Burnham 2.0: Crowd-Sourcing Solutions to Chicago’s Problems

10.31.2013 | The Chicago Tribune recently launched a challenge to its readers: Help create a new Plan of Chicago (in this case, form follows function; let’s call it “Burnham 2.0”).

The series of editorials began on October 4th with a direct evocation of Burnham 1.0—an early 20th century plan for the city written by architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham—and a list of Chicago’s past crises, from the abrupt—the Great Fire of 1871—to the slowly unfolding—the mass migration of African Americans during the 20th century to “a city that will spend many decades welcoming their labor while paradoxically resisting their geographical advance.”

“Every resident of metropolitan Chicago sees the symptoms—sees them, unfortunately, as problems we tidily compartmentalize into separate silos, not as what they are: interlocked threats to a central city that vast numbers of its residents already have abandoned for somewhere they find more livable. (Emphases in the original.)

The purpose of the editorial series that launches today, and of the accompanying request for proposals from Tribune readers, is to imagine new ways of storming not just one silo but all of them.”

The Trib is basically crowd-sourcing for answers to its “silos”: violent crime, unproductive public schools, loss of blue-collar jobs, and the roles of parents and religious leaders in rebuilding neighborhoods. It’s an interesting experiment—especially for the Tribune, which has (not without reason) traditionally been viewed as the guardian of upper-class values and perspectives—because the paper is soliciting ideas from everyone.

This is a direct acknowledgment that the views of people living and working beyond the Loop and the gentrified neighborhoods matter, too; that to find answers to intractable problems means you have to ask the people who live with those problems.

Another effort in that regard is being undertaken here by the Grassroots Collaborative, an 11-member coalition of community-based groups and labor unions. It, along with myriad other organizations, launched Take Back Chicago last week, aiming at a five-point agenda: “raising the minimum wage, closing corporate loopholes, ensuring tax dollars go towards public neighborhood schools (not privately owned charters), passing budgets that prioritize public services, and creating affordable housing.”

More generally, the assertion that local neighborhood voices must be included is also promoted by the Project for Public Spaces, which has long argued that you cannot build great places in the city’s planning department or the university’s school of architecture alone. As PPS happily announced last month, that point was driven home recently by “Places in the Making”—a new paper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture + Planning. As PPS notes,

“It is the making of a place that defines a community. When the people who use a space are left out of the process of its shaping, everyone suffers. The people who live and work in a given area are left without a place to interact in a casual, comfortable environment, and the people who visit or pass through miss out on the opportunity to experience the unique sense of place that would come to the fore had the community been more involved.”

To that point, “Burnham 2.0” will be a self-selecting group of respondents. I have my doubts as to how many residents in the Austin, Englewood, or Humboldt Park neighborhoods read the Tribune. Will the newspaper make an effort to find voices from outside its subscriber/readership base? This will affect the outcome of “Burnham 2.0,” even though the “how” remains to be seen.

Photo / Eric Allix Rogers

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