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Looking Back To Move Forward: Chicago’s Planning Landscape, Defined

Our city boasts some notable planning wins and a number of losses. We revisit the past to examine what we can do better this time, as the City launches “We Will Chicago,” a new, three-year citywide planning initiative.

Image Courtesy Flickr user Peter Miller (CC)
Image Courtesy Flickr user Eric Fischer (CC)

If you ask someone walking down the street what they know about citywide planning in Chicago, they might mention Daniel Burnham and his 1909 Plan for Chicago. Burnham’s Plan, completed over a century ago, was a catalyst for “city beautification” worldwide and helped preserve our beloved open space along the lakefront. 

Since the plan’s release, citywide planning in Chicago, and the city itself, have changed dramatically. Recently, the City announced the launch of a modern citywide planning effort, “We Will Chicago.” 

To understand how Chicago has transformed over time and how to best plan for our city’s future right now, it’s important to understand what planning has looked like in Chicago historically.  MPC reviewed planning efforts in Chicago over the last several decades, looking at both challenges and successes. Through this review some overall themes emerged about how planning has operated in the past as well as in the present day. As we embark on a new citywide planning process, it is helpful to learn from these themes so we can see how they are showing up in our current structures and systems. Although difficult, without acknowledging the past, we can’t refine and improve our process. Let’s explore some of these planning themes so we can ensure that our process to create “We Will Chicago” is informed, deliberate and builds on what works and what has failed.

Four themes that have defined planning in Chicago:
Planning follows money and deal making
Investments are downtown focused
Planning is asset based, regulatory, and localized
Communities organize but planning status quo remains

Planning follows money and deal making

What it is:  MPC’s survey of past planning revealed a clear theme of planning efforts that were spurred on by the availability of funding, particularly federal funding and private money, instead of prioritizing the types of investments and projects that were desired by city residents and community organizations. This limitation has led to what can be termed “deal making” which remains a major force in planning today.

How it shows up: Some examples of this type of planning include Chicago’s experience with urban renewal, where money was provided by the federal government to remove communities as part of what was termed “rebuilding efforts”. Large scale examples include the construction of a major Highway network, which displaced 6,000 families and 2,200 single people in the late ’40s to mid ’50s, South Side displacement that cleared 101 acres, uprooted 4,600 families and 1,600 single people to make way for “modernist middle-class housing”, and removal of 8,000 residents on the near West Side for construction of the UIC Harrison Halsted campus. 

Another early example was the 1950s formation of The Growth Coalition, which included developers and other private sector actors who were focused on the downtown business core at the expense of outlying neighborhoods. “Deal Making” is also present contemporarily in the role that aldermanic prerogative can often play in rezoning and development decisions for individual parcels city wide.

Investments are downtown focused  

What it is: A persistent ongoing imbalance between funding and planning initiatives between mostly business interests in the downtown and public interest in outlying communities and neighborhoods. Downtown growth was historically prioritized through planning efforts and new private investment. This imbalance has often led to a contentious dynamic among the City, business community, residents, and neighborhood groups.

How it shows up:  Many past planning efforts have been led by the private sector. During the late ’50s and early ’60s, a “Growth Coalition” formed from business interests that focused on downtown redevelopment. They also led several planning efforts, such as the 1958 Development Plan for the Central Area of Chicago, that were primarily focused on investment in the Loop. Neighborhood and community based planning were not included in their efforts. As a consequence, investment and implementation was often focused downtown.  

During the early 1980s there was a short-lived shift to economic and equity based planning under the Washington mayoral administration. This shift was evident in the ultimate rejection of The 1983 Chicago Central Area Plan. The Central Area Plan was oriented towards growth surrounding the downtown and leveraged business interests using the hope of hosting the World’s Fair as a catalyst. Neighborhood organizations opposed this plan and argued that the jobs would be temporary, the World’s Fair would do little for communities, and that costs and risks were too high. As a result, the Washington Administration scrapped the Plan. 

Planning is asset-based, regulatory, and localized

What it is: Since the 1966 Comprehensive Plan of Chicago, the planning department has shifted towards smaller scale localized planning and taking on an increasingly reactive regulatory role as a method to shape citywide planning. 

How it shows up: Despite extensive citywide planning efforts in the 1960s there was little implementation as federal dollars dried up in the ’70s.  The lack of funding shifted the planning department into regulatory mode. Influential regulatory actions included the 1972 Lakefront Plan of Chicago, which protected the lakefront from private development and the 1974 Riveredge Plan, which managed the river as a public space.

Asset-based planning has been used in Chicago increasingly over the last few decades. This type of focused plan making promotes planning that lacks holistic policy recommendations but instead focuses on individual community assets. Some recent examples of asset-based plans include ongoing Industrial Corridor Modernization Plans, the Plan for Transformation, transportation centric plans such as Bike 2000 Plan, and ongoing city support of ongoing planning around Chicago’s River.  Asset planning has typically been narrow in both focus and geography with limited collaborative effort between plans leading to minimal actionable citywide reccomendations.  

Communities organize but planning status quo remains

What it is:  A proliferation of community organizations continue to advocate for the need for more, targeted resources going towards the city’s poorest areas and greater community input in planning processes. Increasing community organizing and planning has occasionally shifted priorities in the City but the trend has also run parallel to a continuation of the status quo established under the three previous themes. 

How it shows up: The 1970s saw the emergence of growing community-based frustration, and demands to focus on neighborhoods, rather than just the downtown core. Community pushback from neighborhood groups resulted in the cancelling of the Crosstown Expressway, and independent community development organizations began to take hold and form networks across the city. While community organizations would find inroads to city politics through Harold Washington’s administration, enabling shifts toward bottom up planning, the entrenched power of downtown development remained a driving force of planning in City Hall. 

The last two decades have seen the emergence of successful “middle-range” planning. Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) reinvigorated planning in the late ’90s and early 2000s, reasserting the importance of community based planning. 


In the early ’60s, then-Mayor Daley launched a comprehensive planning effort for the City to help guide development and to access federal dollars. While this plan was the first of its kind since Burnham’s plan to look at the city comprehensively and create subarea plans for different areas, there were a number of drawbacks that could serve as valuable lessons as the City moves forward with a new plan.  

Daley envisioned a large scale plan, like Burnham’s, but as a result, the Comprehensive Plan contained too many broad guidelines and undefinable goals. 

The planning process lacked meaningful community engagement, and remained unpopular among city residents. Ultimately, the Comprehensive Plan of Chicago was never approved by City Council.

As the city and the Department of Planning and Development launches “We Will Chicago it is important to acknowledge the history of planning in Chicago over the last century and recognize the lessons that can be learned from that history. Not only lessons from the last comprehensive plan completed over 50 years ago, but also from the nuanced, complex, and intertwined planning efforts that have taken place in the decades before and after. Using an understanding of the four themes of Chicago’s rich planning history outlined above as a foundation could prove invaluable in producing a modern comprehensive plan that fully incorporates equity, diversity, and resiliency.