by Gerald Bennett and Randy Blankenhorn
Metropolitan Chicago is one of the world’s great economic centers. We have abundant natural resources — including a magnificent system of parks, open spaces, trails and waterways — with access to Lake Michigan for drinking water and recreation. We have a transportation system that moves people and goods, acting as an engine of jobs and prosperity. And the residents of the region themselves are perhaps our greatest renewable resource, constituting a diverse workforce that fuels economic development.
But we cannot take our quality of life for granted in the years to come. Stark new economic and environmental realities require the region and its communities to set priorities carefully. Residents of our region’s seven counties — Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will — aspire to and deserve a high quality of life. The mission of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) is to help the counties and their 284 communities plan together for sustainable prosperity through mid-century and beyond.
Most of our region’s near-term challenges are the direct result of choices made — or too often deferred — in the past. Urgent challenges have often been an excuse to avoid planning, but they actually reinforce the need to plan more effectively. During decades of rapid but largely unplanned expansion, the region grew in patterns that were not sustainable:
Long-range trends such as these are barriers to the prosperity and livability of this region and its communities.We need to act now, before today’s opportunities become tomorrow’s crises.
GO TO 2040 is the official comprehensive plan for the Chicago region, developed by CMAP after extensive research and deliberation, along with the involvement of numerous area leaders and residents. It calls for investment in existing communities and emphasizes development that is more compact and livable. By implementing GO TO 2040, residents would have more options for getting around, more options for housing, more jobs nearer to where they live, more parks and open space, more plentiful and cleaner water, healthier air and better quality of life.
The GO TO 2040 plan is organized in four thematic chapters that include 12 high-priority recommendations: Livable Communities, Human Capital, Efficient Governance and Regional Mobility. Each chapter distills critically important strategies for achieving clear and measurable outcomes, and this article highlights some of the many recommendations that the plan describes in much greater detail.
Livable communities have a strength and vitality that attract people to them. Though opinions differ on what makes a community appealing, livable communities tend to share some common traits: They are healthy, safe and walkable. They offer choices for timely transportation to schools, jobs, services and basic needs. They are more cost-effective for individuals and local governments. And they make the region more economically competitive. Livable communities are created through effective planning and decisions by local officials, developers and individual residents.
The recommendation area titled “Achieve Greater Livability Through Land Use and Housing” seeks to help and encourage local governments to apply principles of livability when they make development decisions, which should include comprehensive plans, consistent ordinances and other regulations and trained decision makers. GO TO 2040 recommends that CMAP and its partners provide technical assistance, supplemented with grants for local planning or ordinance updates.
“Manage and Conserve Water and Energy Resources” highlights the need to maximize the energy efficiency of new buildings while retrofitting existing buildings. Water conservation goals should be integrated with land use planning, green infrastructure can be used to manage storm water, and groundwater-dependent communities should consider shifting to surface water supplies.
“Expand and Improve Parks and Open Space” advocates for maintaining and improving our region’s existing outlets while making significant, criteria-based investments in expanding parks and open space. Park accessibility and equity should be increased in developed areas, our region’s more important natural areas should be preserved, and greenways should connect parks and preserves for recreational use and ecosystem function.
“Promote Sustainable Local Food” emphasizes the importance of local production of food and its benefits, such as preserving farmland and increasing urban agricultural opportunities. The plan calls for eliminating “food deserts” (areas without retail outlets that carry fresh food) and linking anti-hunger programs to local food production.
The chapter on “Human Capital” describes how the quality of our region’s labor force is crucial for sustaining economic prosperity. Increasingly, job growth relies on the availability of skilled workers for knowledge-based industries. The seven counties can gain a significant advantage by ensuring that businesses and residents here have the skills necessary to compete with other global economic centers. Its recommendation area titled “Improve Education and Workforce Development” highlights the need to coordinate between our region’s development systems and the needs of employers. Community colleges and other organizations that offer workforce training have a large role to play in this.
“Support Economic Innovation” recommends targeting clusters of regional specialization to correct issues of fragmentation and unfocused investment throughout industries; improving systems for collecting, tracking, and analyzing important measures; and establishing better linkages and training among diverse groups, such as researchers and entrepreneurs.
As described in the “Efficient Governance” chapter, taxpayers expect efficiency and transparency when governments invest their limited resources. To maximize the benefits that residents of our seven counties see from these public investments, government agencies across our region need to coordinate decisions strategically. Better access to information will help us reach these goals by putting essential data at the fingertips of not only our local decision makers but also the residents they serve.
“Reform State and Local Tax Policy” calls for formation of a Regional Tax Policy Task Force to analyze state and local tax issues because current policies fail to satisfy the most important principles of good tax policy: efficiency, equity and transparency. “Improve Access to Information” supports one of the plan’s highest priorities: the open sharing of information. (See sidebar on MetroPulse.)
The recommendation area, “Pursue Coordinated Investments,” recognizes that policy areas can no longer be addressed in vacuums. Issues such as land use, transportation and the environment are interconnected. Governments should pursue efficiencies through increased coordination, communication and — where appropriate — consolidation.
The chapter on “Regional Mobility” reflects the fact that a modern transportation system is indispensible for our region’s future prosperity. To sustain our economy and quality of life, residents must be able to travel quickly and easily around our region so they can choose from a wide variety of jobs and communities in which to live. Businesses must be able to count on the timely delivery of their goods. Historically, our region’s transportation system has been a foundation of our success. But the system’s infrastructure was built decades ago, with inadequate ongoing investment to keep it up to date. While transportation is still a significant strength of the region, we must modernize our system to compete with other U.S. and global economic centers.
The recommendation area titled “Invest Strategically in Transportation” emphasizes the necessity to develop — at the federal, state, regional and local levels — innovative financing mechanisms, such as congestion pricing, to support a world-class transportation system. Performance-driven criteria, not arbitrary formulas, should determine which projects are financed, and priority should go toward maintaining and modernizing our current system, rather than expanding it. This part of the plan also describes proposed capital projects that were carefully selected to achieve clear regional objectives.
“Increase Commitment to Public Transit” strives to make transit the preferred travel option for as many residents as possible, and to do this, additional funding is needed. GO TO 2040 recommends new revenue, such as an increase in the state gasoline tax, to help fund the transit system. Land use planning and small-scale infrastructure improvements should also be made to support transit.
“Create a More Efficient Freight Network” suggests creation of a federal plan and funding to address freight nationally. GO TO 2040 calls for the full funding and implementation of the Chicago Region Environmental Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program to reduce freight bottlenecks and raise operating speeds through strategic rail improvements.
In addition to the four central themes and 12 recommendation areas, the plan also includes sections that describe challenges and opportunities, along with best practices for implementing GO TO 2040 recommendations in various contexts — from federal reforms to actions by local governments, businesses and even individual residents. Designed to guide development and infrastructure decisions through mid-century and beyond, GO TO 2040 takes a forceful but nuanced approach to aligning the region’s public policies and investments to achieve sustainable prosperity.
After nearly three years of research, public input and deliberation, GO TO 2040 reflects the collective will of our region’s leaders and residents. CMAP will aggressively lead the implementation of GO TO 2040, our region’s first comprehensive plan since Daniel Burnham’s in 1909. Implementing the plan is metropolitan Chicago’s best chance to set the stage for economic growth in decades to come.
The region can no longer afford not to plan effectively. Now is the time for all stakeholders of the seven-county region to emphasize our common interests and look beyond our short-term concerns to strive toward the long-term vision articulated in the GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan. As we face new challenges and opportunities together, GO TO 2040 can lead us to prosperity that is sustainable for generations to come.
Palos Hills Mayor Gerald Bennett is board chairman of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, and Randy Blankenhorn is the agency’s executive director.
Illinois Issues, October 2010