Sometimes it takes immersing yourself in the history of a city to see its future.
Chicago has not had the easiest past few years. From a cash-strapped city hall, to violent streets and inequitable neighborhoods, the Windy City faces sizable challenges. Yet none of these are a match to the assets that were on display in early June at the second annual Chicago Forum on Global Cities, sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. With powerhouse speakers ranging from Mayor Rahm Emanuel to New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter, Harvard’s Ed Glaeser and Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff and fascinating tours of the city’s neighborhoods, the conference was an opportunity for me to remind myself of Chicago’s strong bones. And those bones, while brittle in places, fortify robust transportation arteries, academic brainpower and a cultural heart that few cities worldwide can match.
Case in point: On a walking tour of the Pullman neighborhood, we were witnesses to everything that makes a community great. The brainchild of railcar magnate George M. Pullman, the original town of Pullman is noted for playing an important role in the history of urban design, transportation, labor and race relations. Adjacent to Lake Calumet and only 15 miles from the Loop, Pullman from its beginnings offered residents access to recreation, jobs and the downtown.
Despite poverty, disinvestment, citywide unrest and a threat to raze the entire community to make way for a light industrial park, Pullman was able to mostly retain both its architectural heritage and working-class character. That character, in 2011, earned it recognition as one of the American Planning Association’s top rated neighborhoods and in 2015, got the attention of President Obama, who designated the one-time company town as a national monument, protected as a landmark and included in the National Park System.
None of this happened by accident. Seeing the “commercial value of beauty,” George Pullman built iconic red brick townhomes, a commercial center and a manufacturing plant, integrating well-landscaped parks and access to the nearby lake. His vision inspired the Times of London to describe Pullman as “the most perfect town in the world.” A century and a half later, a number of dedicated residents, historians and private sector leaders again channeled a vision. Like Pullman before them, these planners imagined a community where people live, work and gather, but this time it is not a single company investing.
Pullman embodies the multisector, public-private collaboration that will power the next generation of cities.
In one part of the historic neighborhood, Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives has invested over $5 million to renovate historic homes. Nearby, the nonprofit Mercy Housing spent over $15 million to preserve and renew the Pullman Wheelworks. The adaptive reuse of the former Pullman Company facility will house 200 low-income families. Partnerships with the city and state have produced more historic restoration; and plans for new spaces promise to make Pullman a destination of choice for creative minds. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, Pullman’s industrial past lives in Method Home’s $30 million, 150,000 square foot manufacturing facility. Employing more than a 100 people, Method surveyed over 100 sites before selecting Pullman, citing its access to transportation and a skilled workforce. A leading manufacturer of green cleaning supplies and soaps, Method has a built a wonderfully modern facility with resilient landscaping, including the largest rooftop garden in the world, operated by Gotham Greens, and producing over a million pounds of leafy vegetables per year for local distribution.
Across the neighborhood, it was the abundance of natural areas, wetlands, parks and forest preserves that captured my attention. Plans to transform the greater Lake Calumet region of Chicago into a one-of-a-kind public destination with more than 2,500 acres of open space as part of President Obama’s Millennium Reserve Initiative will protect and restore natural ecosystems and promote healthier lifestyles, while paying homage to the region’s industrial past.
All of these developments indicate the enormous opportunity that Chicago possesses. Building on AT Kearney’s ranking of the top global cities and a report from the Chicago Council explaining how to “go beyond” the scorecard, it’s clear that the city has room to learn lessons from competing cities around the world. In the Global Cities Index, which examines city performance based on 27 metrics such as business activity and political engagement, Chicago ranked seventh among the top 125 cities worldwide. Contributing to the high ranking was the abundance of international headquarters, shared services centers, software development, financial services, life sciences, R&D and production activity in the city.
But as my visit to Pullman demonstrated, no one sector or company can do it alone. The city’s continued growth will depend on not only nurturing new industries and populations, but supporting those that have been in the city. Chicago, which was once America’s Second City, can reclaim that title, if only for its ambition, by heeding these lessons.
Tom is president, CEO and publisher of Next City. Before joining the organization in 2015, he directed the Center for Resilient Design at the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Prior to that, he ran the Regional Plan Association’s New Jersey office, and served as a senior adviser on land use for two New Jersey governors. Tom is a licensed professional planner, and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, as well as an adjunct professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he teaches land use planning and infrastructure planning.