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Chicago refocuses 28 city planners on neighborhood revitalization

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Struggling neighborhoods will get more attention

A mosaic on the side of a building with windows. There are trees in the foreground.
A mosaic mural in Chicago.
Carmen Troesser

Planning commissioner Maurice Cox was welcomed, and grilled, by elected officials during his department’s budget hearing on Thursday. During his conversation with aldermen, he explained further details about new revitalization strategies including hiring eight more city planners to focus exclusively on struggling neighborhoods.

Since beginning in September, Cox has reconfigured the 20 existing city planners so that neighborhoods involved in the Invest South/West initiative get more attention as they launch. He now meets with the planners twice weekly, who are assigned a specific region of the city. Cox is also in the process of meeting all 50 aldermen, and taking hours-long tours of the neighborhoods in each of their wards.

Many of the aldermen are excited to see what kind of changes Cox will bring with his neighborhood-focused planning. However, traditionally aldermen have directed development and, in some instances, have been the only people to bring necessary resources to their neighborhoods. So, there was some skepticism.

34th Ward Alderwoman Carrie Austin, who oversees neighborhoods on the Far South Side, pushed Cox asking when he was going to visit her ward and what her constituents could expect to see. Ultimately, Cox’s response got to the heart of the issue for the fiery alderwoman saying he recognized her feelings of mistrust and understood why she lost faith in the city’s planning department.

Cox emphasized that the eight new planners his department hopes to hire in 2020 will be responsible for creating “holistic, equitable development.” That means a change in “walkable geographies,” with improvements in stores, parks, and train stations.

Cox also mentioned he will evaluate certain city policies such as transit-oriented development (TOD). This program incentivized projects near L stations for developers by removing parking requirements and some believe the policy was a factor in accelerating gentrification in certain neighborhoods. Cox wanted to ensure TOD “isn’t just relieving developments from parking requirements and that its actually equitable.”

11th Ward Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson made it clear that his ward was doing fine without city planners. Most of the time when developments were discussed at community meetings a planner never attends, he said.

Alderman Thompson, and a few others, asked why Cox hadn’t reached out to the aldermen—explaining that they could be resources and relay what residents have asked to see in their neighborhoods for years.

Cox is working with many strategies that were successful in Detroit—and that’s getting residents directly involved with the planning department. In 2018, Detroit’s planning department had 250 community meetings with locals to discuss development. That approach would introduce a lot changes, especially for the 50 aldermen who have, until Mayor Lightfoot, operated with the authority to approve and reject development and infrastructure projects.

At the end of November, the City Council will consider ordinances related to the 2020 budget.