City planners have their hand in every aspect of the built environment: zoning, historic preservation, development policy, waterway infrastructure, industrial corridors, park space, and affordable housing.
Soon, Chicago will employ the largest number of planners it’s had in recent history. The Department of Development and Planning (DPD) is hiring seven new planners, which would mean about 32 in total.
Previously, the department would send planners where the construction was happening or where projects were commissioned. That strategy ultimately leaves out neighborhoods that are disadvantaged and lack new development. Under newly appointed DPD Commissioner Maurice Cox’s leadership, that’s changing. Citizens will be at the center of the development question, he says.
Instead, neighborhoods will be broken up into seven divisions, and planners will work directly with aldermen and community stakeholders in those areas. They will have a partnership with the aldermen and work to bring in development through proactive, rather than reactive, strategies, Cox says.
“What we’re aiming to do is have planners who are singularly dedicated to those regions of the city. So, each region will have a cohort of neighborhood planners. This is a new framework to make sure all the wards and community areas are equally serviced,” Cox says.
One of the most immediate projects the planners will address is the Invest South/West initiative. Announced in October, it will direct a $250 million public and private investment into 10 South and West side neighborhoods focused on revitalizing commercial corridors, improving transportation, refreshing streetscapes, and building affordable housing.
The initiative will also bring residents into the planning process. There are a handful of kick-off events through January which will introduce each community to the plan and how they can participate. This holistic strategy of bringing together communities, city leaders, and planners speaks to Cox’s philosophy and how he plans to uplift neighborhoods.
“If this is successful, communities will have a road map and a framework for orderly development. I like to think that part of the success of downtown is guided by a framework—and we want to give neighborhoods access to those long-term planning resources,” he says.
Cox often quotes a South African saying: Nothing about us, without us, is for us. This translates directly to his work in Chicago: Residents must participate in the projects that are being created for them—that is essential, he says.
“I really feel long-time residents know their community deeply and have the ability to shape a vision based on their experience,” says Cox. “I don’t believe in top-down planning. I believe that planning facilitates a community’s vision of itself and then brings resources to the table and creates actionable opportunities to realize that. People cannot come from the outside and tell a community what to do.”
Cox aims to lead public investments that won’t displace people, but give people the quality of life amenities they deserve, he says. A stronger partnership like this will mean the future of neighborhoods is in the hands of the stakeholders—not the private sector or megadevelopers.