The City of Big Ideas

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This is the second in a series of blog posts highlighting “big ideas” reshaping America’s cities. Join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #CityIdeas.

Big Ideas

While Congress continues to be trapped in budget battles and partisan gridlock, tomorrow’s “Big Ideas for Cities” event is an opportunity for local leaders to showcase the city innovations and programs that address our nation’s biggest challenges.

Chicago is a fitting host. The City of Big Shoulders continues to tackle tough challenges, from addressing barriers to small business development and entrepreneurship, to working to ensure all children and youth are on a pathway to postsecondary education and training.

Here are just a few initiatives we’ve documented that are moving the city toward a more engaged, equitable and sustainable future:

Participatory Budgeting

Starting in 2010, Chicago Alderman Joe Moore began using a participatory budgeting strategy to determine how to prioritize and spend $1.3 million in local infrastructure funds.

“The participatory budgeting process is conducted primarily through a range of community meetings—educational meetings in each of the Ward’s eight geographic sections, followed by the creation of committees with team leaders for specific topic areas such as parks, arts and streets,” said Alderman Moore.

In addition to increasing citizen involvement in decision-making, participatory budgeting in the 49th Ward has spurred citizens to be more active problem-solvers. Today, for example, a dog park and a community garden, two projects that were initiated and approved through the process, are now operated by teams of neighborhood volunteers.

Dropout Reengagement Centers

Chicago has joined the ranks of cities that are using highly accessible physical locations to connect out-of-school youth and their families with services that enable youth to obtain a diploma or GED.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) developed “Student Outreach and Reengagement” (SOAR) centers, and contracts with a community-based organization to operate each of its three centers.

The centers use several strategies to locate dropouts. Reengagement specialists – four at each center – receive a list of students who have withdrawn from Chicago Public Schools, or show signs of chronic truancy. The specialists also work with counselors at nearby schools to identify dropouts or truants, and receive ongoing referrals as well.

All returning students undergo an intake assessment designed to identify barriers to school success, which frequently results in referrals to supportive services. A reengagement facilitator reviews the student’s transcript to determine graduation needs and develops a graduation plan.

Improving Parks and Playgrounds

Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a comprehensive strategy to rebuild, repair or refurbish 300 playgrounds in communities across Chicago, the city’s first major park rehabilitation effort in 20 years. Called “Chicago Plays,” the goal of the project is for every Chicagoan to live within a 10-minute walk to a safe and vibrant park.

“The 300 playgrounds we are rebuilding in every neighborhood will be a catalyst for a better quality of life and higher standard of living for every Chicagoan,” said Mayor Emanuel.

Chicago is expanding access to playground facilities by mapping their location and assessing the current state of the city’s parks and playgrounds. By identifying neighborhoods that are “play deserts” either because parks and playgrounds near them are unsafe, inaccessible or nonexistent, Chicago is making strides to ensure that all children in the city have opportunities for play and physical activity.