This article was originally published by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab in Bronzeville.
When Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled We Will Chicago two years ago, the initiative to create a citywide plan was touted as having the potential to reshape Chicago, ending decades of racial segregation that has kept low-income Black and Hispanic residents in communities that lack investment.
In the years that followed, more than 100 residents and civic leaders selected by the city gathered behind closed doors to discuss a collective vision for the city’s future. But despite long meetings, dozens of ideas debated, and countless promises, the 150-page draft released earlier this summer for public comment lacked specific policy recommendations and a time frame to be implemented. Instead, the document offers 40 goals and 150 objectives.
“How is it going to affect policy decisions or budget priorities [if policy recommendations] are not in the plan,” said Amalia NietoGomez, the executive director of Alliance of the Southeast, one of the organizations that hosted community meetings on the plan. “We’re disappointed.”
The city collected a list of more than 600 “preliminary” policy ideas from the residents and civic leaders who helped draft the plan. But those ideas, critics say, are at the bottom of the We Will Chicago website, like footnotes.
City Bureau reporters interviewed a dozen people who spent a year in “research meetings” with the city, working on a vision for Chicago. While all commended Lightfoot’s administration for tackling nuanced topics, they said Lightfoot is missing an opportunity to implement real change and address Chicago’s systemic inequities by not including tangible steps to change the city’s policies and hold public officials accountable. Some wondered why meetings were closed to the general public and whether there was sufficient community participation for the plan to be truly “for and by the people.”
The public comment period closed November 1. That same day, a dozen people protested in front of City Hall, with signs that read, “Our Plan, Not The City’s Plan” and “‘We Will’ Be Heard!” They were part of a coalition that had asked the mayor’s office to extend the deadline. They argued that when they surveyed neighborhood residents in the city’s south and west sides, many had yet to hear of the plan.
“Right now, we go on our experience, and our experience is: we’ve been shafted for decades and decades and decades,” said Leone Bicchieri, founder and executive director of Working Family Solidarity, one of the members of the coalition. Bicchieri said the coalition wants the city to engage in a candid conversation that results in specific policy commitments, including a promise that investors and developers are not going to run the show.
Leone Bicchieri, founder and executive director of Working Family Solidarity, said he wants real talk from the city, not vague promises. Davon Clark for City Bureau Credit: Davon Clark/City Bureau
The city said in a statement to the coalition that it would not extend the deadline, arguing that it had spent 18 months with 115 Chicago residents and 25 community partners to co-create the We Will Chicago draft. The city also said it had gathered “critical resident input before and during the drafting phase through over 3,000 surveys, 150+ neighborhood events, and focus groups with over 250 residents.”
Kathy Dickhut, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) deputy commissioner, said in an interview with City Bureau that the priority was creating the goals and objectives, which is why less time was spent on the policy ideas. Before going further with the policy ideas, she said they would have to be flushed out and undergo an equity analysis. But she added that once the broad plan is adopted, the city will look at those 600-plus ideas and develop actionable policies or programs.
“This is a ten-year sort of vision, so we have a lot of content to work with,” Dickhut said. “We are just at the beginning of this.”
For now, the city plans to create a companion document of the policy ideas and publish it with the final version of the plan, which is expected to be approved by the city’s Plan Commission in January. Any policies or programs that come after would need City Council’s approval.
The timing of the $4 million plan isn’t lost on those keeping track of Lightfoot’s promises to uplift Chicago’s economically distressed neighborhoods. Delmarie Cobb, a longtime political consultant, said that with the February mayoral election on the horizon, the plan is a tangible item Lightfoot can point to to show voters—and her opponents—she got it done.
A citywide plan, which Lightfoot set as a top priority of her first term, became ever more important as the calls for racial justice grew louder in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and news stories highlighted the racial inequities that affect almost every aspect of Chicagoans’ daily lives, from policing and health to housing and parking tickets.
“MAKE NO LITTLE PLANS”
We Will Chicago is the city’s most sweeping acknowledgment, to date, of racial and ethnic inequities and the role public officials have played in creating them. Framed by the city as a “historical reckoning,” the draft’s opening pages summarize how redlining, school closures, the construction of the federal highway system and other urban planning choices have perpetuated racial and ethnic inequity.
Chicago’s last urban planning initiative of this scale, the 1966 Comprehensive Plan under Mayor Richard J. Daley, was both too vague to gain traction and too specific to earn the votes needed for City Council approval. While it informed some development in the following years, it mostly faded into irrelevance. Over the next five decades, the city made no big plans; instead, it focused on regional and neighborhood planning.
The city touted We Will Chicago as the first citywide planning initiative since 1966. Both plans articulate how development can align with residents’ needs and priorities but they do so in different degrees of detail.
Christina Harris, the director of land use and planning at the Metropolitan Planning Council, a local nongovernmental organization that helped the city shape the We Will Chicago planning process, said the distinction is in the word “comprehensive.” A comprehensive plan includes specific zoning and land-use policies.
Some states require cities to create comprehensive plans every ten to 20 years. Illinois does not. The state leaves the choice to municipalities, but provides guidelines for comprehensive planning processes if municipalities choose to do one. For example, a comprehensive plan is not official until it’s been approved by the corporate authority, which in Chicago’s case is City Council.
By comparison, the state has no requirements for a “citywide” plan, which is what the city is calling its plan. And that gives the city flexibility.
“It’s really more of a citywide vision,” said Chloe Gurin-Sands, also of the Metropolitan Planning Council. “It’s not a land-use plan. It’s not a comprehensive plan. It’s supposed to be guiding decisions about the direction that the city wants to move towards.”
Lightfoot promised a plan for and by Chicagoans, which she restated in a letter included in the draft of the plan: “I want this plan to be OUR plan—not one crafted only by City staff.”
The city’s engagement strategy included research meetings led by city staff and outside consultants, neighborhood forums led by community groups and programming by Honey Pot, an artist group that specializes in engagement and facilitation.
Honey Pot, whose contract is worth more than $283,000, was hired to explain the plan to people in creative ways at farmers markets, street festivals, and other in-person and virtual events. Their strategy included hiring more than 20 artist-organizers to put on around 80 events and share community feedback with each of the research teams involved in drafting We Will Chicago.
In documents reviewed by City Bureau, artist-organizers cited a lack of marketing support and a short engagement period as challenges in their outreach efforts. While they found the community engagement work moving and meaningful, they also encountered a deep disconnect and lack of trust. They said most community members they talked to were unfamiliar with the plan but skeptical that the city would actually heed their input and reverse decades of inequitable investment.
“It was hard,” Marlon Billups, who goes by the artist name Jo de Presser, said in an interview with City Bureau and other Honey Pot leaders and core members.
Meida Teresa McNeal, Honey Pot’s artistic managing director, said there were just five of them doing all the administrative work, like keeping track of meetings and the broad strategy, and troubleshooting issues. And because of the pandemic they had to scramble to figure out ways to build meaningful connections with people virtually, which was a world apart from the face-to-face work Honey Pot is known for.
McNeal said the group intentionally moves slow because they want to build a space where people feel comfortable sharing, and that takes time. Ideally, she said, the engagement work would have been two-years long. But the city was operating on a fast timeline that gave them just three to four months to engage with people, she said.
What’s more, the city’s strategy kept changing, which meant Honey Pot—and the artists they hired—was constantly adapting.
“We were building a ship on a ship that was still being built,” said Jennifer Ligaya, an artist, sound and performance composer, and a Honey Pot core member.
THE PLAN TO MAKE A PLAN
To draft the plan, the city identified several areas of focus: transportation and infrastructure; environment, climate, and energy; arts and culture; housing and neighborhoods; lifelong learning; economic development; and public health and safety. (Another topic, civic and community engagement, was added later on). Chicago residents were invited to apply to join a research team addressing one of those topics, or “pillars,” as the city called them.
More than 320 people applied. The majority of the applications were for “community partners,” a designation that allowed them to host meetings. Among the criteria used to select people, the city looked at the applicants’ experience, evidence of their local connections, and potential to engage with that community. In the end, the city selected 115 volunteers, most of whom were leaders in groups or organizations working on the specific topics the city was tackling, and 25 community partners.
None of the research team members were paid, though each group was led by several paid consultants and Honey Pot artist-organizers. About a third of the research team members identified as Black, a third as white, 17 percent as Hispanic/Latinx, and 10 percent as Asian. Two people identified themselves as American Indian/Alaska Native.
The vast majority, 61 percent, said they were women.
Iyana Simba, a director at the Illinois Environmental Council and the co-chair of the environment, climate and energy team, said her cohort was pretty diverse, and included a mix of residents and representatives from environmental justice organizations.
Overall, Simba said the research team meetings were more in-depth than she expected. She felt folks needed an understanding of the city’s environmental history to participate. She is proud of their work, including a policy proposal that would create accountability measures around environmental impact assessments.
“So we really did try to cover everything, but there might be things that we missed, or we messed up on,” she said.
LACK OF SPECIFICS
Over the course of these meetings, the research teams brainstormed goals and objectives that the city later refined into the 40 goals and 150 objectives in the We Will Chicago draft.
One of the goals under the “economic development” section was to “build and sustain generational wealth and shared prosperity for Black and Latino communities.” One way to achieve that goal, the plan says, is to grow “community wealth through local, democratic, shared ownership and control of neighborhood assets.”
Separately, a goal under the “housing and neighborhoods” section is to “prevent Chicagoans from being involuntarily displaced, especially those that have been historically marginalized.” And one way to do that is for the city to “increase community ownership opportunities and options for Black, Latino, Native American, Asian, and immigrant residents to collectively own land and properties.”
But the draft doesn’t say how exactly the city is going to implement those ideas, which is why some community leaders feel the city is wasting an opportunity to enact real change. During the We Will Chicago process, public housing residents who have for decades asked to share ownership and control of the buildings they once called home watched the land be sold to private developers. Moreover, many of the southeast side residents who provided input on We Will Chicago’s environmental and public health priorities were at the same time fighting the city to stop the relocation of a metal shredder facility from Lincoln Park to their neighborhood. They won the battle—at least for now.
Victoria Moreno, a civil rights analyst for the federal government who participated in the housing and neighborhoods research team, said that after discussions group members had to vote on the spot on items to be adopted in the draft. “But what they were bringing back to us, which was supposedly based on our discussions, felt pretty distant, and very specific to revisions that had been done internally,” she said.
Moreno said a lot of the language had acronyms and terminology that were foreign to her.
“It just was very technical,” Moreno said. She later added, “I still feel like I’m not sure how it’s actually going to translate into day-to-day life for people living here.”
WHO GETS TO BE IN THE CONVERSATION?
In total, the city held roughly 90 research team meetings beginning in July of 2021. Each meeting typically lasted two hours and was not open to the public, a tension point for some research team participants who believed they should have been. Meeting notes, however, were usually made public a week after meetings were held. [Editor’s Note: City Bureau was a subcontractor hired by SB Friedman Development Advisors, a city contractor, to take notes at the so-called “pillar meetings” through its Chicago Documenters program. The contract was worth $70,000.]
Bill Garcia, an information technology engineer who participated in the transportation and infrastructure research team, wondered if it was even possible to get a comprehensive or representative view of what the public wants.
“The type of people that come to local government meetings and this type of thing, they’re generally of a certain situation or status,” Garcia said, explaining that the folks who participated in his group had the time to do so, and to do it for free.
“It was great but, you’re taking two hours out of your day every few weeks—it adds up over time,” he said. “You’re taking time away from your family.”
On the other hand, Garcia said the process could have gone on longer because the topics they were discussing were so big. [Editor’s note: Garcia regularly accepts paid assignments to document public meetings through City Bureau’s Chicago Documenters program.]
Chris White, an organizer with Alliance of the Southeast, is among members of a coalition who want Mayor Lori Lightfoot to extend the public comment period for We Will Chicago.