Chicago Fed Insights

Pace, Scale, Quality: How Transportation, Urban Planning, and Architecture Can Build a Better Chicago

August 21, 2020

On Monday, August 17, the Chicago Fed’s Project Hometown convened a panel of experts to discuss the past failure and future promise of transportation, urban planning, and architecture to deliver an equitable quality of life across Chicago.

Like many cities, Chicago embodies a “tale of two cities: on the one hand, a thriving, glamorous downtown, and on the other hand, the South and West sides plagued by everything from violence to decades of disinvestment,” described Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune. This bifurcated landscape, Kamin said, is partly the result of an unfettered capitalism that has led to “ever-more-luxurious private space” rather than “uplifting the public realm that all citizens experience.” At the same time, systemic racist practices and policies have led communities of color to a state of disrepair, poverty, and neglect, observed Kevin Sutton, executive director of the Foundation for Homan Square.

But the defining features of 2020—a global health crisis and civil protest of longstanding racial and economic disparities—have led to an awakening, Sutton said, that the challenges faced by Black and Brown communities are ones we must confront together. This provides “an opportunity for thinking differently about how we interact in central cities,” moderator Susan Longworth, a senior advisor for community and economic development at the Chicago Fed, stated. By mobilizing resources from corporate citizens, institutions of higher learning, nonprofit partners, and local, state, and federal government, the pillars of urban design—transportation, urban planning, and architecture—have a significant role to play in making Chicago’s landscape more equitable and inclusive.

Transportation plays the vital economic function of bringing people from their homes to their jobs. While Chicago has “excellent transportation bones,” it also suffers from a disjointed, inefficient system that causes long, crowded, and expensive commutes for many riders, noted Sharon Feigon, executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center. As a result, many communities on Chicago’s South and West sides “struggle to connect to economic opportunities that exist in job centers just a few miles from where they live,” Longworth observed.

The transportation landscape experienced a significant shock as a result of the Covid crisis, making this an opportune moment to design a more efficient and equitable system. Feigon identified four priorities. First, buses, which carry the most people yet move the slowest, need priority on the roads. Second, bikers, scooters, and pedestrians need to be able to travel safely. These modes of transportation, which support social distancing, environmental consciousness, and individual health, have all seen a significant jump in demand. Third, the different parts of Chicago’s transit system need to be integrated so riders need only one payment system and can transfer with ease. And fourth, new mobility hubs should be located in underserved neighborhoods.

These underserved communities, often majority Black and Brown, have a history of neglect from the city’s civic leaders. As Kamin noted, when architects Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennet introduced their famous 1909 plan for Chicago, “the business leaders who sponsored the plan crushed draft sections that would have uplifted Chicago's downtrodden neighborhoods.” Since then, too little attention has been paid to the consequences of urban planning for the city’s most vulnerable citizens, Sutton said—for instance, how the placement of features such as viaducts and rail lines cause the destruction of some neighborhoods and the gentrification of others, displacing many people in the process.

To redress this historical neglect, Chicago has now launched Invest South/West, an ambitious initiative to revitalize ten of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. As Maurice Cox, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development, described, the city seeks to incentivize private investment in areas that have long been ignored by making public land available for development.

In each neighborhood, the city collaborated with the community to identify iconic, beloved buildings that will anchor construction of amenities to enhance the community’s quality of life. Cox emphasized that developers who submit proposals must illustrate how the construction will contribute to a vibrant, urban public realm that will provide opportunities for people to work, play, and shop in the neighborhoods where they live.

The vision of equitable urban development described by Cox will ultimately be brought to life by architects. Architecture may not at first glance appear likely to remedy economic exclusion. And indeed, as Kamin said, architects cannot change a bigoted mind, convince a banker to provide a loan, or halt violence.

But architecture is a ubiquitous element that—literally—shapes how we live. “Because architects are trained to think outside the box, they can help clients recognize and realize the latent potential of a seemingly irredeemable building or piece of land. They can help to ameliorate the effects of urban poverty through such building types as community centers or through public spaces that make communities attractive and safe,” Kamin said. Architecture thus has a significant role to play in elevating a neglected urban landscape.

To conclude the discussion, Longworth reflected on the juxtaposition of trust and risk when it comes to urban planning at a time when so many things that we took for granted have changed. Sutton pointed out that communities of color have been making plans for years, with little tangible results. To build trust, Sutton said, requires actual development at a rapid pace and large scale. Equally important, Kamin added, is quality, to avoid development disasters such as Chicago’s high-rise public housing. These three features can be achieved, Cox said, when the risks are shared by the city, the community, and private investment. Including community leaders in the process means people understand that development is something that’s being done with them, not to them, which increases the likelihood of success. This moment, then, despite its uncertainty and tragedy, may be a singular opportunity “to align resources, align jobs with transportation, align public and private investment, align pace and scale and also quality” in such a way as to finally deliver on the promise of equitable urban development for all of Chicago, Longworth concluded.

The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

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