Learning from Pilsen’s Opposition to a Landmark Designation Plan
On December 1, 2020, the Chicago City Council struck down a Pilsen Landmark designation plan proposed in 2018 by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. On the surface, the designation plan seemed innocent enough. Proponents claimed the plan would prevent the historic architecture in Pilsen from being demolished by developers, an admitted problem. But in practice, this ruling would likely raise housing maintenance costs, increase property taxes and permit-renewal costs, and constrain the ways owners can use their buildings.
I study communication, specifically how architecture firms and planners communicate with and listen to the public. In major planning projects, authentically engaging with residents early and often when a proposed project will change their neighborhood is not a luxury. It is not something to do after all of the major decisions have already been decided. Instead, authentic community engagement is crucial throughout the planning process. Planners must listen to the residents of the neighborhood, because these residents will literally have to live with the repercussions of their choices and changes.
Authentic engagement means partnerships with community groups, neighborhood polls and surveys, focus groups and listening sessions. Authentic engagement empowers the community and creates a more appropriate project or decision. Without these community-focused elements, architects, planners, and local politicians run the risk of imposing what they view as a commonsense design or policy decisions in ways that are short sighted and potentially disastrous to neighborhoods and their residents.
In short, planners must remember the maxim: “Nothing about us without us.”
Listening to community members is the first step. Authentic participation and engagement demands that those in power listen first and work to include the community in the decision making process. This kind of coordination takes time and effort, but, as I’ve witnessed through my study of various planning projects, it also serves as a countermeasure to bad policy and simplistic planning, however well-intended.
In the Pilsen case, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks’ decision to preserve architecture was met with outcry because it didn’t incorporate community feedback. In short, the Commission’s designation plan did not reflect the will of people who lived in Pilsen because the plan was drafted without substantive community input. Protests followed, community members gathered more than enough signatures to put the proposal up for a City Council vote, and the plan was halted only months before it was to take effect.
Pilsen has the Pilsen Neighborhood Community Council, which features a long history of organizing and advocacy. But not every neighborhood has an advocacy group. So, view this case as instructive of the power of people’s voices, certainly, but also as an almost-disaster. If things hadn’t gone as they did, Pilsen residents and business owners would be paying to bring their buildings current to the Landmark code, starting in February 2021.
Future neighborhood advocates in the city should view the Pilsen case as a warning about the dangers of well-intentioned but disengaged housing policy. Community voices are essential to informed, neighborhood-specific legislation and urban development projects.
Nothing about us without us.