Daniel Burnham said make no little plans when he created a vision for Chicago in 1909 off the heels of the world’s fair. In 1966, a second plan for the city emerged that bolstered downtown and libraries.
Now the city of Chicago is releasing a new citywide plan to shape the future with an emphasis on equity and acknowledging past racist policies. We Will Chicago is a draft 10-year framework with dozens of goals and objectives designed to address inequities while creating thriving communities.
“It very much is a roadmap for the Chicago we want to become,” said Skyler Larrimore, incoming policy chief for the city.
While the plan doesn’t list specific policies, it does craft a vision from which policies, initiatives and investments can emerge.
“Readers aren’t going to look at it [the plan] and see recommendations for land use and zoning changes on a primary corridor in Austin,” Larrimore said. “Instead, it’s take a step back, look at the city overall and look at the ways in which we need to continue to address structural inequality in our city.”
The plan has eight pillars: arts and culture; civic and community engagement; economic development; environment, climate and energy; housing and neighborhoods; lifelong learning; public health and safety; and transportation and infrastructure.
“Equity is essential to address Chicago’s structural racism, poverty, depopulation and health disparities. Resiliency is essential for individuals and groups to survive, adapt and rebound in the face of chronic stresses and acute shocks like climate change and pandemics,” We Will Chicago says.
For two years, residents and community groups gave input. An advisory committee and pillar research teams conducted independent research and hosted approximately 100 meetings. City Bureau, a nonprofit civic group, documented each meeting. Public comment is open and the We Will plan is expected to go to the Chicago Plan Commission in early 2023. If adopted, We Will would require government to implement policies and legislation by city council and other agencies.
The exhaustive plan calls for strengthening arts in Chicago Public Schools, prioritizing resources for small businesses, changing the narrative about South and West side neighborhoods, preventing displacement, promoting growth around transit, protecting freshwater resources and creating open space around industrial zones.
Nedra Sims Fears, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative, worked on the economic development pillar.
She said the plan is “rooted in equity and being upfront and intentional about how historic policies have disadvantaged Black and Brown people. And a historic focus on the Loop [has been] to the detriment of the neighborhoods. Having policies that affirm how to invest in Black and Brown neighborhoods so that the neighborhoods are equally yoked to move ahead was very courageous.”
Chloe Gurin-Sands is with the Metropolitan Planning Council and worked on the public health and public safety team. She said the plan is about taking care of Chicagoans.
“That people have the ability to move through the city freely in talking about some of the policing issues and getting around whether public transportation or getting around the city,” said Gurin-Sands, adding that Chicagoans should not have to worry about interpersonal or gender-based violence.
What’s unique in this draft plan is the deep acknowledgment of Native American land theft and racist housing policies that created and perpetuated deep racial inequities in the city. Redlining, highway construction and contract buying are mentioned. And the report doesn’t only focus on banks or federal policies. Policing and public school closures and public housing are also mentioned. It’s unprecedented for a Chicago city plan to name harms — intentional or not — and push for a reckoning.
“Though not intended to recount every instance of racial and social oppression in city history, We Will acknowledges that these issues perpetuated a broad pattern of inequity that benefited higher-income white residents and damaged people of other races. These acknowledgments are included to contribute to a larger process of healing and reconciliation among Chicagoans and serve as an outline of some areas the City of Chicago commits to improving,” the plan report says.
As laudable and ambitious as the We Will plan aspires toward, Chicago is still a city where corruption and lack of transparency thrive more than some neighborhoods. A coalition of neighbors and grassroots groups are holding the city accountable with a statement. It says the city could signal its commitment to equitable development by taking immediate actions around Tax Increment Financing (TIF) reform, better enforcement of fair housing protections and engaging residents who live near industrial corridors.