A new road map for Chicago proposes great destinations — but how do we get there?
When Chicago thinks big, it’s almost always in pursuit of an architectural feat or a triumph in urban planning.
So we’re happy to see Mayor Lori Lightfoot is reaching beyond some sort of expensive grand project as a way to spark a much-needed recovery from the city’s legion of COVID-19-related setbacks and the civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd.
But Lightfoot’s proposed path toward rebound, as outlined in a mayoral task force report released on Thursday, “Forward Together, Building a Stronger Chicago,” is admirable, wide-ranging — and frustratingly lacking in particulars such as timetables and costs.
The report has a good soul. And that’s no small matter if it becomes a real working guide to Chicago’s future. It’s a document worthy of respect, not a place on a back shelf.
The mayor’s plan envisions a city revival brought about by improving the social, economic and cultural landscape, with a particular focus on improving Black and Latino communities, which have been hardest hit by the pandemic. In an event announcing the document, COVID-19 Recovery Task Force chairman Sam Skinner called the report “the best I’ve ever seen” and a “road map.”
But you could get lost with a map like this, which reads more like a set of great destinations.
Exactly how we get there, when we get there, and at what cost — especially given the city’s massive financial challenges even before the pandemic hit — that’s anybody’s guess.
A to-do list, not an action plan
The 105-page report lays out 17 objectives. A number of them seek to address needs borne out of the current crisis, such as a call for subsidized child care, a “211” phone line dedicated to mental health emergencies and holding a youth summit informed by the recent protests and civil disturbances after Floyd’s death.
The report also calls for significantly improved access to mental and emotional health facilities, but — again — it neglects to say how this could happen. Will Lightfoot reopen the six city mental health clinics closed in 2012 by her predecessor — as she promised during her campaign? The report is characteristically mum on that.
The report calls for rebuilding Chicago’s health care system, but the city had better hurry. Four longstruggling South Side hospitals are in peril right now thanks to state lawmakers who blocked a planned merger two months ago. One of the four, Mercy Hospital & Medical Center, told state officials last fall that it could close by the end of 2019; it held off only when merger talks began.
More aspirational than operational, the report has the feel of a “to do” list rather than an action plan. It’s an expression of values and priorities — laudable ones — but bereft of specific marching orders.
And though COVID-19 and the recent urban unrest are cited as pretexts for the report, some recommendations significantly predate
— or have no direct connection — to the current troubles of our day.
For instance, “expanding the region’s transportation, distribution and logistics sector by leveraging new trends in the localization of supply chains” is a potentially rich source of shipping-related jobs, but businesspeople have been clamoring for that for years.
And passages in the report smack of hackneyed corporate feelgood talk, such as a call to revive the city’s pandemic-stricken convention and tourism industry by showing “the world Chicago is open for business.”
Along those lines, the report also calls for introducing “Chicago’s master brand.”
Do you know what that means? We don’t, either.
City deserves better
We can understand why previous Chicago mayors and civic leaders have hung their hats on large built projects. You get a budget, a set beginning and an end date.
Lightfoot, though, is envisioning something conceptually more socially meaningful than a rebuilt Loop or a fancy urban park. She’s been mayor for little more than a year, but she’s got her sites set on systemic changes that Chicago has needed for decades. This is a plan steeped in values of racial, economic and neighborhood equity.
“If we do this right — and I’m committed to making sure we do — this will be the kind of transformation that generations from now, we’ll be talking about as the second Chicago renaissance,” Lightfoot said in announcing the report’s release.
If that’s the case, given the gravity of it all, we think this report could have stood more time in the oven. The task force’s work began only in April, and the result feels rushed and incomplete, with woefully too little detail.
It’s not too late to pop it back in the oven.
LIGHTFOOT’S PROPOSED PATH TOWARD REBOUND IS ADMIRABLE, WIDE-RANGING — AND FRUSTRATINGLY LACKING IN PARTICULARS SUCH AS TIMETABLES AND COSTS.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Sam Skinner, co-chair of the city’s COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, discuss the task force’s new report at a press conference on Thursday.