Arts & Culture » Book Review

The Future is Theirs

The elites who wrote Metropolis 2020 have big plans for the region over the next two decades--as long as reality doesn't intervene.



The University of Chicago Press recently published a large-format, slick-paper book entitled Chicago Metropolis 2020: The Chicago Plan for the Twenty-First Century. The title looks to the future, but those who read what's inside will learn that Chicago's civic and business elites want to begin the 21st century much as they ended the 19th--by trying to get the rest of us centralized, coordinated, and unified.

Elmer Johnson, an attorney with Kirkland & Ellis and president of the Aspen Institute think tank, wrote the book with the backing of the Commercial Club of Chicago. Founded in 1877 "to advance the public welfare and the commercial interests of metropolitan Chicago," the club is best known for sponsoring Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago. In researching and writing the current plan Johnson had help from the club's members and from six club committees, chaired by such luminaries as Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago president Michael Moskow, former John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation president Adele Simmons, and former Illinois attorney general Tyrone Fahner.

You wouldn't expect to find these folks on the cutting edge, and they aren't. But they do want to do good. Unlike, say, the current Republican Party platform, Chicago Metropolis 2020 isn't a bald-faced attempt to enrich its authors at the expense of the rest of us. It's a bald-faced attempt to sell us a pack of ideas. Many of these ideas come from the reform Republicanism of the Progressive era a century ago, and many are appealing. "Economic growth is not an end in itself," writes Johnson early on, "and cannot be the only criterion governing our strategies for the region. In this era of unprecedented prosperity, we would be a hollow and nearsighted people indeed if we were to neglect ideals concerning human dignity and equality of opportunity, community and environmental integrity, and the ideals and civilizing purposes of a great metropolitan region." But the Progressive-era reformers were never comfortable with the rough-and-tumble of political disagreement and horse trading, and their successors today feel the same way. Democracy can be disorderly and irrational, and in this book the authors try to wish it away.

The Metropolis 2020 planners want to stop sprawl, segregation, and bad schools all across the Chicago region. They pay brief lip service to the idea that everything that can be done locally should be, but their hearts aren't in it. On every issue, from workforce training to building codes to sewage-treatment plants, they bemoan the absence of a regional power to coordinate the necessary decisions.

Politically, the 2020 planners would establish a new regional council and do away with many allegedly superfluous local governments. Ideologically, the 2020 planners would be much happier if Chicagoans were all of one mind, so that we could accomplish things without the noise and bother of politics. Without regional coordination and regional consensus, they fear, Chicago will become less pleasant and less prosperous, and may even fail to place in the "ten or fifteen great metropolitan centers of the world economic order that is emerging."

Regionalism and consensus have been tried before, with mixed results. In the late 1890s they were being pushed by Frank Lowden, a wealthy Chicago corporate attorney and the son-in-law of railroad magnate George Pullman. Along with the Civic Federation and the Political Action Committee of the Union League Club, Lowden lobbied to create "Greater Chicago," a metropolitan government that would have encompassed the suburbs and surrounding counties.

Greater Chicago flopped, but Lowden went on to become a reform governor of Illinois and a presidential hopeful. He sought to reform city government and extend its reach. But above all, according to his biographer William Hutchinson, he wanted to replace political disagreement with harmony. "By providing a cluster of ideals and measures which all good Chicagoans might gladly strive for, no matter in what part of the metropolis they lived," Hutchinson writes, "he dreamed of ending much of the bickering between its geographic 'divisions' and many ethnic groups."

Architect-entrepreneur Burnham put forth a similar set of ideas in architectural form in the Plan of Chicago, a project to which Johnson pays homage. It's easy to forget the grandiosity of the 1909 plan. If Burnham had had his way, Chicago's streets and skylines would now converge on a towering civic center and government complex at Congress and Halsted, surmounted by a dome described as "comparable to that of St. Peter's cathedral at Rome." A 13-mile boulevard would link the south, west, and north sides, arcing northwest from Garfield and Western to the edge of Oak Park and then northeast back to Western at Lawrence. The lakefront would be beautified by 20 miles of islands created from fill, with elegant bridges linking them to the city every half mile or so. A redevelopment program, including an elaborate system of parks and boulevards, would extend as far as 60 miles from downtown and bring order out of suburban chaos. A widely used textbook published in 1911, Wacker's Manual of the Plan of Chicago, admonished Chicago eighth graders that Burnham's 1909 plan would direct the city's growth "in a systematic and orderly way," and make Chicago "a real, centralized city instead of a group of overcrowded, overgrown villages."

Burnham didn't embrace beautification for its own sake. In those days an improved built environment was expected to produce improved citizens. But few of his dreams, architectural or social, came true. We did get Grant Park and North Michigan Avenue and the forest preserves, but they're just shards of his vision. No civic center dominates our skyline, no regional redevelopment authority rules the suburbs. Most important, no consensus exists that Burnham's system would have been better than the diverse, disorderly way in which Chicago actually evolved.

"Chicago's twentieth-century city builders largely ignored the civic ideals and forms essential to the 1909 plan," writes Columbia University architectural historian Daniel Bluestone in his book Constructing Chicago. "Burnham and the Commercial Club advisers failed where they most wanted to succeed, in adding to the commercial city a refined, uplifting civic landscape that would foster social unity."

In the years since 1909, some less spectacular but more practical efforts to solve regional problems have been made in Chicago. Ominously for the current plan, however, they've rarely produced the good-government results the Metropolis 2020 planners want.

The 27-year-old Regional Transportation Authority, and its Metra commuter-rail arm in particular, have done more to move relatively well-off suburbanites to jobs in the city than to move less prosperous urbanites to jobs out in the suburbs. These priorities help perpetuate inequality and unemployment, and the Metropolis 2020 planners want Metra to give reverse commuting extra attention right away. But the planners don't stop to wonder why they need to point this out more than a quarter century after the establishment of a regional transportation agency. Does having a regional structure really cause a government body to do things differently? Wouldn't the new regional agencies they propose tend to favor those with clout, just as existing state, county, and local governments do?

For some reason, Chicago Metropolis 2020 never mentions one of the few regional bodies that already exist in the area. The 112-year-old Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is an elective body devoted to solving water problems that local jurisdictions can't handle on their own. The MWRD has cleaned up the lake and river and prevented some flooding. Of course it has also seen its share of corruption, and it chose a bricks-and-mortar solution--the Deep Tunnel project--to deal with storm-water overflows rather than the lower-tech, small-scale solutions favored by environmentalists. It may be a regional agency, but it retains the Chicago proclivity to solve problems by pouring concrete.

Today's antisprawl open-space-preservation movement may eventually contribute to Metropolis 2020 goals. But at present the movement is driven mainly by suburbanites' desire to keep taxes low by buying land and keeping it undeveloped. Lake County has been a leader in this process. Larry Leafblad, a member of the pro-environment majority on the county board and the chair of its Planning, Zoning, and Building Committee has offered a five-point rationale for expanding county forest preserves that has nothing to do with birds and bunnies. "It keeps your taxes down," he writes on his Web site ( "It keeps cars off the highways. It keeps students out of schools that don't have to be built. It keeps a high quality of life for you. It makes your property more valuable." Endorsed for reelection by the Sierra Club and the Lake County Conservation Alliance, he corralled 58 percent of the vote in his district in November 2000.

But while Lake County supports open-space preservation, the county board has repeatedly failed to pass any kind of affordable-housing legislation. Without a commitment to let people of all races and incomes live in the suburbs, being against sprawl is just another way of living in a gated community. This is the opposite of the mixed-income and mixed-race communities the Metropolis 2020 planners want to see.

Metropolis 2020 author Johnson shares Lowden's and Burnham's belief that the Chicago area isn't centralized and coordinated enough. "We must learn to do something well that we have so far been doing only in fits and starts," he writes, "namely, we must think and work together as a region." Lowden would have brought that about by legislating a regional government; Burnham would have done so by surrounding us with orderly and elegant buildings. Johnson has a more sophisticated idea of how to make it happen--incentives.

The Metropolis 2020 planners want the Illinois General Assembly to charter a Regional Coordinating Council for the six-county area. The council's mission would be to bring about a litany of good regional things: efficient multimodal transportation, housing for all income levels in all parts of the region, enrichment of the poorest suburbs, and preservation of open space. The council wouldn't order cities and counties to do things, so technically it wouldn't be a metropolitan government as "Greater Chicago" would have been. But it would exert financial power. Using sales-tax money--from either a new statewide tax on personal services (haircuts? legal advice?) or a region-wide reallocation of existing sales taxes away from municipalities--the council would offer these revenues only to those cities and counties that followed its recommendations. The city and county governments would continue to function, but they would increasingly be carrying out regional policies made elsewhere.

This somewhat kinder and gentler approach to centralization runs throughout the 2020 plan. Instead of banning cars from the Loop or drawing an "urban-growth boundary" somewhere in the middle of Kane County to stop auto-dependent sprawl, the planners would tax cars more heavily and use that revenue for mass transit. Instead of imposing draconian standards on mediocre public schools, they would let parents choose among public schools (and eventually among private schools as well). Instead of ordering each suburb to take a specified "fair share" of affordable rental housing, the 2020 planners would have the RCC deny funding to suburbs that exclude affordable housing or fail to enforce fair-housing laws. Whether or not you agree with each of these policies, you have to admire the planners' consistency in sticking to their regionalism-by-incentives approach.

The Metropolis 2020 planners have one more thing in common with their predecessors of the 1890s and 1900s: they're not comfortable with politics. This comes across most clearly when they wax rhetorical, as in their preamble: "We dream of an economically vibrant and environmentally healthy region; one whose concentrated areas of activity enable people of complementary talents to achieve high levels of creativity and productivity; a region where all persons have ready access to jobs, to housing near their jobs, and to good schools and job training; a region in which people are enabled and encouraged to find nourishment in a diversity and complexity of persons, interests, and tastes, and to enjoy an exciting array of cultural, recreational, and intellectual opportunities; and, most important, a region that undergirds strong neighborhoods, communities, and families so that they are enabled to nurture the intellectual, moral, and social development of children."

This vague and idealistic statement is the common ground that the Metropolis 2020 planners want us all to share. But we don't. Some people think that economic vibrancy and environmental health are sometimes in conflict. Many people will argue with some of the specific assertions the Metropolis 2020 planners make:
We engage in "excessive" travel and rely excessively on private vehicles, which therefore should be taxed more heavily.
We have too many small local governments, which are in need of "cost control and corporate simplification."
The Chicago Housing Authority should accelerate its current demolition of public housing "to allow its residents to be relocated as quickly as possible."
Schools need to become more concerned about performance and to attract more competent teachers; to do this they should institute a voucher system, pay teachers more, and set up "a streamlined dismissal process that will facilitate the termination of the very substantial number of bad teachers."
Chicago should study "the advantages of privatizing the entire CTA system," because privatization would save money and because it "seems to be the order of the day."

Reasonable Chicagoans can and do disagree on these proposals. The question is how to work out our disagreements--and we have always worked them out through politics. But the Metropolis 2020 planners, like Burnham and Lowden, often write as though they'd like to bypass politics altogether and settle things based on their own opinions or those of their anointed experts.

For instance, the 2020 planners are unhappy with Chicago's existing regional-planning agencies, the Northern Illinois Planning Commission and the Chicago Area Transportation Study. NIPC and CATS are advisory bodies that deal with land use and transportation. They have little power to enforce the plans they make, and Johnson complains that the plans themselves are weak: "The political bargaining process continues to compete with objective policy analysis for the control of agency decisions."

In the same vein, the Metropolis 2020 planners disagree with CATS's 1997 regional transportation plan (called Destination 2020--what is it about that year?). "It consists of a collection of projects that . . . reflected the results of a political bargaining process." The political bargaining process in this instance didn't allocate as much money to mass transit as the Metropolis 2020 planners want.

Whenever the Metropolis 2020 planners' views lose out, politics takes the blame. The planners are sure that it's inefficient to have 1,246 local governments in this region, and they blame this continuing crisis on the fact that "reform efforts are ignored by the public and resisted by officeholders." The possibility that local officials might sometimes understand local needs better than larger government bodies is never mentioned. Decentralization and the politicians who uphold it are problems, not solutions.

Of course when the Metropolis 2020 planners do see the kind of results they want, politics doesn't get the credit. Johnson notes approvingly that the Illinois General Assembly passed Governor Ryan's $12-billion Illinois First public-works program and that the city of Chicago has joined a project to fund improved child-care centers. Perhaps it was objective policy analysis that rounded up the votes.

Given the Metropolis 2020 planners' skittishness about the political bargaining process--an essential part of democracy--it should come as no surprise that they don't want the people of the Chicago region to elect the trustees of the Regional Coordinating Council. "If the trustees are elected directly by the region's voters," Johnson writes, "it is likely that many able persons will be deterred [from running] by the costs of running for office. Further, the voters are already deluged at election time with a complexity of choices for numerous offices; another set of decisions would only add to the confusion."

That's pretty thin. "My dog might eat the ballots" would be more persuasive. If campaign spending is a problem, some form of public financing could be included in the council's enabling legislation. And if voters are too confused to vote on regional problems anyway, then why should they be asked to pay sales taxes to fund someone else's idea of a solution?

There's a more plausible reason the 2020 planners don't want elections. Since this is Illinois and not the promised land, they may reasonably worry that an elected Regional Coordinating Council wouldn't act much differently from the state legislators and county board members we already elect--people who mostly want to use their power to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. This isn't what the Metropolis 2020 planners have in mind, so it's not surprising they distrust democracy. But of course they can't say that.

Like Burnham's 1909 plan, Metropolis 2020 is a coherent vision of Chicago's future in which each proposal has its place in the grand mosaic. Also like Burnham's plan, Metropolis 2020 is likely to be adopted only in pieces. (This time, however, the Commercial Club has gone to the trouble of establishing an ongoing group, also called Chicago Metropolis 2020, to serve as a public-relations and lobbying group--"a catalyst for the debate and implementation of many of the recommendations in the plan.") Which pieces of Metropolis 2020 will become law, and which will be historic trivia questions in 2120? The Regional Coordinating Council? The car taxes? School choice? Fair housing? Consolidated rail freight yards? An end to mosquito-abatement districts? Ironically enough, that will be up to us and our elected representatives.

Chicago Metropolis 2020: The Chicago Plan for the Twenty-First Century by Elmer Johnson, University of Chicago Press, $40.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jorge Colombo.

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