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Chicago Fri Sep 10 2010

Chicago's Right Fix

Last week, this space took a peek into various projects underway nationwide that are essentially right-sizing transit infrastructure to be compatible and appropriate for its surroundings. For infrastructure on the whole, more and more cities, such as New Orleans, are at the very least talking about attacking their present sense of being with a more symbiotic view of their natural sense of place. In addressing more realistic uses of land, and recognizing that the old standard of growth as a panacea is basically outdated, a city like Cleveland is just now starting to operate in the here and now by reclaiming vacant land for new purposes, and in the process directly addressing its future and not hoping for one to simply take hold of it. Under the still-new Mayor David Bing, Detroit is beginning to realistically assess its assets in terms of proper use, and not regrowth.

And with mention of mayors, it brings us home to Chicago. After hearing that Mayor Daley would not be running for reelection, the Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamen noted in his Cityscapes blog that Daley "...was the Boss and the Builder -- a democratically-elected king who could remake vast swaths of the city at will," and that "whether you loved Daley or loathed him, this much was indisputable: He cared passionately about the way Chicago looked." For all of the much-needed repairs the CTA requires, for all of the neglected spaces and neighborhoods that need further tending to and attention, and for all of the unlocked potential within the city, we've got to admit Chicago's got good bones to work with. Where at one point in time the city could have very easily ossified, Daley ensured that for the past 21 years, there was a check against that atrophy.

As Chicago gets ready to move into its post-Daley incarnation, the problems that Daley leaves behind in the built environment still need tending to and addressing. Chicago has always seemed comfortable in its big-city skin about its capacity to carry out large public works projects. However, envisioning and application are two entirely different entities, and for a city that was recently ranked #6 in Foreign Policy's 'Global Cities Index,' there seems to be a disconnect between the city's ambitions and its ability to implement innovative measures. Whether it be extending or building new CTA rail lines, reusing and re-adapting fallow land into new purposes, or simply restructuring aspects of the budget- think TIFs- to allow for a more harmonious relationship between functions of the city, the next mayor should make improving upon and building out Chicago's environment an utmost priority.

Utilizing the good bones that Chicago has to work with, it would seem wise of the next mayor to spearhead the development of a distinct planning commission that brings in a mix of people from their administration, agencies like CMAP and Chicago Metropolis 2020, and neighborhood/ward-level representatives to develop a comprehensive plan for infrastructure projects the city aims to tackle. Coming direct from the Fifth Floor would be a broad outline of items it intends to address- for example, building out the Red, Yellow and Orange Line extensions, or moving ahead on developing the Bloomingdale Trail and the Englewood E.R.A Trail- and then make it the stated goal of the administration to take very specific steps to accomplish its list.

Such steps to do so could possibly be "pulling a Daley," and having the city take over the CTA by decoupling it from the RTA, thereby sidestepping the contentiousness that exists within the RTA and freeing Chicago to directly earmark funds-formerly-known-as-TIFs straight into the CTA itself. The redevelopment of sites such as the old US Steel South Works, which Daley is leaving a framework in tact to begin, is an absolute for the city to reclaim a vital and vacant area that stigmatizes the surrounding neighborhoods. Adopting new technologies in setting up electric car charging stations could be another project the city intends to build.

Really though, the overriding goal of Chicago, regardless of who occupies the mayor's seat and what exact projects comprise their infrastructure wishlist, should be met with a singular focus: to make the city operate as seamless as possible. Chicago's Right Fix will not be found in right-sizing, but in incorporating innovative measures that bring all areas of the city into interaction with one another. When one part of the city lags, a whack-a-mole effect ripples throughout. For a healthy, functioning metropolis to thrive, the aim should be to provide for the most utility for all by ambitiously following through with plans that revitalize space and enliven the city, strengthening those good bones in the process.

Daley has stated he will not anoint a successor in the mayor's race, that it will be the citizens of Chicago who decide the direction we want to move the city. How we move and interact within the city is a big part of the equation. What projects, goals, aims do you think are the most important that Chicago needs to address to move forward?

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