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Building a sustainable Chicago

Mon, Nov 25, 2013

What is a sustainable economy and where do the ideas come from that create it? Surprisingly, they do not always originate with government. In fact, Daniel Burnham’s 1909 ‘Plan of Chicago’ started with the Merchants Club, which merged with the Commercial Club of Chicago. The Commercial Club remains the very same group of policy-minded senior leaders in business, education, cultural and philanthropic organizations that in 1996 undertook the Metropolis Project, an effort to ensure the preeminence of the Chicago metro region. Metropolis Strategies generates ideas, conducts research and provides guidance in drafting economic plans for the Chicago region, which is the third largest metro area in the U.S and the fourth largest global economy: a Gross Domestic Product of $500 billion annually.

In late October, Metropolis Strategies officials hosted their annual media luncheon, where they reviewed:

  • transportation and logistics
  • the regional economy
  • environmental sustainability
  • justice and violence
  • a petition for a constitutional amendment supporting independent redistricting.
  • Perhaps one of the most challenging issues addressing the Chicago area has been the growth in areas that are underserved by the public transit system. A number of mass transit lines serve downtown but Metropolis Strategies CEO and President George Ranney said there is a need to serve new and emerging employment hubs to the north.

    To address the issue of population density and transportation use, Gov. Pat Quinn issued an executive order this year to form the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force, whose goal will be a Northeastern Illinois Public Transit System. In August the Council, which includes Ranney, issued a preliminary report that sought to define a framework for improving the Northeast Illinois public transit system in terms of accessibility and safety, environmental sustainability and quality of life for the Chicago economy.

    Public transit is about moving people, while freight and logistics is about moving things, a logical next step for those following economic drivers of growth in middle-income job opportunities in the region. Frank Beal, Metropolis Strategies’ executive director, said that freight and logistics accounts for four percent of Chicago’s economy but also supports many other sectors.

    Policymakers recognize that Chicago residents not only have a failing transit system, but a lack of investment in freight and logistics in what continues to be one of the most commercially congested regions in the country.

    The Regional Freight Leadership Taskforce has been improving logistics and freight capabilities. The taskforce is in the process of hiring an executive director and has identified a need to address issues that have led to businesses moving to outlying areas in search of tax breaks. As a result of legislation introduced by Metropolis Strategies and enacted in 2011, the Illinois Department of Transportation recently published the state’s first freight plan, which assessed current conditions and analyzed freight and rail trends as a foundation for recommendations and infrastructure investments. Recommendations due next spring 2014 could include the creation of a freight authority for the first time.

    Meanwhile, more than 69,000 acres of land in Cook County have been reserved for environmental use and parks. This set aside amounts to 11 percent of the county’s total acreage, and reinforces the City of Chicago’s place as a leader in green industries.

    Last December, leaders at the city, state and federal level unveiled $15 million in incentives to encourage the adoption of electric trucks in public and private fleets. Within a week, the city announced plans for a major expansion of the city’s plan to build an energy-efficient fleet. It is no wonder then, that the U.S. Chamber Business Civic Leadership Center and Siemens Corporation have honored Chicago with their 2012 Sustainable Community Award. With over 5.5 million square feet of green roof space and 282 LEED-certified buildings, the Earthlab Foundation also chose Chicago as the Greenest City in America.

    To further develop these efforts, Metropolis Strategies and Openlands are developing, in coordination with an appointed commission of high-profile civic leaders, the Next Century Conservation Plan. Metropolis Strategies also remains focused on lowering energy use and increasing savings through environmentally responsible practices in partnership with corporations and 11 area universities.

    Paula Wolff, Metropolis Strategies senior executive on issues of Justice and Violence, discussed the success of Redeploy Illinois, whose funding will double next year despite the deep cuts in the Illinois budget. Administered by the Department of Human Services’ Bureau of Youth Intervention Services, Redeploy Illinois works with youth age 13 to 18 who are in the juvenile justice system and at high risk of being committed to the Department of Corrections. Redeploy Illinois serves nearly 25 percent of Illinois counties and links youth to community-based services in the least restrictive manner possible. These services can include case management, court advocacy, education assistance, individual/family/group counseling and crisis intervention.

    Wolff said the number of youths sent to state correctional facilities was reduced by 44 percent in Redeploy Illinois participating counties. Redeploy has diverted enough youths from incarceration that two youth prisons and adult prisons at Tamms and Dwight were closed. Redeploy Illinois has 157 other recommendations dealing with challenges of re-entry after incarceration and reducing recidivism.

    Ryan Blitstein, senior advisor for YES (www.IndependentMaps.org), discussed the organization’s efforts to obtain 300,000 signatures on a petition for a constitutional amendment on the 2014 ballot that would move the redistricting process from behind closed doors to one of more transparency. The petition has a May 2014 deadline for signatures, and will mount a campaign to generate public support for the amendment and deal with court challenges next summer in preparation for the November 2014 ballot.

    By John Kolesa
    StreetWise Contributor

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