Former city transportation chief lands urban planning post at top architecture firm

Gia Biagi said under the new post at Jeanne Gang’s firm, her team will work to help revive cities and “put our tools in service of helping communities solve problems.”

SHARE Former city transportation chief lands urban planning post at top architecture firm
Former Chicago Dept. of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi starts a new role in charge of planning and urban design efforts at the renown Chicago architecture firm Studio Gang.

Former Chicago Dept. of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi starts a new role in charge of planning and urban design efforts at the renown Chicago architecture firm Studio Gang.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

While the city’s top transportation post remains vacant, the department’s respected former commissioner has landed a leadership post at the award-winning Chicago architecture firm Studio Gang.

Gia Biagi will join Studio Gang as Principal of Urbanism, the firm announced Thursday.

Biagi told the Sun-Times that under the newly-created role, she’ll lead Studio Gang’s planning and urban design work nationally.

The firm will merge “how we think about cities, how we revitalize them, and how that connects to other important systems, whether that’s emphasizing ecology or looking at the important public policy questions on the ground,” Biagi said.

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The result of the new focus would be to “try to put our tools in service of helping communities solve problems,” she said.

Biagi worked for Studio Gang from 2015 to 2019, when she was hired as transportation commissioner by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

But she stepped down from the post on August 11 under freshman Mayor Brandon Johnson. The spot is one of at least five key commissionerships — including the departments of planning, housing and public health — that Johnson has yet to fill.

Counted among Biagi’s achievements as commissioner are kicking off Lightfoot’s $3.7 billion capital improvements plan, building an additional 30 miles of streetscape improvements, and improving an outdoor dining program to help restaurants during the pandemic.

In a news release issued when Biagi resigned, Johnson said she was “instrumental in implementing transportation systems and critical public infrastructure that improves neighborhoods, connects residents and promotes safe and sustainable mobility.”

Led by 2011 MacArthur fellow Jeanne Gang, Studio Gang has won acclaim for a number of its projects, including Chicago skyscrapers Aqua Tower and St. Regis.

Gang told the Sun-Times that the firm’s urban planning studio was designed 12 years ago “with this idea of getting things done, not just making plans … but to really see change. And that’s what motivates Gia, that’s what motivates us.”

One such Studio Gang project is Tom Lee Park, a 30-acre expanse along the Mississippi River in Memphis that is a significant improvement over the relatively meager and flood-prone greenspace it replaces.

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Former CDOT Commissioner Gia Biagi worked on Tom Lee Park in Memphis before joining city government. Biagi said she wants to continue this type of work now that she’s returned to Studio Gang.

Ty Cole and SCAPE

The park formally opens on Labor Day. And Biagi, who worked on the project before joining CDOT in 2019, said Chicago must work to leverage federal infrastructure funds to bring about more transformative efforts here as well.

“If you look at something like the North DuSable Lake Shore Drive project — that is utterly transformative,” Biagi, who helmed the project as CDOT commissioner, said.

“We’re going from Ohio Street [north] to the city limits, and it’s not simply a transportation project,” she said. “It’s a fundamental rethinking of parkland of that entire edge of the city.”

She also said the planned redo of the Eisenhower Expressway holds the possibility of knitting together the West Side communities that were separated when the sunken roadway was built.

“We have to think about it in a bigger way,” Biagi said. “So there’s a lot on the table for the city ahead. Those are just two examples of so many things that are on the table.”

Lee Bey is the Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic and a member of the Editorial Board.

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