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You can make history

Remarks at the January 21, 2010 meeting of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning

If you look at a satellite view of this part of the globe, you can see the deep blue of Lake Michigan and the unbroken sweep of the landscape.

It shows our region as a single fabric, closely woven, each thread linked to every other.

It doesn’t show government boundaries. They are invisible because, in the natural world, they don’t exist.

A black-crowned night heron flying above the Salt Creek rides the same breezes whether it’s over Addison, Palatine or Hillside.

The current of the Des Plaines River is the same for a largemouth bass whether the water is flowing through Deerfield, Lyons or Lockport.

Your experience is the same.

You probably live in one neighborhood or town and work in another and shop at a mall in a third and visit friends in a fourth. You don’t pay a lot of attention to invisible governmental boundaries as you go about your life.

For you, it’s all one landscape, all one region.

At this beginning of the 21st century, we need to recognize this fact….

….. We are the people of a region.

We share this section of the earth together. And we are at a turning point in our history.

We have the opportunity today to begin to refashion our region. We can start to make it greener, healthier, economically stronger and more beautiful, and give ourselves and future generations richer lives.

Now is the moment.

—–

In 2009, our region celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Plan of Chicago, called the Burnham Plan for its primary author Daniel Burnham.

In more than 1,000 events over the course of the year, the people of the region gathered together to look at the amazing impact of that 164-page document — and to think boldly about the future.

The Burnham Plan reshaped Chicago and the suburbs and created the modern field of urban planning. Even more, it taught this region and the rest of the world a lesson: If you plan for the future, you can make it better.

It’s still true today: If we plan for the future, we can make it better.

The Burnham Plan Centennial set the stage for the effort this year to create the first-ever comprehensive plan for the seven counties of northeastern Illinois. It’s called the GO TO 2040 plan, and it’s being put together by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP for short. A final draft is expected to be approved later this fall.

This document will be the first to integrate planning and policies covering….
….the use of land,
… the treatment of the environment,
… the movement of people and goods,
… the education of children,
… the fairness of decisions
… and the quality of life of the region’s eight million residents — and the more than ten million expected to be living here three decades from now.

But Illinois is a place where politics is a slash-throat, take-no-prisoners blood sport. And narrow-gauge, small-minded politics could doom this unprecedented effort to make our future better.

We need to commit as a region — as the people of a region — to thinking broadly. We need to work together to improve the quality of our lives in the coming years.

We need to support CMAP’s effort to create and implement the GO TO 2040 plan.

—–

If there’s anything the centennial celebration of the past year has taught us, it’s that planning isn’t a job for the experts.

It’s a responsibility we all share.

A century ago, Chicago was a prairie metropolis that was growing so rapidly that it was choking itself to ruin. The streets were chaotic. The cityscape clotted, polluted and constrained. There were few parks to relieve the tension and stress of more than two million people sharing the same crowded home.

The Plan of Chicago changed much of that. It reshaped the city and its region. It brought order and clear thinking to public decisions. It turned Grant Park into the city’s front yard, and transformed Chicago’s lakefront into a near-continuous string of parks. Navy Pier was a result of the Plan, and Wacker Drive, and the 68,000-acre Cook County Forest Preserve District.

It’s called the Burnham Plan, but the Plan of Chicago wasn’t created by Daniel Burnham alone. Far from it.

And it certainly wasn’t implemented by him.

Sure, it was Burnham who took up his pencil and, in his forceful, energetic hand, wrote the 310-page draft of the Plan. And it was Burnham who was the charismatic leader who spearheaded the effort to produce and sell the Plan.

Yet, hundreds of people, from draftsmen to artists to business leaders from The Commercial Club of Chicago, took part in the work of creating the Plan.

And, since Burnham died less than three years after the document was published in 1909, the job of implementing the Plan was something that a great many more people — indeed, an entire generation of Chicagoans — had to take on.

People such as Edward Bennett.

Bennett was in his early 30s when Burnham tapped him in 1906 to be his right-hand man in drafting the Plan and to serve as the day-to-day project manager. So important was he that Burnham included him as the document’s co-author. Later, after Burnham’s death, Bennett played a key role, as the consulting architect to the Chicago Plan Commission from 1913 to 1930, in turning the document’s ideas into concrete-and-steel realities.

Also essential in the implementation was Charles H. Wacker, the brewery heir who served as the chairman of the Plan Commission from 1909 to 1926. Establishment of the 328-member Commission in November, 1909, by Mayor Fred Busse was arguably the most significant result of the Plan. For three decades, the Commission worked to build public and political support for Plan-related projects.

For instance, Walter Moody, the Commission’s managing director, oversaw a multi-dimensional, long-running public relations campaign that included a flood of pamphlets, a lantern-slide lecture series, a two-reel movie and his masterpiece, “Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago.” The manual, written by Moody, was used in the Chicago public schools as a required eighth-grade civics textbook for decades.

But it wasn’t just highly placed individuals who brought the Plan to life. It was hundreds of thousands of everyday people. Between 1912 and 1931, Chicago voters approved 86 Plan-related bond issues, costing a total of $234 million. That’s the equivalent of about $4 billion today.

It sounds like a lot of money, but, as Burnham pointed out in the Plan, life is much more costly when decisions are left to chance.

“Good order and convenience,” Burnham wrote, “are not expensive; but haphazard and ill-conceived projects invariably result in extravagance and wastefulness.”

Chicagoans of the first half of the twentieth century understood this.

And they understood the Plan.

And they endorsed it.

And they committed themselves to bringing the Plan to fulfillment.

And we live better lives today because of that.

—–

Over the past year, there’s been a lot of talk about the next Burnham, the new Burnham.

Is John Bryan, the co-chair of the Burnham Plan Centennial, the new Burnham? Or is it George Ranney, the other co-chair? Or is it Mayor Richard M. Daley?

Actually, none of them is.

The fact of the matter is that, if we are going to refashion our region and make our lives and the lives of future generations better, there’s only one new Burnham….

….and that’s you.

You can be the new Burnham. You should be the new Burnham. Each of you. Each of us.

The Burnham Plan came to life not because of Daniel Burnham or Edward Bennett or Charles Wacker. It came to life because of the efforts, ideas and votes of 100,000s of people.

The same thing will happen now.

Or it won’t.

There isn’t going to be one person to make regional planning succeed next year and in the decades to come.

No, if we are to look into the future and decide how we want our lives and the lives of our children to be better, it will take all of us. Together.

You can be the new Burnham if you put a rain garden in your backyard to help protect the region’s green infrastructure.

You can be the new Burnham if you support efforts to bring a wide mix of housing to many areas — so that people, whatever their jobs, can live near where they work.

You can be the new Burnham if you find ways to walk or bike or use public transportation instead of getting the car out of the garage.

And you can be the new Burnham — whether you live in Country Club Hills or Antioch or the Edison Park neighborhood of Chicago or the Chatham community on the city’s South Side or Lake Forest or Elburn or Berwyn or Port Barrington — if you support public leaders who support CMAP and its efforts.

Or not.

If you don’t do it, it won’t happen.

And, if it doesn’t happen, our future will be left to chance. Things will get better or, more likely, worse — by accident. By the random clashing of our parochial interests. By the pressures of pressure groups, by the lobbying of lobbyists.

So, it’s your choice.

And it’s a heady one.

You can make history. You can be a leader. You can take part in a major shifting in the way things are done in this region.

You can shape the future.

It’s your choice.

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