Will We, Chicago?

October 6, 2022

As the draft of the We Will Chicago citywide plan awaits input from Chicagoans, architectural historian Elizabeth Blasius discusses its future and the two previous comprehensive plans.


Mas observations 2022 will we chicago 01

(Detail) Development of High Accessibility Corridors, The Comprehensive Plan of Chicago, City of Chicago, 1966.

The people of Chicago now confront major issues which can only be resolved by continued and coordinated private and public efforts. Present practices and procedures provide a base of experience which must be expanded and improved.
Comprehensive Plan of Chicago, (1966)

Chicago is about to have a new comprehensive city plan, for the first time in almost 60 years. The 2022 We Will Chicago Framework Plan is an ambitious citywide plan intended to guide Chicago through the next decade of development. Focused on equity and resiliency, the plan provides a framework for how policy, legislation, financing, and projects should be developed to move Chicago towards being a more livable city for all. We Will Chicago is the result of two years of gathering input through the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, which through a robust public engagement process reached across city departments, nonprofit organizations, community organizations, and neighbors to identify goals and objectives.

Comprehensive plans inherit a city’s aging buildings and outdated infrastructure, as well as the policies, culture, and politics of its constituents. We Will Chicago joins a historical record that includes two other comprehensive citywide plans: The Plan of Chicago of 1909 and the Comprehensive Plan of Chicago, published in 1966. Each of these plans proposed improving the City of Chicago, but each by focusing on different goals and through different processes and strategies. Each plan had impacts, some for the better and some for the worse, and each had blindspots: issues they got wrong or failed to predict at all. The success of a plan is found not just in its vision, but in how the generations that follow that vision choose to implement, and how they respond to what the planners could not, or did not, foresee.

What will We Will Chicago’s impact be? What are its blind spots? Looking to the legacies of past plans can help.

In 1909, a group of businessmen organized as the Commercial Club of Chicago commissioned Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett to develop a comprehensive plan, based on architect Burham’s experience managing the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and planner Bennett’s work on city plans for Washington D.C., San Francisco, Cleveland, and Manila, Philippines. The Plan of Chicago of 1909, also known as The Burnham Plan, featured color illustrations and bird’s-eye views by Jules Guérin and broad recommendations for improvements and beautification. When it was presented to the City of Chicago, it so impressed the City Council that it authorized Mayor Fred A. Busse to create the Chicago Planning Commission, which began as a three hundred member semi-public advocacy group.

The 1909 Plan drew upon the order, tradition, and planning of European cities like Paris, Rome, London, and Berlin, the same cities that inspired the campus of the World’s Columbian Exposition, to drive how Chicago should be developed into the twentieth century. It envisioned parks, boulevards, railways, and roadways all existing in harmony with Beaux Arts and neoclassical architecture. Referring to downtown as the “Heart of Chicago,” it proposed that the city center shift west to Halsted and Congress, where wide, tree-lined boulevards fanned out to all neighborhoods, connecting to a system of parks and then at the easternmost point, a lakefront that would remain “forever open, clear, and free.” The 1909 Plan recommended improvements to freight and passenger rail systems and the construction of an underground subway system, adding to the existing elevated rapid transit lines. It envisioned a future dominated by personal vehicle travel, making specific recommendations for infrastructure and road improvements to streets citywide, as well as the design of a superhighway system to serve the city and region. Ambitiously, but incorrectly, the 1909 Plan maintained that beautification measures would directly impact the quality of life of Chicagoans, resulting in fewer instances of disorder, vice, poverty, and disease.

In the decades following its publication, public and private sectors would rely on the 1909 Plan to help them shape the physical form of Chicago. Examples of elements of the plan being implemented include claiming the lakefront permanently for the public, improving Grant Park and expanding parks citywide, transforming Michigan Avenue into a boulevard, and making Wacker Drive a multilevel street.

The 1909 Plan still exerts a broad influence on the City of Chicago. Daniel Burnham’s work, and the work of his colleagues at the turn of the twentieth century defined how Chicago looked and was engineered, and Burnham’s “Make no little plans” could be the “Live Laugh Love” of the city’s urban planning. The implementation of the 1909 Plan coincided with the City Beautiful Movement across the United States. Envisioning that neoclassical architecture, planning, and parks would unify cities and help bring new immigrants into dominant European culture, the City Beautiful Movement became short lived when it proved ineffective and ultimately irrelevant to changing expectations and needs. While the 1909 Plan was correct in its conclusion that personal automobile travel would become widespread, it set Chicago on a course of automobile dependency, driving inequality.

Chicago began considering a second comprehensive plan at the halfway point of the twentieth century. Now a very different city than the one the 1909 Plan inherited, Chicago’s demographics had been transformed by the Great Migration, with the population reaching an all time peak by 1950. City departments had also been created and reorganized, reflecting significant social change: twenty-two local park districts had merged to become the Chicago Park District in 1934, and the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Transit Authority were established in 1937 and 1945 respectively. The Chicago Planning Commission had been reorganized and functioning as an official city department since 1939.

A highway system, an idea born from the 1909 Plan and laid out by the Chicago Planning commission in 1927, had been implemented in the form of the Eisenhower, Dan Ryan, and Kennedy Expressways by the late 1950s. The city established the Department of Urban Renewal in 1962, funding and managing dozens of projects related to land clearance and redevelopment, disrupting the lives of tens of thousands and burdening entire communities with lasting disadvantages. Federally funded urban renewal projects incentivized demolition of so-called “blighted” areas, and the construction of high-rise public housing projects providing a solution for the displacement caused by both highway construction and urban renewal. Meanwhile, activists across Chicago were protesting segregation in education and housing, an act of protest that led to a negotiation with Mayor Richard J. Daley to build public housing in predominantly white neighborhoods.

In December 1966, the Comprehensive Plan of Chicago was released. The 1966 Plan looked to address a wide-ranging scope of social, physical, environmental, and economic issues and focused heavily on quality of life in a changing city. While it did not dictate specific policy or land uses for specific areas like the 1909 Plan, it did make concrete suggestions, continuing to prioritize building high-rise developments and new highways: including a new north/west arterial along the city’s western border at Cicero Avenue and a second running parallel to 79th Street. The 1966 Plan outlined ways to reduce school and housing segregation and discussed objectives to control air pollution and the need for better disposal of trash and refuse, calling for the concentration of facilities to process them in specific areas of the city. The 1966 Plan called for the bond funded construction of libraries, police stations, health clinics, and libraries.

While the Planning Commission never officially adopted the 1966 Plan, the city did implement several of its suggestions. The city supported turning underutilized railyards downtown into two new developments: Illinois Center on the East Side and Dearborn Park in the South Loop. Chicago constructed branch libraries in neighborhoods across the city and opened schools where students and families were concentrated. Many of the tools the city used to try to improve housing availability, reduce school segregation, and improve general quality of life, including expressway construction and urban renewal, ultimately proved to exacerbate the issues they attempted to resolve.

The new millennium in Chicago began with a focus on public space and development in the Loop. The aptly named Millennium Park transformed nearly twenty-five acres of railyards and parking lots at the north end of Grant Park into a sprawling public attraction, complete with monumental sculpture and high design infrastructure. Delayed and over budget, Millennium Park delivered when it opened in 2004, serving as a developmental and economic catalyst. The adaptive reuse of some of State Street’s most historic but underutilized Chicago School skyscrapers delivered a new retail center, hotel rooms, and student housing.

A different Chicago was playing out in neighborhoods. Some remained disinvested while others were given linear parks like the 606 in Humboldt Park and Logan Square, or the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, without a comprehensive or long term plan for how they would impact housing availability and cause displacement. The 2013 closure of fifty Chicago Public Schools, implemented without any long-term plan, left students without a convenient and safe education, and gutted neighborhoods. Nearly a decade later, some schools continue to rot and decay, while others have been transformed into amenity-rich luxury apartments.

We Will Chicago inherits the Chicago of today, including an all too-predictable map of where resources are not. In the 2020s, there is mostly only one map of Chicago, reliably showing a concentration of positive attributes and resources like transit access, entertainment, and commerce downtown and on the North Side, and a deficiency of those attributes and resources on the South Side and the West Side where poverty and vacancy are largely concentrated.

The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated economic, social, and educational inequities across Chicago, leaving no aspect of life unaffected, including the next comprehensive plan. As the Coronavirus disease weaponized itself, the city did the same, arming itself against its citizens when they dared protest injustice. The system of bridges over the Chicago River, a beloved piece of our heritage as a city that works, were raised at Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s whim, like drawbridges over a castle moat, restricting access to downtown not to looters or criminals, but to Chicago’s essential workers and downtown residents. It was within this contested context in August 2020 that pre-planning for a new “bottom up” comprehensive plan began with community engagement, conducted in homes across Chicago, over Zoom.

The We Will Chicago plan differs from the previous plans in its execution and ambition. The Burnham Plan was the work of a small group of private sector architects and planners. Where the 1966 Plan relied on the expertise of those working in city government, We Will Chicago builds recommendations using not only those in government and the private sector, but a robust range of community organizations, nonprofit organizations, and individual constituents. Both the Burnham Plan and 1966 Plan were the work of a narrow demographic of mostly male, mostly white professionals, typical of the era, while We Will Chicago is the work of a broader demographic that includes groups both historically excluded from the planning process and those harmed by municipal planning actions.

During the pre-planning work for We Will Chicago, community discussion and research identified eight planning pillars and five themes to guide research and policymaking. Each pillar, Arts & Culture, Civic & Community Engagement, Economic Development, Environment, Climate, & Energy, Housing & Neighborhoods, Lifelong Learning, Public Health & Safety, and Transportation & Infrastructure, was managed by a team of volunteers, community partners, and agencies. These pillars will be addressed by themes, Historic Reckoning and Trust-Building, Systemic Evaluation of Equity Impacts, Sustained Interagency Collaboration, Accessible and Meaningful Community Engagement, and Accountability through Shared Metrics and Transparency. Each pillar has goals and objectives and is backed up with strong supporting data.

We Will Chicago is not shy in acknowledging past harms. Within its very first pages, the draft plan includes a land acknowledgement and a detailed historical account of the impacts of federal highway construction, urban renewal, and the construction of high-rise public housing, actions that the 1966 Plan saw as ways to include quality of life that we now know created, enforced or allowed ongoing racial inequities.

While the We Will Chicago plan identifies systemic challenges, other existing city initiatives will help the plan achieve its visionary goals. Introduced in the fall of 2019, INVEST South/West is a multi-departmental community revitalization initiative that aligns public and private investments. Targeting eleven neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides that have experienced disinvestment, INVEST South/West’s effort to conscript public resources towards specific projects to catalyze private investment is a game changer. Yet the reliance of public support may render some projects unsustainable in the long term, and it is too soon to celebrate INVEST South/West’s three years of investment and planning against a lifetime of disinvestment. Things take time.

It is difficult to determine where some of Chicago’s most controversial projects might fit within the We Will Chicago framework. Searching the draft for keywords like “Casino,” “NASCAR Street Race,” “Police Training Facility,” and “Columbus Monuments” yields nothing, but neither does a detailed read with these proposals at front of mind, nor the big picture concepts of building equity and resilience. The plan will move from draft to final adoption during an election year, and an already crowded mayoral and aldermanic race guarantees its politicization. The public comment period continues through November 2022 for the We Will Chicago plan, and its outcome is still unknown.

Ultimately, committing to a more equitable and resilient city will require moving beyond specific pillars, themes, or even policy recommendations and towards the impacts that planning may have when it works in concert with things that we can control, like what to build and where, and things that we cannot control, such as natural disasters and global pandemics.

As We Will Chicago is implemented in the next decade, it is important to be mindful that the process of planning for a city is a moving target. We must keep the planning process open for the next decade and the decade after that.

While big developers and profit margins continue to influence how Chicago gets planned, built, and demolished, activists, social movements, and mission-based workers, as well as those working for good within city agencies, have the ability to influence how Chicago will implement the 2023 Plan in coming years. They also have the responsibility to hold the City of Chicago’s leadership accountable.

Will we, Chicago?