The last time Chicago had a plan, ‘Gunsmoke’ aired on Saturday nights. Time for a new one

Chicago’s last big vision for the future, drawn up in 1966, laid out many of the broad strokes that came to define the city.

SHARE The last time Chicago had a plan, ‘Gunsmoke’ aired on Saturday nights. Time for a new one
Chicago’s Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox is interviewed Thursday by Chicago Sun-Times reporters Fran Spielman and David Roeder.

Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox said Chicago’s first comprehensive plan in 55 years would help make opportunity “pervasive throughout the city.”

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

It hasn’t gotten much attention as the city wrestles these days with crime, the economy and a pandemic, but the Lightfoot administration wants to create a long-term citywide plan to address a host of issues from neighborhood redevelopment to public safety.

Called “We Will Chicago,” the plan aims to physically improve the city while addressing social and economic problems that have for decades impaired growth and the quality of life — particularly on the South and West sides.

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It would be Chicago’s first citywide comprehensive plan since 1966.

“In a city that has an economy the size of a country like Switzerland, we can’t continue to be separated by race and by class,” city Planning Department Commissioner Maurice Cox said during a 90-minute livestream update about the plan Thursday. “Opportunity has to be pervasive throughout the city.”

Chicago’s problems are legion. But this is the kind of long-range, “What should Chicago be in 30 years?” planning that’s been desperately needed.

A successful comprehensive plan would provide a road map to tackle all those ills systematically rather than piecemeal — and include a public commitment to devote the staff and resources necessary over the long haul to make it happen.

First plan of its kind since 1966

Comprehensive municipal plans are different than, say, urban planning documents such as the 1909 Burnham Plan. They don’t suggest specific built projects, such as the creation of Wacker Drive or the building of a westbound superhighway from downtown.

Instead, comprehensive plans approach the big challenges from a higher altitude, including goals and recommendations on issues involving socio-economics, government policy, land use, and quality of life.

“We can do better than what we’ve done, particularly over these last few years where we’ve been hard-pressed to see meaningful [redevelopment] efforts south of Roosevelt Road and west of Ashland,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during the livestream.

City officials said We Will Chicago will seek to create a more equitable city, with improvements in five areas: arts and culture; economic development; environment, climate and energy; housing and neighborhoods; lifelong education; public health and safety, and transportation and infrastructure.

The last time Chicago unveiled a comprehensive citywide plan, postage stamps were a nickel, “Gunsmoke” aired Saturday nights on Channel 2, and Richard J. Daley was mayor.

But the 1966 Comprehensive Plan laid out many of the broad strokes that came to define 20th century Chicago, calling for more public libraries, parkland and a city colleges system.

The 1966 plan sought, with some success, industrial parks and health clinics. It set the table for what became Illinois Center along Wacker Drive east of Michigan Avenue, and the Dearborn Park development in the South Loop.

“It was fairly cutting-edge,” Professor D. Bradford Hunt, chairman of the history department at Loyola University Chicago, said of the 1966 plan.

“It was comprehensive because it wasn’t a roads plan,” he said. “It talked about health, parks, the density of park space.”

But the plan fell short when it came to dealing with racism and segregation. The 1966 effort spoke directly to curbing white flight but offered no real solutions for creating integrated neighborhoods.

Today, there is Black flight, as 200,000 people have left predominantly African American neighborhoods on the South and West sides, leaving hollowed-out and economically depressed neighborhoods in their wake.

“That is important,” Hunt said. “Can Lori [Lightfoot] say ‘One of our biggest problems is Black flight’? And Blacks are not fleeing because whites are moving in, but because they’ve lost faith in the police and the school system.”

It will take a superlative new comprehensive plan to effectively tackle these problems and set the city straight. And creating the plan could stir up a fight, but it beats doing nothing and hoping things improve.

City’s future at stake

It will take three years of meetings, refinements, recommendations, community engagement and more than a little City Council politicking to craft the final comprehensive plan.

But Chicago’s future could depend on it.

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