IPO Logo Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links

Metropolitan harmony

Nineteenth century Chicagoans wanted to bring
a bit of heaven to wild-onion earth.
The challenge for current civic boosters
is to nurture an 'aesthetic of community'
in a region already built

Essay by Alf Siewers
Illustrations by Daisy Juarez

"Chicago lives like a drunken El-rider who cannot remember where he got on nor at what station he wants to get off. The sound of wheels moving below satisfies him that he is making great progress." Nelson Algren

Feng-shui, the traditional Chinese art of landscape, shaped vistas that travelers described as harmonizing dense population, intense land-use and ornament into a vast garden. And from the days of the Stockyards to hypersprawl suburbs, a sense of something lacking in Chicago's hustle produced on good days a search for a similar landscape science, one that could somehow bring a bit of heaven to wild-onion earth.

Our greatest practitioner of Midwestern feng-shui on a large scale, Daniel Burnham, was a mystical Swedenborgian Christian and business booster, a bipolar mix that fit this region's culture. His 1909 Plan of Chicago created a landscape to match -- part mysticism, part boosterism -- a vision of a city in a garden, but a garden that in the end couldn't contain the city.

Chicago's superb open lakefront and ring of forest preserves, its semi-open downtown riverfront along Wacker Drive, its boulevards and parks, stand as testimony to the partial success of Burnham's effort to tame the excesses of capitalism with art. But the plan was never finished. The repressed returned, or more likely never left. Corrupt politics, greed, racial segregation, misguided urban renewal and suburban sprawl all marred Burnham's neo-Napoleonic map for would-be Midwestern boulevardiers.

Now metropolitan harmony is sought again, but in a plan even more ambitious because it deals with a region already built. The Chicago Metropolis 2020 project grew out of the same organization that sponsored Burnham's effort some 90 years before, the Commercial Club of Chicago, a downtown civic group. And if it lacks a Swedenborgian visionary, it has its own Chicago Brahmin, a corp-orate attorney, a man with a gift for pulling off innovative environmental and transportation projects in the face of naysaying natterbobs.

"Academics have looked at the Burnham Plan and found that probably 15 to 20 percent of it was actually implemented. And if we can do any better than that, we will be doing very, very, very well," says George Ranney, former CEO of Inland Steel Industries, president of the new campaign and longtime behind-the-scenes plotter of regionalism.

Ranney's Metropolis 2020 will be lucky to face similar odds. Yet it has a fighting chance to shape the way the grandchildren of today's school children experience the hyperactive Chicago region. If so, credit would go to Ranney's business, civic and political skills, and those of the project's executive director, Frank Beal, the former head of Inland's international division and of the old Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources.

Ranney's credentials include successful efforts to organize the Chicago area's Regional Transportation Authority and create the 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Joliet. He and his wife Vicky, a scholar of the works of mid-19th century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, also designed Prairie Crossing, an "eco" development on family land in Grayslake, and helped pull together the 2,500-acre public-private Liberty Prairie Reserve conservation area adjoining that development.

But the very uniqueness of Prairie

Illinois Issues April 2000 | 24

Crossing, which seeks to preserve nature by clustering homes on smaller lots with surrounding preserve land and community gardens and trails, has stirred local zoning controversy from some who fear an overcrowded suburban lifestyle in what is still an upscale area. And Prairie Crossing's very distinctiveness -- hailed as a model but not widely replicated in substantive details -- illustrates a major obstacle facing Ranney's attempted sequel to the Burnham Plan: The demand for people to live on large lots in suburban spaces continues to be the greatest single factor shaping development of the Chicago region.

This is the starkest statistic confronting any regionalist visionary: From 1970 to 1990, developed land in the Chicago area grew by about half, while population grew by only about 4 percent. The resulting traffic jams, and the infrastructure costs of abandoning old neighborhoods for new, tax the region's resources and nerves. Yet development moves on.

"What we're saying is that this isn't the way it has to be," says Beal, who argues that a public policy "context" has created the shape of sprawling development seen around the Chicago area. Part of that context is legislative, part is commercial and part is cultural. The tax structure and zoning codes, which make remote development cheaper and easier, combine with cultural and business values to encourage sprawl, according to regional planners.

Metropolis 2020 attempts to target all elements of this context. In the process, the effort faces a paradox: how to nurture a strong regional sense of place in northeastern Illinois so that investment and human talent will be attracted in an increasingly placeless global economy.

But there are more than economic considerations in the Chicago metropolitan area, a region as fragmented and fractious a collection of city-states as ever existed in ancient Greece before Alexander the Great came conquering. "I think a lot of people are thirsting for change," says Ranney. "I think a lot of people in the suburbs are frustrated by ..." "A dream betrayed," Beal suggests, finishing Ranney's thought.

"They feel that they've not gotten what they've wanted," Ranney adds. "They are faced with enormous traffic congestion problems, their inability to get to sporting events or cultural events or even their jobs. They're worried about their kids' educations in the future. They are positive in many ways about life, but they want the quality of that life to be more than just a salary stream coming in." Ranney and Beal were interviewed together earlier this year in the Chicago Metropolis offices near the top of the Inland Steel Building, a downtown postwar gem of a skyscraper in the heart of the Loop, that serves as an aesthetic reminder of what is right about city life.

Inland Steel is also the longtime corporate base for Ranney, an attorney and Republican progressive who is the scion of an old Chicago industrial family. The kind of homegrown downtown booster who himself is now an endangered species, he is also the type of civic figure Burnham relied on, what that planner called a local "patriot of peace." Ranney insists the new regional planning effort is essential to ensuring the Chicago area remains a thriving part of a new world order that is turning the area's culture inside out. Enter an aesthetic of place as an answer to the woes of capitalism, using aesthetics in its broadest sense to include a harmonizing of economic and ecological concerns.

In fact, many of the recommendations of the civic study underlying Metropolis 2020 revolve around using conservation of natural landscape as a means to dismantle economic and racial barriers in the region, fighting sprawl that has created "hyperconcentration" of

Illinois Issues April 2000 | 25

poverty and linking the area through protected "greenways."

The project seeks not merely to reshape the physical landscape, but to reconfigure political relations and the regional social culture. One proposal, for instance, calls for an agreement among major regional employers to take affordable housing into consideration when siting facilities. It would encourage compact and transit-centered development and affordable housing regionwide. There would be incentives. Metropolis 2020 endorses the use of "transferable development rights" to allow more compact development in some areas in exchange for tighter zoning restrictions elsewhere.

To implement this vision, the effort calls for a Regional Coordinating Council that would issue bonds and grants and distribute a portion of regional tax revenues with an eye to encouraging "smart growth" that sprawls less. In addition, the Metro-polis 2020 project aims to consolidate the plethora of special tax districts and townships in northeastern Illinois. (It is an irony of our political life today that reforming regional government invariably involves proposals to rub out the townships that once were the pride of grassroots American democracy.)

But probably the most controversial goal, aside from the Regional Council and accompanying governmental consolidation, is to restructure the state's tax system. The project envisions a statewide property tax to be levied on commercial and industrial growth, as well as a higher state income tax. These revenues would then be used to help equalize school funding while reducing local property taxes.

Other provisions of the plan would increase state and corporate support for child care and child health care, save open land for a third regional airport and separate freight and passenger traffic on roads and rails. The project also has backed increased auto fees to raise $500 million a year for transportation improvements, part of Gov. George Ryan's ambitious $12 billion infrastructure budget. That plan was inspired, at least in part, by Metropolis 2020, and the Ranneys stayed in the Executive Mansion during legislative debate on that plan last year.

How can this new regional plan fly? It will take collaboration between business executives, community activists and government officials over a 20-year period, Ranney and Beal argue. And lots of grassroots education and networking, including community forums already in progress, opinion polls, development of statistical indicators of the region's "health," as well as revival of an old idea from Burnham's day: The Wacker Manual.

In the 1920s, the Wacker Manual constituted a civics textbook in Chicago schools, used to teach the ideals of the Burnham Plan, and the possibilities of shaping society through planning and aesthetics. Now Metropolis 2020 aims to do the same, although in more computerized form, educating an up-and-coming generation on the case for regional action on local problems.

"We're reaching out as best we can. We have community development and housing organizations on our executive council. We are running outreach programs," Ranney explains. "Rather than ending up with an authoritarian governmental system for the region, we'll end up with something antihierarchical, much more like what's happening with these big companies, figuring out how to involve local government and public officials in far more constructive and direct ways with regional issues, and providing people with better information than ever before on which to base their choices.

"We can do that especially by reaching the 1 percent of the population who are decision-makers, and the 10 percent who are most active and caring about the region as a whole."

But in the end, the task of crafting long-lasting regional feng-shui here remains necessarily cultural: Without a common spiritual or aesthetic ethic, there's no core to a regional commun-ity. Burnham's plan succeeded in imagination in spite of substantial failure because its works lay in ruined fragments that shone like relics of a vanished giant race, sublime in the promise of their very incongruity with Nelson Algren's "city on the make." In the battle between workaday materialism and utopian night dreams, the center rarely held in Chicago planning.

By contrast, a sense of cosmic connectedness permeated the balanced landscape that travelers saw in traditional China. The street plans of historic Puritan villages in New England, beloved by Lewis Mumford, centered on churches. So, too, the city-as-artwork of sixth century Byzantium celebrated by W.B. Yeats, the layout of parishes in rural England, even the front-porched immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago. Daily life connected with universal cycles in a sense of community that linked heaven and earth. That doesn't often happen in the commonwealth of cyberspace.

Nelson Algren wrote of one parish in an old Chicago neighborhood: "Summer on Seventy-First Street, when I was a Southside sprout, was blue as peace. The cross above St. Columbanus caught the light of a holier daybreak than ours while the wan gas-flares still wavered. Then the bells of early mass rang out, for our own morning had lightened the alleys at last. And long after the twilight's last lamplighter had passed, ladder across his handlebars and gas-torch against his shoulder, somebody else's twilight burned on behind that cross. The light that lingered, the light that held, belonged to somebody else's night. Somebody else's somebody else, who ran daybreak and evening too."

The real task of Chicago Metropolis 2020 will be to nurture the growth of such an aesthetic of community on a regional scale, an aesthetic akin to what the late environmentalist Aldo Leopold called a conservation ethic, but in a place with no central dome like Constantinople's Hagia Sophia casting a shadow to hallow its ground, no certain consensus on environmentalism, and deep divisions among its people. Polish bars on the Northwest Side in the 1950s convinced Nelson Algren's lover Simone de Beauvoir of Chicago's world-class status as much as Burnham's lakefront. But Algren's art was the biggest factor of all. 

Alf Siewers, a native Chicagoan in exile at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studies and writes about landscape and culture.

Illinois Issues April 2000 | 26

|Home| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois Issues 2000|
This page is created by
Sam S. Manivong, Illinois Periodicals Online Coordinator
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library