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Chicagoland’s favorite places

What Makes Your Place Great? That’s the name of a contest inviting area residents to reveal their favorite undiscovered public spaces. It’s part of a larger project promoting “placemaking” and the importance of lively neighborhoods and inviting public spaces.

Sponsored by the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the contest invites residents to submit a photo or video of their favorite local place along with a brief description of what it means to them and how it contributes to their community.

Prizes include passes to area cultural institutions – and winners’ spots may end up on a special CAF tour this fall.

Bush Community Garden of Hope

It’s the second year of the contest.Last year 8,000 people voted online for 51 entrants.

Among the 2009 winners was the Bush community garden in South Chicago (Newstips covered the garden’s first season in 2004).

Beyond showcasing special places, the goal is “to help people understand what goes into creating and sustaining great places in communities and how those places contribute to a healthy region,” said Mandy Burrell Booth of MPC.

“Sure, great places are fun to visit,” she said. “But they also can make communities more economically vibrant, connect neighbors, reduce stress, improve safety, and keep people healthier by giving them someplace they can walk to.”

Through its Placemaking Chicago initiative, MPC is training planners from local agencies. “In some ways, placemaking turns traditional community planning on its head,” said Burrell. “Instead of starting with a budget item or a project list, it starts with people’s vision for their places.”

In 2007, MPC and the Project for Public Spaces published a Guide to Neighborhood Placemaking in Chicago. It includes a step-by-step guide, a list of local resources, and seven case studies, ranging from the Bloomingdale Trail to the drum circle at the 63rd Street beach.

The group is also partnering with the Wicker Park Bucktown Special Service Area to “activate” the Polish Triangle, where Division, Milwaukee, and Ashland meet.

Last year they held an online survey and a two-day open house, where residents could help develop ideas for the space.  Currently WPB is sponsoring a public art project for local artists to present their ideas, which will be installed in vacant storefronts in the area.

Photo by Maureen Kelleher from NCP, Southeast Chicago goes from steel to green.

Burnham and Addams

Daniel Burnham probably never actually said “make no little plans,” and he certainly recognized the value of small projects (like filling potholes), Bill Savage argued a few weeks ago in the Reader’s cover package on the Burnham centennial.  Also in that issue, Lynn Becker notes “the absence of skepticism” in the centennial celebration.

A healthy dose of skepticism, Jane Addams-style – and much attention to small-scale, on-the-ground projects addressing real-life problems  — is offered by Jan Metzger’s book, “What Would Jane Say: City-Building Women and a Tale of Two Chicagos,” due out this week from Lake Claremont Press.

It looks at the Burnham plan from the perspective of the settlement movement, based on the writings of scores of progressive Chicago women.

Newstips gave an extensive preview of the book earlier this year, based mainly on several conversations with Metzger, a longtime staffer at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Go to 2040

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning holds the first of dozens of “highly interactive” community workshops to let residents contribute their thoughts on transportation and land use goals for the 2040 comprehensive regional plan.

The first workshop takes place Thursday, June 4 at 7 p.m. the Unity Temple in Oak Park; next week workshops are planned for Vernon Hills and Chicago’s West Side.  (Full schedule is here.)  CMAP also has a GO TO 2040 web tool where people can fashion their own growth scenarios, as well as kiosks at Metra stations, parks, and libraries.

Housing and transportation, together

The Center for Neighborhood Technology’s work on the impact of transportation costs on housing affordability was cited by two cabinet secretaries last week.  At a congressional hearing, the secretaries of HUD and the Department of Transportation announced the creation of an interagency partnership to promote sustainable communities through coordinating housing and transportation policy and investments, according to CNT’s blog.  (A 2006 Newstip has background.)

Burnham Plan: a critical view

Jane Addams and the women of Hull House might have something to add to the discussions now swirling around the centennial of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago.

They weren’t consulted at the time — though if they had been, the plan could have been much more comprehensive. And more attention to their ideas about addressing Chicago’s problems might have saved us a lot of trouble (and money) over the past century.

That’s the premise of a forthcoming book — entitled “What Would Jane Say?” — which imagines conversations among settlement house workers and other progressives of the day on aspects of the Burnham plan. A reading will be staged Thursday by the author, longtime Chicago activist Jan Metzger, joined by her colleagues from the Center for Neighborhood Technology (details below).

Today the Burnham plan is lauded for proposing large-scale planning on a regional basis and for promoting the lakefront and forest preserves. Many of its central proposals, however — the gaudy “civic center” first and foremost — lent themselves to vivid diagrams but were simply “too grandiose” to be accomplished, Metzger says. As a whole, she says, the plan is “solely for the benefit of businessmen and completely at taxpayer expense.”

“It was a promotional package,” she says. “That’s why the pictures are so spectacular.”

Nothing about neighborhoods

Read today, the Plan of Chicago resembles nothing so much as Chicago 2016′s Olympic bid book — high-soaring rhetoric which glosses over contentious issues (the only mention of “slum conditions” is in the middle of a section on widening streets) while predicting a glorious future, if only the citizenry can be inspired to rise to it.

The plan includes “almost nothing about Chicago’s neighborhoods,” and its transportation chapter is mainly about moving freight more efficiently, Metzger says. Amenities were aimed at the wealthy. The discussion of the lakefront stresses yachting, while Burnham’s own ideas about restaurants of varying price levels and transit to get working people to the lake were deleted from the published plan, she says.

Metzger suspects that most folks who are “laudatory and uncritical” have never read the plan’s appendix. “If you read that, an entirely different meaning emerges,” she says. “It’s about the legal implications of the plan, mainly what kinds of projects are eligible for taxpayer support, and how to use eminent domain.”

To the businessmen’s plea for taxpayer support, she contrasts the accomplishments of the “city-building women” of Hull House and other settlement houses. “They were making major progress in actually improving people’s lives, and they did it with very modest investments.”

And to their gathering of the wealthiest men in Chicago — “their idea of diversity was having someone from every club at the table” — she contrasts the women’s ability to join people of every nationality, from the richest to the poorest.

Hot house of innovation

Hull House was something of a hot house for urban innovation, intensely focused on the most troubled district in the city, with a strong practical approach. They established day care, a kindergarten, afterschool programs, and adult education, along with a library, a museum of labor, a book bindery, an art studio, a music school and orchestra, and much more. They built the first playground in Chicago, and went on to found the Playground Association of America, which held its first conference in Chicago in 1907.

Settlement house workers also grappled directly with the kind of city problems that the Burnham plan glossed over. Florence Kelley was the state’s first factory inspector, and helped win sweatshop and child labor laws. And after reporting on inadequate garbage collection which bred rats and disease in alleys where children played, Jane Addams was made sanitary inspector of the 19th ward. She and members of the Hull House Women’s Association filed 1,000 complaints in the first year.

Their programs didn’t hinge on taxpayer support, either. When the state legislature agreed children should no longer be housed in adult jails and tried in adult courts — but failed to provide funding for a juvenile court and detention center — Addams enlisted a number of wealthy women who financed the new institutions through their first seven years. A low-budget effort by settlement houses to set up tents with hammocks where children sick from spoiled milk could be nursed to health — and their mothers educated in prevention — reduced summer infant mortality by 18 percent between 1903 and 1909.

Maps and Papers

Hull House also conducted extensive research, digging deep into neighborhood conditions — just the kind of thing you might expect of “comprehensive” city planners. Using the new method of statistical mapping, Hull House studied overcrowding, truancy, typhoid fever, addiction, infant mortality, and sanitation.

In 1895 they published Hull House Maps and Papers, an incredibly rich and detailed document, mapping ethnicity and wages for each household in the district and including papers on sweatshops, child laborers, workers wages and expenses, labor organization, and county institutions for the indigent. Papers on the Bohemian and Italian communities are by editors of ethnic newspapers.

Indeed, the settlement house movement was deeply involved in a debate at the birth of urban planning over its proper purview — should it deal exclusively with physical layout (and aim for the City Beautiful) or address social conditions? Metzger points out that the first meeting of the National Conference on City Planning (also in 1909, in Washington DC) was organized by Mary Simkhovitch, a New York settlement house leader.

Her campaign on congestion had focused on its social and economic causes and called for parks, schools, playgrounds, and transit, along with housing law reform. She believed neighborhood plans should form the basis of city plans, and residents should participate in planning — including poor immigrants. But before long the NCCP was entirely dominated by architects, engineers and lawyers; Simkhovitch went on to found the National Housing Association in 1911.

(The tide may be turning, though: Metzger notes that Chicago Metropolis 2020, launched by the same Commercial Club that sponsored Burnham’s plan, has a “fundamentally different approach — they start with education, they talk about reducing segregation, they talk about public health.”)

Little plans

Metzger scoffs at Burnham’s edict to “make no little plans.” It’s a philosophy that has given us expensive megaprojects which reinforced inequities and turned out to be unsustainable: miles of high-rise housing projects; massive urban renewal projects separating homes, jobs, and shopping; neighborhoods demolished to build expressways to the suburbs. “All of which would have been anathema to Jane Addams and her friends,” she says. (She also thinks Addams would have hated having a tollway named for her.)

“No little plans” has given us a history of planning which is done to people rather than with them. Metgzer contrasts the approach to assimilating immigrants by the Hull House women — based on educating, organizing and empowering them — with Burnham’s, which sought “to intimidate them by the grandeur of our monuments to ourselves, so they’d stop acting like immigrants.”

Along with her own community-level involvement in affordable housing and schools — she served on Mayor Washington’s 1987 commission which launched Chicago’s school reform — Metzger worked for years with CNT’s Chicagoland Transportation and Air Quality Commission, focused on involving communities in planning their own future. She’s also served on the board of Association House, the social service agency descended from a settlement house.

Her book is written as a series of conversations by small groups drawn from about a hundred historical figures in the settlement house movement, women’s networks, and progressive supporters. Based in many places on their own prolific writings, the characters meet to discuss Burnham’s plan for parks, transportation, and the central business district, with further chapters on what’s missing: education, housing and neighborhood development, public health, justice, immigrants and labor.

The title is a bow to Addam’s prominence, but one of the book’s goals is to highlight the overlooked contributions of many other women city-builders in Chicago history.

Metzger and other CNT staffers will stage a reading of one of the chapters this Thursday, March 26, at 5:30 p.m. at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, 2125 W. North. (Reservations are requested at 773-269-4031 or katherine@cnt.org.) Publication by Claremont Press is expected later this spring.

Obama on sprawl, transit, rail

In Florida yesterday, President Obama spoke up for  mass transit and high-speed rail, noting Lincoln’s support for an intercontinental railroad even as the Civil War raged, reports Kaid Benfield, director of NRDC’s Smart Growth Project.

Obama: “The days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over. I think that Republicans, Democrats, everybody recognizes that that’s not a smart way to build communities. So we should be using this money to help spur this kind of innovative thinking when it comes to transportation. That will make a big difference.”

Benfield has compiled statements by Obama on smart growth, transportation, cities, and regions.  It’s good stuff.

Prospects for New Legislative Session

Major issues facing the Illinois General Assembly will be addressed – one day before the opening of the legislature’s 95th session – by senior staff of the Metropolitan Planning Council at a media briefing on January 9.

Prospects for sustainable development proposals and funding for education and transportation will be discussed by MPC president MarySue Barrett and other top staff.

In 2007 legislators will consider funding for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the new agency joining transportation and land use planning, and MPC supports including a dedicated funding stream for the agency in a new state capital plan, said Mandy Burrell. Such funding could provide incentives to encourage transit-oriented development, and should be tied to performance indicators measuring regional progress toward sustainable development, she said.

The group has backed the RTA’s Moving Beyond Congestion campaign to build support for expanding public transit and has studied proposals to use public-private partnerships to finance roadways and transportation projects. “Such partnerships are most appropriate for new infrastructure projects,” Burrell said.

Other topics at the media briefing include proposals to encourage development of affordable housing near jobs and transportation and to link expanded school funding to tax reform and educational improvement.

The briefing will be Tuesday, January 9 at 12 noon at MPC’s offices at 25 E. Washington, and is open to the media. Reporters are asked to register in advance.

Board Game Aids Regional Planning

Public involvement in regional planning is being stepped up significantly, with the new Regional Planning Board using a public involvement tool developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Participants at seven public meetings on updating the 2030 Regional Transportation Plan (starting Tuesday in Berwyn) will use Transopoly, a planning game developed by CNT’s Chicagoland Transportation and Air Quality Commission and first used in CTAQC’s Connecting Communities Summits.

Breaking into small groups, participants will work with maps of the region marked with existing land use and transportation features, a hypothetical budget to improve access and reduce congestion, and other tools.

The process helps community residents move beyond project “wish lists” to prioritize proposals within realistic fiscal constraints, said Jan Metzgar of CTAQC.

In the past, public involvement requirements have often been fulfilled with hearings held after plans are largely developed — a process that caused costly delays with the current Dan Ryan project, when community objections forced last minute changes. The current round of public meetings will focus on projects farther in the future, Metzgar said.

CTAQC has advocated creating a regional planning body that combined transportation and land-use planning since 1995. The Chicago Area Transportation Study has been the official metropolitan planning agency – designated to receive federal planning funds – since 1955. Too often municipalities have been forced to make land-use decisions in the wake of transportation plans, Metzgar said. “Land use has to lead,” she said.

Created by legislation passed in 2005, the Regional Planning Board merges CATS with the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, with increased representation for suburban Cook County, along with Chicago and the collar counties.

In recent years CTAQC’s community summits have found that one top priority of most participants – including most automobile users – was greater transporation options, including more walkable communities, Metzgar said.

RPB’s public meetings take place at 7 p.m. following a 6:30 p.m. sign-in, and will be held:

Tuesday, May 16, at the Berwyn Police Department, 6420 W. 16th, Berwyn;

Thursday, May 18, Waukegan Police Department, 420 Robert V. Sabonjian Place, Waukegan;

Wednesday, May 31, Kane County Government Building, 719 S. Batavia, Geneva;

Thursday, June 1, Ann Sather’s Restaurant, 929 W. Belmont;

Tuesday, June 6, Joliet Public Library, 150 N. Ottawa, Joliet;

Thursday, June 8, Palatine Village Hall, 200 E. Wood, Palatine;

Thursday, June 15, Blue Island City Hall Annex, 2434 Vermont, Blue Island.



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