There’s a lot of hope around creating a plan. But what I’m excited about is, there continues to be steadfast commitment to executing the plan,” Barber said. “I’ve never seen our community work so well together in alignment around the vision and mission and hope that we have for this community.”
The plan began development in 2016 when the council received funding from Local Initiatives Support Corporation to begin updating the neighborhood’s previous plan from 2005 with the support of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Since then, the council interviewed neighbors to learn about their concerns and ideas, created committees to address key issues identified by residents, and held public workshops on those issues.
The eight issue areas addressed by the plan are: housing, economic and workforce development, transportation and infrastructure, greening and open space, arts and culture, health and wellness, public safety, and education and youth.
The planning process for each issue was led by a committee made up of residents, local business owners, parents, and community organization leaders who took inventory of what Lawndale currently has to offer, and how those resources could be combined with additional help from the city and from the state to build a stronger community.
For example, the Health and Wellness committee, led by Sinai Community Health Institute Debra Wesley, devised strategies for improving access to health care, increasing the availability of mental health services and supporting physical wellness in the neighborhood. Wesley said the only ones who could possibly create the blueprint for achieving those lofty goals are the people who know the ins and outs of North Lawndale: the residents themselves.
“In order to really create a plan, you need to have the people that the plan was created for at the table and get their voice truly interwoven into the whole document,” Wesley said. “Because a lot of the work is beyond the document. It’s what happens afterwards.”
The outreach process for this section of the plan included a Community Health Needs Assessment that interviewed people in the Lawndale about their health conditions and needs. That information allowed the committee to figure out the root causes of the disparity in health outcomes in the area.
“We realized that the plan is not going to work if it isn’t connected to the other issues, whether it is the physical infrastructure of the community or the need for safety,” Wesley said. “Because we know, for example, when people don’t feel safe, when a lot of violence is going on, it impacts their physical wellness.”
According to chairperson for the Illinois American Planning Association awards Christina Bader, the North Lawndale Quality of Life plan stuck out because it was created from the bottom up and allowed neighbors to voice their needs and desires into the plan. That process made some of its goals and benchmarks more abstract than a typical urban plan, reflecting the desire among residents for a comprehensive and inclusive transformation of North Lawndale.
“Due to the North Lawndale Quality-of-Life Plan’s extensive outreach, it was clear there was a strong desire from community members to focus on topics beyond those associated with a conventional neighborhood plan,” Bader said. “Many of the community’s top priorities were less tangible from a planning perspective — including public safety, education, and health.”
Bader added that the extensive participation from residents in North Lawndale could be replicated in other urban planning initiatives, especially those aimed at tackling goals that are a bit different from a typical neighborhood plan.
“Their process demonstrates how other communities that would like to address these kinds of issues with a master plan can start the conversation,” Bader said.
According to longtime resident Karen Castleberry who worked on the housing section of the plan, this format for urban planning is especially important for a neighborhood like Lawndale. When it comes to inclusive development and maintaining affordability, Castleberry said it is critical for the plan to be driven by residents because residents are so often not given voice in the direction of their own neighborhood.
And with the looming threats of gentrification, rising rent, and a future for North Lawndale devoid the black families who have lived in the area for generations, Castleberry said residents must be at the heart of any changes coming to the neighborhood.
“We’ve been here. We live in the community. Some of us have been here since before the times of the riots. Since before the properties were burned down. … Why would it not be us to create a plan?” Castleberry said.