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Archive for November 14th, 2009

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Had I known that this event was taking place I would have planned around it. But like most of the great social interactions that occur, planning couldn’t have produced a better experience.

The topic was what Chicago is going to be in 2109 – on the 200th anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s plan for the city. It was a discussion group hosted by the Chicago Humanities Festival at the Harold Washington Library. I took a special interest in today’s discussion because John Tolva was on the panel. John and I met for lunch a few weeks ago to not only to meet after following one another on Twitter, but also to revel in each other’s passion for the city – the urban environment.

The other panelists were Doug Farr, an architect and planner and Cheryle Jackson, former president of the Chicago Urban League and current candidate for the US Senate seat vacated by President Obama.

Each panelist had time to display their ideas of the future of Chicago. Doug Farr discussed LEED certifications and highlighted specific projects. He talked about zoning and cheekily encouraged city engineers to quietly exchange “minimums and maximums” – citing parking and square foot regulations. He also discussed the increased levels of obesity among Americans as an indication that our current built environment is putting us in harms way.

John Tolva talked about the ‘city as a platform” for problem solving. He suggested that the data available on any street corner – mobile phone transmissions, Wi-Fi connections, text messages, Tweets, GPS connections, CTA card swipes, pedometers in shoes and the like have the potential to demonstrate patterns if that data can be collected for statistical purposes. Then through the statistical modeling patterns can be encouraged or modified based upon social or monetary incentives, for example. John likes to examine movement through cities.

Cheryle Jackson discussed social and economic segregation. She spoke of the challenges facing residents of Chicago’s south side, such the absence of adequate public transportation, the absence of adequate grocery options, but pointed to solutions such as farmer’s markets that accept food stamps. She talked about reversing the trends that show that more African-American men in Chicago will go to prison than to college.

The second half of the presentation allowed for questions from the audience. Almost all of the questions had something to do with transportation – and specifically, how Chicagoans will move themselves through and increasingly dense urban environment.

Doug Farr envisions completely walkable neighborhoods where residents are just a few blocks away from the things that they need. John Tolva looks towards an increase in public transit coupled with bicycle accessibility. An interesting point was made in that Chicago’s current transportation networks are based primarily upon post-war (WW2) models. The fact is that very few, if any American cities have evolved past that post-war model.

As a former VP at Amtrak Cheryle Jackson fielded questions about high-speed rail and discussed the costs and losses attributed to the political clout of the highway lobbyists. She discussed how the privatized Chicago street parking has effected people in her neighborhood and how that has shed light on other problems as well as placing an emphasis on solutions.

As always, its a treat to be surrounded by so many people who care so deeply about their city – the 385 seat auditorium was sold out in advance. And even nicer to see planners, visionaries and politicians working together to create solutions, not to mention the fact that a senate candidate has the ability to talk about rail transit! A special thanks to the Chicago Humanities Festival for hosting this event.

I had a moment to chat with Cheryle Jackson following the event – we spoke about the CTA and Amtrak and how I sometimes commute between Ohio and Chicago on the train. She encouraged me to head out east and ride the Acela. “If you like Amtrak, you’re going to love the Acela,” she said.

(photo courtesy of John Tolva – click the photo itself for more information)

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