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Infrastructure trust and Red Line extension

Mayor Emanuel’s proposed infrastructure trust will be discussed at a community meeting on the Red Line extension in Roseland on Thursday.

Representatives of Grassroots Collaborative, the NAACP, AFSCME and other groups have been invited for a panel on “threats and opportunities” related to the infrastructure fund at the quarterly meeting of the Red Line Oversight Committee of the Developing Communities Project, said organizer John Paul Jones.

The meeting takes place at 11 a.m. on Thursday, April 19 at Lilydale First Baptist Church, 649 W. 113th Street.

DCP has been pushing since 2003 to extend rapid transit service to the city’s last unserved area.  After being on hold for decades, the project was approved by the CTA in 2009.

The project — which would extend the Red Line from 95th to 130th Street and add four new stations — is proceeding steadily, Jones said, with an environmental impact study and public outreach now underway.  Consultants conducting the environmental study are expected to report tomorrow.

Earlier this year the CTA hired Goldman Sachs, Loop Capital, and Estrada Hinojosa to serve as financial advisers for the modernization and extension of the Red Line.  Jones said it’s possible the infrastructure trust, if passed, could also come into play.

DCP executive director Gwen Rice said the group wants to weigh the benefits of public-private financing and make sure the community is at the table when decisions are made.  One of the group’s priorities is making sure that work on the extension goes to local residents, she said.


When the infrastructure trust was first announced on February 29, the city’s chief financial officer Lois Scott created a small stir by saying private financing for the Red Line extension could be paid for with distance-based fares.

In her new blog for the Center for Neighborhood Technology, CTA vice chair Jackie Grimshaw rejects the idea.

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Alternatives to cuts

With Mayor Emanuel’s budget proposal expected to emphasize austerity with heavy cuts to city services, proposals to bolster revenues — and ensure that sacrifice is truly shared — are gaining traction.

“We’re afraid [the budget] is going to be heavy, heavy, heavy on cuts” including public safety and other city services, with the main impact “on working families and public sector workers,” said Amisha Patel of the Grassroots Collaborative, which is holding a “corporate welfare tour” Wednesday morning (see below).

The group’s initiative to return hundreds of millions of TIF funds to the city and other taxing bodies has the most momentum right now.  Seventeen aldermen cosponsored the Responsible Budget Ordinance – which would return 50 percent of surplus TIF dollars from all TIFs with balances over $5 million – and more have signed on since it was introduced last week.

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Wangari Maathai on the West Side

The Center for Neighborhood Technology recalls a 2007 visit to a Chicago school by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, who died Monday in Nairobi at the age of 71.

Maathai graced the Al Raby School for Community and Environment in East Garfield Park to attend the dedication of a natural garden that was named for her, one of CNT’s first green infrastructure projects.  The 1,500 square-foot native woodland garden at the school’s entrance  is “not only beautiful; it also connected the students to nature by providing a hands-on experience in landscape design, creation, and maintenance,” CNT writes.

“At the garden dedication, Ms. Maathai drew a connection between the work of the students on Chicago’s West Side to students around the world who ‘get down on the ground’ to plant gardens as a means of making the world more peaceful and just.

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Wicker Park pushes for transit-oriented development

UPDATED – A four-year effort by community and business groups around Wicker Park in favor of mixed-use, transit-oriented development at a major intersection seems to be paying off.

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Nonprofit innovators

Two Chicago nonprofits on the cutting edge of creating green communities are among eight organizations from around the world receiving a MacArthur Foundation award for creative and effective institutions.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology will receive $650,000 and the Chicago Community Loan Fund will get $500,000 with the award.

“These organizations may be small but their impact is tremendous,” said MacArthur president Jonathan Fanton in a statement.

An innovator in research and practice on urban sustainability for over three decades, CNT is now seeing many of its ideas emerge as policy proposals under the administration of President Barack Obama — who once served on CNT’s board of directors.

The administration’s stimulus bill included money for energy conservation, for greening water infrastructure, and for a smart electric grid, all areas where CNT has been a pioneer, said Nicole Gotthelf.

CNT’s work since it helped found the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership in 1990 is reflected in new federal support for high-speed rail, and the recent announcement that HUD and the U.S. Department of Transportation will work together on transit-oriented housing development cited CNT’s groundbreaking Housing and Transportation Affordability Index.

CNT projects which promote urban sustainability include the I-GO car-sharing program and the Energy Smart Pricing Plan. An Energy Savers Program provides energy audits and financing to reduce energy use (and maintain affordability) in multifamily buildings — a CNT effort that goes back more than two decades.

The Chicago Community Loan Fund promotes sustainable building practices by nonprofit and for-profit development groups — a focus it took up several years ago, when spiraling energy costs challenged affordable housing developers and tenants, said executive director Calvin Holmes.

Founded in 1991, CCLF provides low-cost financing and technical assistance to nonprofit community development organizations for affordable housing, economic development, and social service initiatives. The Fund backs small and emerging groups in low-income communities, providing predevelopment financing not generally available from banks.

Now CCLF helps clients achieve greater energy efficiency and utilize environmentally-friendly building materials. The group publishes a guide to Building for Sustainability, sponsors an information exchange working group of affordable green builders, and holds an annual workshop on sustainable development for community development corporations, contractors, and others.

With the MacArthur award, CCLF plans to expand its technical assistance and add resource fairs and more targeted workshops, in order to help community development groups, contractors, and architects stay on top of rapidly-advancing green building technology, Holmes said.

“We want to be part of the knowledge transfer, to keep our clients current on what’s new, what’s best-in-class, and what’s becoming obsolete,” he said.

The awardees will be honored in a ceremony at the MacArthur Foundation’s Chicago office on June 11.

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 Publication by Claremont Press is expected later this spring.

CNT celebrates 30 years

Thirty years ago, while most environmentalists focused on preserving natural areas, a small group of young people opened an office on the West Side, where they started working with community organizations to promote community gardens.

Thirty years later the Center for Neighborhood Technology has compiled an impressive record of achievement as a “think-and-do” tank which combines research and practical innovation aimed at making cities sustainable.

The group will celebrate its 30th anniversary Wednesday, September 17 at the Garfield Park Conservatory (300 N. Central Park, 6 to 10 p.m.)

CNT “started out small with some crazy ideas, and now those crazy ideas are what everyone is talking about,” said Nicole Gotthelf.

In its early days, CNT worked to scale back the Deep Tunnel project, saving taxpayers billions of dollars — today it’s working with public agencies on stormwater management, a topic of growing concern.

In the 1980s CNT built greenhouses in low-income neighborhoods, won a ban on landfill expansion, joined the community fight against the Chicago World’s Fair, helped 170 local nonprofits increase their energy efficiency, and improved energy conservation in thousands of units of multifamily and single family homes. The group worked on local networks to prevent housing abandonment and job loss.

In the 1990s CNT helped lead the fight to turn the Federal Highway Bill into a comprehensive transportation appropriation, with money for mass transit and other transportation alternatives. Locally it organized citizen involvement in regional transportation planning.

Recent accomlishments include CTA’s U-Pass for students at 23 local institutions; the Local Efficient Mortgage and the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index; the Community Energy Cooperative (now CNT Energy); and the I-Go car-sharing program, which now has 10,000 members.

CNT has worked with the City of Chicago on its Climate Action Plan and is now working with the Clinton Foundation helping cities around the world reduce their carbon footprint.

The key concept which CNT pioneered was sustainability, combining environmental and economic concerns to promote efficiency and equity in resource use and improve urban quality of life — while lowering the cost of living.

“Our work is demonstrating that cities can be the solution to the challenge of climate change and economic inequality because of their often hidden assets of density and social networks,” Gotthelf said.

Nobel Laureate to Dedicate School Garden

Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, will preside over a ceremony dedicating a new garden named in her honor at the Al Raby High School for Community and Environment, 3545 W. Fulton, on Saturday, September 22, at 6 p.m.

The native woodlands garden has replaced 2000 square feet of concrete at the school’s entrance and provided students a hands-on experience in landscape design, creation and maintenance, said Nicole Gotthelf of the Center for Neighorhood Technology, which is the school’s founding civic partner. Students, staff, and CNT collaborated with city Greencorps workers and community businesses on the garden, which was supported by a grant from the Prince Charitable Trusts.

A small school opened in 2004 in the old Lucy Flowers Academy building in East Garfield Park, Al Raby High is named for the Chicago civil rights leader and teacher who worked here with Martin Luther King and later directed the Peace Corps in Ghana. The school equips students to tackle social justice and environmental issues, and seeks to use community activism to inspire students personally and academically.

A community mapping technology called Geographic Information Systems, which helps study the impact of social and environmental issues, is used throughout the school’s curriculum; the same GIS technology is used by Maathai’s Green Belt Movement to map reforestation efforts.

Maathai is visiting Chicago as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, discussing her recent autobiography “Unbowed” at the University of Chicago on September 23.

The Green Belt Movement she founded in Kenya in 1977 has planted 30 million trees, created 6,000 nurseries and provided livelihoods to thousands of poor rural women in an effort to address deforestation and poverty.

Finding the roots of environmental degradation in government corruption and global development strategies that consume resources and promote inequality, the Green Belt Movement confronted Kenya’s dictatorship, and Maathai was jailed repeatedly and severely beaten by police; she lived in hiding at times during the early ’90s. But in Kenya’s first democratic election in 2002 she was overwhelmingly elected to parliament and became assistant minister for the environment.

The 2004 Nobel Prize recognized Maathai for “a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights, and women’s rights.”

This year she is spearheading the Billion Tree Campaign of the United Nations Environmental Program, an effort to plant one billion trees in one year in an attempt to mitigate global warming.

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