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Quality-of-Life Planning Is Back …

We know now that grassroots neighborhood planning does work, often spectacularly. And that it works best when planners remain flexible, respond to changing conditions and relish opportunities to innovate.

An NCP planning session in Pilsen in 2003. Despite technological innovation, the raw materials of neighborhood planning - flip boards and felt pens - remain the same.

That was a lesson learned by the hundreds – no, thousands – of Chicagoans who participated a decade ago in the nation’s largest and arguably most successful experiment in comprehensive community planning.

Fueled by resources raised through LISC Chicago’s recently completed Campaign for Stronger Neighborhoods, LISC Chicago is getting ready to do it again. But not necessarily in the same way those 16 neighborhoods produced their quality-of-life (QL) plans last time around.

For one thing, now that LISC’s New Communities Program (NCP) demonstration has concluded, NCP now serves as the platform for the New Communities Network, comprising veteran NCP partners and newcomers. Those veterans that produced QL Plans back in 2003-05 will be sharing their expertise with newer Networkers doing plans for the first time.

As a first step, three veteran NCP neighborhoods will be rewriting and updating their QL Plans while sharing expertise with newcomer Belmont Cragin, a neighborhood led by the Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC).

“We’re very interested in expanding our reach and opening up planning in new neighborhoods,” said Keri Blackwell, LISC Chicago’s deputy director. She and other LISC staffers recently convened a “kick-off” session attended by representatives of NWSHC along with NCP leads Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. and host Teamwork Englewood.

QL 2.0

Blackwell explained that, following a Request for Proposals to NCP partners and a round of interviews to narrow down interested groups to the resources available, LISC selected these four organizations for this new round of QL planning.

LISC Chicago's Keri Blackwell at a community planning session in 2007.

Alex Fledderjohn

“Our neighborhoods are still committed to the NCP methodology and the core tenets of that approach,” Blackwell said at the kick-off session. “But it’s been 10 years, so it’s very important to take a step back and, with our partners, refine our methodology and introduce some innovations.”

“We’re eager to learn from you,” Blackwell told leaders from the four groups, noting the best ideas often percolate from the bottom up. “So don’t be afraid to push back.”

Envisioned by the four neighborhoods is a two-year timetable beginning with a pre-planning/early-engagement phase in which local leaders and potential leaders are identified for recruitment to a planning Task Force. Only this time, the locals will have more say in the selection of professional planners and other providers of technical assistance, including the “scribes” who’ll write the final plans.  

Locals also will have wider latitude in allocating a core planning grant from LISC and will have the opportunity to apply for competitive grants LISC will make available toward “early action projects.” These are the planning-while-doing activities (think wall murals, vacant lot cleanups, community gardens, etc.) that don’t cost a great deal but pull hundreds of folks into the process in ways sit-down meetings often do not.

Not that planning workshops can’t be energized.

Sticky dots

To illustrate, Taryn Roch, LISC’s director of program assessment, asked attendees at the session to list the most important values required for a good planning process. She then asked everyone to vote for a value – not their own – by affixing sticky dots to a master sheet. The exercise got everyone off their feet, talking to one another and thinking hard about each other’s most valued value. The fact that “trustworthiness” and “relationships” got the most votes was, well, almost beside the point.

A quality-of-life planning session in Belmont Cragin earlier this summer.

Gordon Walek

LISC Senior Program Officer Dionne Baux outlined leadership training opportunities to help local organizers lead the planning efforts. They are invited, for instance, to ongoing sessions of Business District Leadership Training.

Also in the works is Chicago Plans – a boot camp LISC will be running to prepare neighborhood planners as effective and engaged partners in the planning process. Plus a two-day training in meeting facilitation run by the Institute of Cultural Affairs.

LISC also will help neighborhood planners access demographic and economic data used for plan baselines, including the info-rich snapshot of community areas that LISC recently helped create for the Chicago Community Trust:   http://www.cct.org/about/partnerships_initiatives/chicago-neighborhoods-2015/

There was strong agreement at the kick-off that community-based planning is the most effective way to kick-start purposeful action and lasting neighborhood improvements.

Not every project conceived by the 2003-05 plans was implemented, but most were, if not always on the timetable called for in the 14 original plans. Big real estate developments like Zapata Apartments in Logan Square or Shops & Lofts in Bronzeville took years longer than anticipated. But as Daniel Burnham observed long ago, well-drawn plans, especially those coordinated with the City’s, tend to take on a force that borders on the inevitable.

Building capacity

Less visible than real estate developments, but no less important, was how those first 14 plans grew the capacity of neighborhood organizations to tackle problems not anticipated at the time of their drafting. Skills acquired via NCP, for instance, helped neighborhoods assist in the rollout here of the federal Affordable Care Act; and cope with the tsunami of home foreclosures that blind-sided so many neighborhoods following the 2007-08 collapse of the mortgage bond bubble and ensuing Great Recession.

Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation, at a community organizing workshop last year.

Gordon Walek

“The planning process helped us convene, connect and move forward,” said Carlos Nelson, executive director at Auburn Gresham. He’s hoping his neighborhood’s next QL plan will, among other things, jump-start development near a new Metra commuter rail station planned at 79th Street.

“Quality-of-life planning is central to our belief that engaging local leadership is foundational to effective community development and sustainable impact,” said Susana Vasquez, LISC Chicago’s executive director.

“Neighborhoods change, with or without planning,” she continued. “But they don’t develop to the benefit of all without good planning, engaged community organizations, good data, and meaningful dialogue about what the current state is and what’s needed to secure a better future.” 

More information: Keri Blackwell, kblackwell@lisc.org / (312) 422-9558

 

Posted in Auburn Gresham, Belmont Cragin, Chicago Lawn, Englewood

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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