Can Chicago bridge gaps between its prosperous downtown and underserved neighborhoods?

Source: Smart Cities Dive | Katie Pyzyk | May 21, 2019

Dive Brief:

  • The Chicago Central Area Committee (CCAC) released a report, "A Central City Strategy for All of Chicago," focused on increasing equity by leveraging the downtown's jobs center and development for inclusive growth in the city's other neighborhoods. The report says the city is at an inflection point because, like other global cities, it has experienced rapid downtown growth in recent years while underserved neighborhoods need transformational change. 

  • The report recommends bridging gaps in areas such as transit, broadband connectivity, job training and affordable housing to even out prosperity. It offers specific ways to achieve each goal. For example, transit improvements to connect downtown to other neighborhoods include increasing electric commuter rail service, microtransit, curb management and autonomous vehicle (AV) pilot programs. Digital connectivity improvements include creating hot spots for free internet access, providing residents in need with low-cost computers and tablets for school and job searches and prioritizing 10 neighborhoods with the lowest levels of broadband and internet use.

  • Next steps are for government, civic, business and community leaders to review the report and integrate the recommended concepts with those that others propose. The report also suggests creating a Chicago Investment Strategy and selecting short-term, one- to five-year initiatives to implement.

Dive Insight:

The report says the number of jobs in Chicago's downtown has grown from 650,000 in 2010 to 715,000 in 2018, and 4.6 million square feet of new office space was under construction last year. The suburbs still have three-quarters of the jobs in the metro area, but businesses increasingly are re-locating to the city, helping to spur the downtown economic growth in recent years.

The attractiveness of more walkable, bikeable and transit-accessible areas, which tend to be downtown, is said to drive the relocation trend. That's reflected in a report released last fall indicating transit attracts and retains jobs in the Chicago area. McDonald's is cited as a prime example of a major company that moved its long-time suburban Chicago headquarters into a revitalized portion of the city that is transit rich, as opposed to its prior suburban location, considered a transit desert.

Transit's attractiveness and contribution to economic growth makes it ripe for inclusion as a gap bridger in the CCAC report. It breaks down new mobility strategies to connect the downtown to neighborhoods, neighborhoods to neighborhoods and the downtown with a few other core economic districts. Some of the suggestions — AVs and micromobility solutions, such as e-scooters — also were included in a Chicago mobility report released in March that former Mayor Rahm Emanuel had commissioned from a task force.

City leaders appear to be listening to recommendations because they announced earlier this month that an e-scooter pilot will launch next month and it will primarily focus on the West Side, which has a number of areas with unmet transportation needs. Chicago's new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, was inaugurated Monday and many citizens believe that opens the door to trying a host of new ideas. Lightfoot campaigned on a platform of change and increasing access to city services for people in all neighborhoods.

Despite the downtown growth, Chicago — the third-largest U.S. city — lost residents last year. New York and Los Angeles — the first and second largest cities, respectively — also lost residents while a number of mid-sized cities grew. The CCAC report implies the large cities' shrinking populations is at least partially due to the lack of equity, which makes them less affordable and less competitive for all residents.

Uneven economic prosperity is a pervasive problem in cities. Non-downtown neighborhoods often consume resources but do not draw economic activity, making it a tough call for leaders trying to decide where best to distribute investments. But as the population declines in America's three largest cities indicate, citizens will leave if they are not well served and become priced out of their homes. This problem could become exacerbated in the coming years as remote work increases and more citizens work from the neighborhood where they live instead of the downtown jobs center.

The CCAC report offers strategies for Chicago to employ for ensuring residents in all parts of the city have access to resources to help them thrive and connect with the city center. Some of the recommendations are specific to certain neighborhoods, but overall they are general concepts that other cities also could test. 

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