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Outside-The-Box Ideas Chicagoans Have For Mayor-Elect Lightfoot

Hundreds of Chicagoans submitted their ideas for improving the city to Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot. Some are traditional. Some are unique.

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Paula Friedrich/WBEZ

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot has put out a call for Chicagoans to share ideas for making this city better. And so far, hundreds of people on her transition committees have responded, sending suggestions about arts, education, public safety and lots of other areas of civic life.

Many ideas were straightforward, fairly classic. WBEZ’s team of reporters sifted through all 750 pages of these memos to the new mayor and zeroed in some more outside-the-box suggestions. Here are some of the highlights.

Arts & Culture

Common themes: The Arts and Culture Transition Committee echoed what community arts organizations have been saying for a long time: bring resources beyond The Loop, to the neighborhoods. As Carlos Tortolero — founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen — wrote in his submission: “One would think that the city boundaries are Diversey to Roosevelt and the lakefront to Halsted. This has to change.”

An outside-the-box idea: A citywide art exhibit. Billy Ocasio with the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture wants to extend arts participation across the city with a citywide art exhibition called “Chicago’s Story is Our Story.” He writes that it could feature installations in all 77 city neighborhoods. Ocasio writes that the exhibitions could “provide arts access to every Chicagoan despite political, social, or economic background.”

Read more of the arts and culture ideas that were submitted here.

Carrie Shepherd covers arts and culture for WBEZ. Follow her @cshepherd.

Business, Economic & Neighborhood Development

Common themes: The word “neighborhood” shows up more than 300 times in the memos from the business community to Lightfoot. Nearly all of the 50-plus members of this transition committee agree the city needs to drive more investment, development, and new jobs to the South and West sides. But the means for making that happen vary.

An outside-the-box idea: Create the opposite of a TIF to finance development in under-resourced areas. David Merriman, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, dubs the new initiative Funding Infrastructure Together, or FIT. (“TIF spelled backward,” he writes.) It would be — quite literally — the opposite of TIF. Merriman’s memo explains that the city’s current use of TIF “results in well-off areas becoming more well-off.” His plan would direct a portion of increased real estate revenue in a well-off area to a special fund to be spent in underdeveloped and less well-off neighborhoods.

Another bold idea: Subsidize new employees’ transportation costs for the first two months of employment, or at least until their first paycheck. Brenda Palms Barber, president and CEO of the North Lawndale Employment Network, writes that transportation costs in the first weeks of employment are a key challenge for low-income people new to or re-entering the workforce.

Read all of the memos about boosting business, economic, and neighborhood development.

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.


Common themes: If Chicago wants to build on recent improvements in its public schools and community colleges, it needs to unapologetically focus on lifting up the poorest and least advantaged students from birth through college and into the workplace. Many memos from this committee call for more transparent budgets, after-school programs, job skills training, support for neighborhood schools and more resources to increase and diversify teaching staff.

An outside-the-box idea: Chicago should hold an annual citywide college orientation. Greg Darnieder says the daylong event would be for admitted seniors planning to attend nearby institutions and should focus on “the hidden stumbling blocks for college freshmen,” including financial aid and academic support, but also issues like loneliness, intimate relationships, and roommates.

A unique idea from a former mayoral candidate: John Kozlar, one of the many mayoral candidates who ran against Lightfoot, suggests an idea he floated during the campaign: launch a summer program called the “Little Professionals League” where high school students shadow professionals for one to two weeks as they consider different career paths. It would increase job exposure and professional connections, especially for low-income students.

Read more of the education ideas here.

Kate McGee covers higher education for WBEZ. Follow her @McGeeReports.


Common themes: Many committee members want the city to relaunch the Department of the Environment (dissolved under Mayor Rahm Emanuel), protect and improve the Chicago River, boost Chicago’s 9% recycling rate, get rid of toxic lead water service lines, reduce carbon emissions, prevent floods through better stormwater management and focus on environmental justice in the most vulnerable neighborhoods.

An outside-the-box idea: Electric buses. Michael A. Pagano is with the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He and others want the city to “electrify the Chicago Transit Authority’s buses and system as soon as possible.” He says it would lower bus emissions and improve air quality.

A leafy green thought: Appoint a chief forester. Charles Matthews, president and CEO of Peoples Gas, urges Lightfoot to “Plant more native trees. … Establish a tree mitigation fund; create a heritage tree program; and add a Chief Forester to DOE.”

Read all of the recommendations on environment issues here.

Monica Eng covers health and the environment for WBEZ. Follow her @monicaeng.

Good Governance

Common themes: The city needs to make government more accessible for everyday Chicagoans and increase direct citizen involvement. That necessitates ending Chicago’s unsavory reputation as machine-controlled, corrupt, and set up to benefit the white, wealthy and well-connected, members of the Good Governance Committee say. Their ideas include term limits, municipal campaign finance reform and strengthening the city’s inspectors general. Government should put more information online, including livestreaming public meetings.

An outside-the-box idea: TIFs should have oversight panels that include residents and community leaders. Aisha Butler, executive director of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, says those panels should review TIF projects with a “race and equity lens” and ask whether TIF projects are based “on the immediate concerns of the neighborhood.”

Another innovative idea: Put the city’s website through a “readability review.”

This would ensure it is written in clear, simple language and is user-friendly and intuitive. Griselda Vega Samuel, regional counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), says current city websites and publications are written and presented in a way that’s “inaccessible to many Chicagoans.” Vega Samuel suggests targeting reading levels to “the average Chicagoan from our poorest communities,” arguing that “extreme disparities in wealth, education, access and income” have “systematically excluded” some Chicagoans from full participation in city government. Once it’s simplified, the website could be translated into various languages.

One more: Force lobbyists to state earlier what they’re up to. Under current disclosure rules, decisions are already made by the time the public learns who lobbied for what, and Forest Gregg of DataMade says that should change. Also, nonprofits should no longer be excluded from disclosure requirements.

Read more good governance ideas here.

Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.

Health & Human Services

Common themes: The city needs to reinvest in a robust set of mental health services and ways to better treat patients experiencing trauma. That’s an emphasis of memos from the health and human services transition team. Their recommendations frequently reference cuts made by outgoing Mayor Emanuel and urge Lightfoot to survey the state of health care. Many also mention the need to further expand the Medicaid health insurance program and address doctors’ frustrations because the program has been largely privatized.

An outside-the-box idea: Free albuterol in schools to tackle racial disparities in childhood asthma. Erica Salem, with the Respiratory Health Association, wants the new administration to commit more people and money to eliminating childhood asthma across Chicago. She wants sister agencies, like the schools and the housing authority, and departments within City Hall to work together on this issue. She suggests the new administration work with pharmaceutical companies to stock albuterol in all public schools to be used in case of an emergency.

Read more suggestions for improving health and human services here.

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.


Common themes: More affordable housing is needed in areas across the city. Affordable housing is concentrated on the South and West sides, and affluent neighborhoods consistently find ways to keep low-income and working families out. Many of the memos from this group, particularly from affordable housing advocates, want changes to the city’s current Affordable Requirements Ordinance, which mandates that residential developments receiving city assistance or on city-owned land provide a certain percentage of affordable units. Currently, developers don’t have to build them all on site and they can pay fees in lieu of building units.

An outside-the-box idea: Acknowledge race when evaluating housing plans. Advocates across the country are pushing for city officials to use a racial equity lens in all decision making. Places like Seattle, Austin, and Baltimore are now using a “racial equity toolkit” to understand how seemingly colorblind policies work toward continuing a cycle of racial segregation and inequity. The memos to Lightfoot encourage her to do the same, especially for affordable housing strategies. The Government Alliance on Racial Equity helps cities across the country evaluate how institutional racism impacts residents, and one suggestion is that Chicago join the network.

Another idea: The housing crash hurt property owners of one- to four-unit buildings. Prior to the crash, most of these buildings were owner occupied and financed with residential mortgages. But post-crash, access to capital to preserve and improve these buildings is limited, and vacancies are up. Partnering with financial institutions and CDFIs (which work in under resourced communities) to offer affordable credit to property owners and managers would help the city preserve a critical housing stock and put vacant buildings back on the market.

Read more ideas on how to improve housing here.

Natalie Moore covers housing for WBEZ. Follow her @natalieymoore.

Public Safety & Accountability

Common Themes: Most people on the Public Safety & Accountability Committee encouraged Lightfoot to go beyond the terms of the federal consent decree now in place over the Chicago Police Department. Several also pushed for community policing strategies and better data collection on arrests and criminal activity, and backed Lightfoot’s proposed Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Gun Violence Prevention.

A simple idea: Register guns like cars. Rev. Michael Pfleger submitted several pages of ideas, but one full page was dedicated to a straightforward initiative he’s been pushing for years: require people to register their guns, like they do their cars. He suggests it would help control escalating gun violence with better tracking and accountability. “The owner of every car can be traced for the lifetime of the vehicle. In fact, if a person does not transfer the title and does not report it stolen, s/he is held responsible for any accident it may be involved in,” he writes.

Read other ideas for improving public safety here.

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.

Transportation & Infrastructure

Common themes: Lobby state lawmakers for big money to improve infrastructure.

Jacky Grimshaw, vice president of government affairs, with the Center for Neighborhood Technology, says the city needs to continue leading the charge to get a capital bill passed through the Illinois General Assembly and push for Chicago to get around 30% of the money.

An outside-the-box idea: Establish a chief infrastructure officer within the mayor’s office. John C. Robak, president of Greeley and Hansen, a Chicago-based environmental engineering firm, suggested the position could coordinate with the many transit providers in the city and look for innovative funding streams to pay for new infrastructure.

A “let’s-get-this-done-already” idea: Extend the Red Line to the Far South Side. Mayor Emanuel’s administration supports extending the Red Line train to 130th Street, but funding has still not been identified. Kimberly Slaughter, senior vice president of HNTB Corporation, and others want Lightfoot to prioritize the project.

One more: Ron Burke of the Active Transportation Alliance urges Lightfoot to create greener transportation in Chicago. The first step would be to add “slow lanes” dedicated to light, low-speed vehicles and “smart lanes” for multipassenger transit, like carpools. He also suggests setting a goal of 100 miles of new bikeways by 2023.

Read other ideas on transportation and infrastructure here.

Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana and infrastructure for WBEZ. Follow him @mikepuentenews.

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