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Chicago Officials Are Pitching The First Citywide Plan In 60 Years. Is It The Key To Equitable Growth?

City planners set a goal of getting 10,000 people to give feedback on the "We Will Chicago" draft plan before public comment ends Nov. 1.

The sun sets along Chicago’s east-west streets during the spring equinox in a phenomenon known as Chicagohenge on March 20, 2022, as seen from Streeterville.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — The public comment period on Chicago’s first citywide plan in nearly 60 years will wind down over the next week as officials push to adopt the document they say will create a more equitable city over the next decade.

We Will Chicago is the first citywide plan to encourage equitable neighborhood growth since the 1966 Comprehensive Plan crafted under Mayor Richard J. Daley. It’s also the result of more direct input from residents than any other plan of its kind, officials said.

An “aspirational set of goals as one city has been missing from Chicago,” planning Commissioner Maurice Cox said. “We never went through the patient exercise of asking people what they want as one city, not just as residents of a community area.”

The plan will guide city officials’ budget and policy priorities around eight pillars:

Forty broad goals, from ensuring safe transportation to maintaining and expanding green space and eliminating a fear of violence, and 150 objectives to obtain those goals are included in the plan.

The document also includes 600 policy ideas that can serve as starting points for future legislation, budgets and changes to city programs — all of which could be used to implement aspects of the plan.

The planning department has requested $1.5 million in the 2023 budget “to continue to refine the framework [plan] and to actually implement it,” Cox said.

Public comments will guide changes to We Will before the document is presented to the Plan Commission in early 2023. Public input on the draft plan closes 11:59 p.m. Nov. 1.

To read the draft We Will plan in full, click here. To fill out surveys on each of the plan’s eight pillars, click here.

Credit: Kayleigh Padar//Block Club Chicago
Maurice Cox, the director of the Department of Planning and Development, speaks at the rededication of the Winthrop Family Historical Garden Oct. 15.

What Is We Will?

Chicago’s six-decade gap between citywide plans is “unusual,” Cox said. For example, in Washington state, cities and counties must review their plans at least once a decade and revise them if needed.

When I got here and saw how segregated this city was, I thought, ‘Are Chicagoans OK with this?'” Cox said. “Is this the city that they want, or is this the city they have received because of a set of decisions made decades and decades ago?”

We Will aims to address the inequities of past plans by finding a “consensus” among current residents, Cox said. Two years of discussion among neighbors and city staffers have led to the draft document now up for review.

The plan’s objectives, such as promoting pathways to living-wage jobs or prioritizing the redevelopment of vacant property, may seem nebulous — but that’s a feature, not a bug, officials said.

“A planning framework like this has to live beyond a single administration, to live beyond an aldermanic term,” Cox said. “You can’t so narrowly pin everyone in that you don’t allow for time and circumstances to change. That’s why it’s a framework and not a set of policies.”

The We Will plan’s focus on economic development, culture, public health and other quality-of-life issues is similar to that of the 29 neighborhood plans shepherded by LISC Chicago since 2000.

Existing community-led plans aren’t reflected in We Will, nor did they inform its creation, deputy planning Commissioner Kathy Dickhut said.

Neighborhood plans and We Will are different in scope but complementary, Cox said. The former are “extremely action-oriented” and often include specific project ideas, while the latter is “holistic” and “aspirational,” he said.

“The sum of those neighborhood plans did not constitute any collective agreement on what the city wants to be,” Cox said. “Coming out of this, we will have both [citywide and neighborhood plans]. That’s how cities can chart out a collective direction as well as satisfying local priorities.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A vibrant mural wraps around the building that houses Restaurant Nuevo León in Little Village along 26th Street on Sept. 28, 2022.

How The Public Is Shaping The Plan

We Will is Chicago’s first citywide plan “drafted by neighborhood residents and community leaders,” officials said.

Resident input began with focus groups including about 200 people from across the city in the fall of 2020, Dickhut said.

Another 115 volunteers and 25 paid community partners representing city departments, ethnic organizations, environmental groups and more were accepted to the plan’s research and advisory teams, Dickhut said.

“Those research teams met once a month for about two hours about guiding principles, goals and objectives and policy ideas,” she said.

Each member committed about 24 hours to the plan over the course of a year.

Few Chicagoans from vulnerable populations — such as people experiencing homelessness, children younger than 18 and people lacking internet access — directly participated in drafting of the plan. The city relied on nonprofits and other advocates to relay the needs of the people they serve, Cox said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
People walk on the 4400 block of South Cottage Grove Avenue in Grand Boulevard on Oct. 18, 2022.

Resident feedback will also guide changes before We Will is presented to the Plan Commission early next year, officials said.

The public comment period on the draft plan opened July 14 and had 8,872 responses as of Monday, according to the planning department. The city is aiming for 10,000 responses by Nov. 1, Cox said.

“The scores coming out of these surveys show high rates of agreement on all of these goals and most objectives,” said Gabriela Jirasek, assistant commissioner of community and digital engagement for the planning department.

About 3,310 responses have been submitted online, though if one person fills out a survey on each of the plan’s pillars, they would be counted as eight responses.

The arts and culture and transportation and infrastructure surveys have been most popular online, 872 and 690 responses, respectively. All other surveys have received 200-400 responses each.

About 5,000 responses have been collected in-person at dozens of events across the city, Jirasek said. The in-person survey is less detailed, as “we didn’t want collecting demographic info to deter people” from responding, she said.

Since public comment began, the city has collected in-person survey responses from unhoused Streetwise vendors on two days when they picked up magazines to sell, Jirasek said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Gregg Cole of Streetwise wears a mask in the Lincoln Square neighborhood in April 2020 while selling magazines.

An ‘Acknowledgement’ Of Racism, Not A ‘Reckoning’

The We Will plan’s intro includes six pages about Chicago’s historical inequities around policing, redlining, school closures, industrial pollution and more.

The section is intended to inform residents who aren’t familiar with the disinvestment and systemic racism that have created unequal living conditions across Chicago, officials said.

In response to the inequities, various planning objectives explicitly focus on communities of color and communities that have experienced decades of disinvestment, which are often one and the same.

Even as city planners touted We Will as an admission of the city’s role in institutional racism, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration called the federal government’s accusations of institutional racism “absurd” and vowed to fight any attempts to enforce civil rights law. The Lightfoot administration backed off last week and entered settlement discussions after community pushback.

This summer, federal housing officials found the city’s planning and zoning decisions violated Black and Latino residents’ civil rights over decades, as officials moved polluters from white communities into nonwhite neighborhoods.

But We Will frames the environmental inequities as a function of geography and infrastructure that happen to leave people of color more vulnerable to pollution, rather than a choice to benefit white residents at the expense of Black and Latino Chicagoans.

The city’s clustering of industry in nonwhite communities is “the product of a century where our industries were laid out along rail lines and transportation lines,” Cox said.

Credit: Xuandi Wang
Southwest Side residents reflect on the level of air pollution in Chicago, which disproportionately affects neighborhoods of color.

We Will doesn’t allow city officials to “yank up all the [train] tracks and say, ‘We’re no longer going to put manufacturing here,'” Cox said. But with objectives such as studying the cumulative impact of pollution on overburdened communities, the plan can set the stage for “a green and sustainable future,” he said.

The plan’s acknowledgment of institutional racism “is not a reckoning process” that seeks to rectify past harm and prevent future harm, Cox said.

“It’s an acknowledgement that recognizes the city’s role,” he said. “What the city can do, that’s yet to come.”

“We all are somewhat responsible for the mess we’re in, and [for] a project like We Will, you have to own it in order to try and go to a different place,” Cox said.

Lightfoot could not be reached for an interview.

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