At Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a selective enrollment school in Englewood, a new cohort of urban planners is on the rise. For the past few months, students taking Honors Human Geography have been investigating the issues facing their neighborhoods and designing projects aimed at addressing them. Three Wednesdays ago, on February 13, seventy students presented their work—podcasts, diagrams, colorful cardboard cutouts—to each other, more students from the school, and architects and urban planners.
One student, twelfth grader Aalyah Patton, focused on food access after noticing that a one-mile radius in Bronzeville contained three McDonald’s franchises. She said many of her friends liked going to Panera Bread, which has a wider variety of salads, soups, and sandwiches than McDonald’s. For her project, Aalyah planned a Panera Bread to replace a McDonald’s near Mercy Hospital, strategically close to the McCormick Center to catch convention attendees. For her presentation, she built a Panera Bread out of cardboard, featuring a drive-through and an upstairs arcade where parents could take their children.
A ninth grader noted that there weren’t many places for kids and teens to hang out in her neighborhood of Calumet Heights. Children make up nearly twenty percent of the population in Calumet Heights, yet there are no parks or other spaces for kids and teens to spend, as she put it, “healthy leisure time.” For her project, she planned to turn the vacant Buckingham Special Education Center at 92nd Street and Phillips Avenue, which was closed in 2013 as part of Mayor Emanuel’s fifty school closures, into a community center with basketball and volleyball courts, table tennis, and ongoing activities such as cooking classes. She printed out pictures from Google Earth as well as ones she took and glued them onto a cardboard design.
Students began brainstorming for their projects in December. In addition to the visual display, each student had to draft a persuasive essay that made the case for their proposal using concepts from class. “They had to connect…vocabulary and ideas like density, concentration, scale, industry, migration,” said Teddy Kent, one of the Honors Human Geography teachers. “Also contemporary urban issues like gentrification, decentralization, deindustrialization.”
Some students chose to tackle the big topics—in one case, climate change. Taylah Whitmore, a ninth grader, knew she wanted to address something important and climate change had been in the news lately. With her project, she decided Chicago should play a part in advancing renewable energy by placing windmills in the suburbs or at the outer edges of the city and solar panels on the roofs of large commercial buildings. Her presentation was one of the more visually striking ones—Taylah decorated it with bright red and yellow feathers (“to make it pretty”) and placed pebbles around a corner painted blue to symbolize the lake.
Others went local. Carter Hudson, another ninth grader, wanted to do something about the #50 Damen bus, which he takes to get home from school every day. Most days either the bus is late or, if he just happens to miss it, the next one won’t come for another fifteen to twenty minutes. He proposed a dedicated bus lane on Damen that would help the bus avoid traffic and hopefully make it arrive more regularly and on time.
Ninth grader Cameron Foster’s project looked into finding ways to bring more attention and events to the underutilized, City Colleges-owned Harold Washington Cultural Center. Cameron, who passes by the center every day to and from school, noted that for a space that large and prominent, there are relatively few events and activities. He envisioned posting flyers in surrounding businesses on 47th Street promoting concerts, plays, and other events at the center while simultaneously displaying signs from those businesses at the center, benefiting everyone on that stretch of 47th. (That same day, the Weekly ran a cover story looking into the history and underutilization of the South Shore Cultural Center.)
While Kent and Ian Brannigan, the other geography teacher, offered some guidance throughout the assignment, students had the freedom to experiment with how they were going to approach their projects. Some used architectural drafting programs, like SketchUp, to create designs and blueprints. While there wasn’t classroom time to learn how to use those types of programs—“it’s really time consuming and not everyone was going in that direction,” said Kent—those that did “taught themselves brand new skills, a difficult to learn program, created a 3D model…the results were amazing.”
One application of that was in ninth grader Sandra Varona’s Blackstone Barks project, a combined dog park and veterinary clinic that would be built on a vacant lot in South Shore. Sandra, who has several dogs, explained that the South Side, and especially her South Shore neighborhood, have far fewer dog parks and veterinary clinics than the North Side. (Apart from the unofficial Jackson Bark, which would be destroyed by the planned Tiger Woods-designed golf course, the South Side has no existing dog parks, but several in construction.) The dog park would contain small tunnels, baths and water fountains for dogs, and would be located next to the clinic so that “people don’t have to travel far,” she said. Sandra designed the clinic in SketchUp, complete with a surgery room, a waiting room, and a therapy room. She even planned out the number of attending surgeons at the clinic—six.
Kent and Brannigan invited architects and urban planners to come to class in December and lead students in workshops on how to plan a project and transition from the planning stages to seeing it through. “Their focuses were different depending on what their specialty was,” said Kent. “We had somebody from [Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning], a couple people that work at their own architecture firms. We had one person who leads an After School Matters architecture and design program.”
Some of those architects and urban planners came back to attend the fair and asked students about their projects. “They were all very scared of the presentation part but I think a lot of them are grateful to be able to share,” said Kent. “This is where it’s meaningful, right? You turn in something, I grade it, it doesn’t necessarily see the light of day. But when you’re talking to people who think about this on an everyday basis, your ideas might then go on to influence and inform the work that they do. [That’s] what we aim to do as teachers, take our learning and our impact beyond the classroom.”
This was the second year in a row that students taking Honors Human Geography at Lindblom made projects like these, said Kent. Since this is also his second year at Lindblom, he couldn’t say for himself, but noted in an email that Brannigan’s students have gone on to work in architecture and urban planning, including at the Chicago Architectural Foundation, or win the Newhouse Architecture and Design Competition.
Students seemed to appreciate the opportunity to learn about the issues facing their neighborhoods and find ways to address them. “We’re the best generation for this,” said Aalyah, who designed the Panera Bread, “because we know what we want.”
“Adolescents have a million ideas,” said the ninth grader from Calumet Heights. “We can inspire someone to change something.”
“The governor and mayor, they don’t pay attention to small details that have a big impact,” Sandra of Blackstone Barks said. “Urban planning is a way to find solutions that work for everybody.”
Students weren’t the only ones with takeaways from the project. “There’s sometimes a move to put down the younger generations as being self-centered and being technology obsessed. Ultimately, these projects show how engaged [they are] and how kids really care about making Chicago, their neighborhood, the world a better place,” said Kent.
“I feel really blessed…to get some diverse voices in the room together and to hear about each other’s ideas and learn from [them],” he added. “I’m always surprised by what the students choose to talk about in their projects and where they get their inspiration and what some of their ideas are.”
Lindblom, one of eleven selective enrollment high schools in Chicago, takes in students from around the city, though most come from the South Side. “There are very few spaces in Chicago … where you get a bunch of people in a room together who are talking about ways to make their neighborhoods and Chicago better, that represent almost every neighborhood, at least on the South Side of the city,” said Kent. “Can City Hall even say they have these sorts of discussions and conversations and proposals put forth?”
Students seemed satisfied with the assignment, and a few even expressed interest in doing more with urban planning in the future or addressing the issues they had investigated. “At first it was a lot of work,” said Jonathan Evans, who designed a community college in Minecraft. “But it was fun to do and I’d like to do more.”
“It was worth it,” said Taylah, who built the windmills and solar panels. “I learned a lot, got to decorate and present—and now I’ll even be in an article!”
Adam Przybyl is the Weekly’s editor-in-chief. He last interviewed 14th Ward aldermanic candidate Jaime Guzmán.