How To Save Chicago

Chicago police violenceREUTERS/Jim YoungA police officer stands beneath a beam of light projected into the sky at the 10th Annual Chicago Police Memorial Foundation’s Candlelight Vigil in Chicago, Illinois, September 17, 2013.

Imagine city leaders surveying Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, a landscape of ash and ruin. Their task, as daunting as it must have been exhilarating: Build the city again, from the husk of what was. Build it better. 30-eight years later, famed civic architect Daniel Burnham offered his Plan of Chicago, a blueprint for building this city into a dominant economic and cultural force on the national and world stage. Mission accomplished. Today Chicago’s muscular skyline and robust neighborhoods draw tourists from around the world.

But not far from these enclaves of affluence are neighborhoods poisoned by foreclosed homes, boarded-up businesses and empty lots, all of which spur an exodus of people. That poison spreads, imperiling healthier communities.

In October the Tribune launched a series of editorials to draft a new Plan of Chicago, encouraging solutions for education failures, joblessness, crime and other intertwined challenges that endanger the city’s livability and future. We asked readers for their proposals to solve these problems. And they delivered.

In more than 700 proposals, readers embraced Burnham’s admonition to “Make no little plans.” On Dec. 15 we presented proposals for improving the prospects of Chicago’s children. Today, we focus on the land, how the city and its people can better use vast swaths of Chicago’s 231 square miles, reviving neighborhoods and fueling growth.

Several readers urged the city to live up to its official motto, “Urbs in Horto” — “City in a Garden.” The idea: A campaign spearheaded by foundations, businesses and City Hall to convert polluted brownfields and other vacant lots into urban gardens that would not only provide communities in food deserts with fresh produce but also generate jobs and cash. Restaurateurs gladly would buy locally grown herbs. And why stop at crops? Urban farmers can raise fish. Or bees.

The benefits of creating farms and gardens extend beyond those neighborhoods. A 2005 Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs study showed that every dollar the state spent on cleaning up brownfields yielded $US16 in private, local and federal investment.

So City Hall, foundation leaders … what are you waiting for?

Ask any Chicagoan about the city’s most pernicious problems and you’ll hear about crime. Dangerous streets. Parks that devolve into shooting galleries.

Employers flee danger zones, accelerating a neighbourhood’s collapse. How to encourage those businesses to open and stay put? One reader suggested that the city offer tax incentives and training to businesses that agree to mentor a business owner in economically struggling, high-unemployment areas. The mentors would focus on helping businesses that attract people and more development: bakeries, clothing stores, cafes, day care centres, shoe repair shops. In return, the business owner who is mentored would agree to hire people in the community. Sounds like a great idea to us.

Another strong proposal: Create designated commercial strips and parks as “refuges.” These would get 24/7 security so people would feel safe in them at any time. That would ease parents’ anxieties and strengthen neighborhoods.

An exodus of city manufacturing jobs and population has left some neighborhoods ravaged by abandoned factories and warehouses. Demolishing them is expensive and leaves … empty lots. Readers have a raft of innovative suggestions for vacant and underused structures: Convert some into temporary dorm-style residences for homeless and working-class families. Repurpose other long-vacant buildings as centres for day care and job training, or places for small-business startups to root and grow.

Think big, then bigger: Designate and nurture a new Motor Row of vehicle and service outlets. Create a string of indoor hydroponic plant farms, financed by TIF funds, establishing Chicago as a leader in the industry. Cluster enterprise zones around sewage treatment plants for industries that need vast amounts of water but not potable water. Chicago, perched on Lake Michigan, is also a perfect place for a global fresh water research center, drawing on the talents and assets of companies, institutions and universities.

Public schools anchor many communities. For years, however, Chicago Public Schools mismanaged its portfolio, keeping half-empty buildings open to avoid political blowback. No more. Last year, CPS closed almost 50 schools. If no one will repurpose or replace them with commercial or other private investments, many could be reborn as training, athletic or elder day care facilities.

Several proposals echo an idea suggested by Education Secretary Arne Duncan when he headed CPS in 2008: Create public boarding schools where children from troubled homes would eat, sleep and study in a stable setting. Such schools already exist in Washington, D.C. They’re successful, though costly to run.

Still, CPS loses millions of dollars in aid based on attendance when kids don’t go to school. Ultimately, children pay the price of their parents’ neglect. So do their neighborhoods — the entire city — as families flee to suburbia. But that flight isn’t a foregone conclusion. We’ve seen how one business on one troubled block can make a difference. The same way that one cop can. Or one teacher.

Chicago’s current land and structures aren’t fixed and immutable. They must evolve so the city can thrive as a 21st-century colossus. Chicagoans have plenty of terrific ideas to rebuild Chicago, block by block. What they lack is the money, and the clout, to begin reviving their city.

A request for your proposals

We invite you or your organisation to help craft a new Plan of Chicago. Our goal is to address the city’s current challenges holistically, not one by one. Among them: violent crime, underperforming public schools, joblessness, troubled families, population loss and desperate City Hall finances. The more concrete your proposals, the better. And tell us how you would redeploy current dollars, or raise new money, to fund your suggestions. Please include your name, town and phone number with your proposals:

Email: [email protected]

Mail: Tribune Editorial Board, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611

Learn about Daniel Burnham’s 1909 plan:

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