Tag: podcasts

Danielle Allen on the geography of power sharing and how I think it applies to Chicago

Danielle Allen is a professor of public policy at Harvard University. She also started the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation at Harvard. Danielle was interviewed on the California YIMBY “Abundance” podcast, published December 21.

Danielle said something that I thought was extremely relevant to understanding why the way decisions on Chicago land use and zoning are made is defective and leads to bad outcomes (including segregation and lack of housing in higher-resource neighborhoods ).

Before I excerpt from the interview, here are three summaries of how Chicago land use and zoning decision making processes are, as I said, “defective”. They come from myself, Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA), and the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (better known as HUD).

My own summary: There are 51 ways – at least – to legalize housing in Chicago. The first is the collection of ordinances, regulations, and processes administered by City Hall (as well as the division of power within City Hall amongst the mayor’s office and the departments, and the influence exerted by same); the other 50 are the individual and idiosyncratic ways of the 50 alderpersons. Projects are entitled (approved) on a project by project and lot by lot basis. Every lot is zoned and its zoning district is fungible depending on if the local alderperson supports the change.

CAFHA: “The City of Chicago’s longstanding policy and practice of ‘aldermanic prerogative’ – whereby the City of Chicago delegates to the City’s 50 aldermen and alderwomen (“aldermen”) unfettered power over zoning, land use, city lots, and public financing, in order to decide where, if, and how affordable housing is built in their wards – discriminates on the basis of race, color, national origin, familial status, and disability, and perpetuates segregation on those bases, notwithstanding the city’s certifications it would overcome such segregation. These same policies and practices violate the City of Chicago’s duty to affirmatively further fair housing.”(CAFHA et. al. submitted this complaint to HUD in November 2018)

HUD: “The Department’s investigation indicates that the City affords each of its fifty wards a local veto over proposals to build affordable housing, and that many majority-White wards use the local veto to block, deter, or downsize such proposals. As a result, new affordable housing is rarely, if ever, constructed in the majority-White wards that already have the least affordable housing. The City acknowledges this effect of the practice, its historical use for the purpose of creating and maintaining patterns of racial segregation, and its continued use as a tool that effectuates racially motivated opposition to affordable housing. The City’s use of the local veto despite understanding its effects raises serious concerns about the City’s compliance with Title VI and Section 109.

“The Department understands that the local veto over affordable housing proposals is not a law or formal policy, but a practice arising from (1) the requirement that City Council approve all such proposals, and (2) the custom of only approving those proposals which have the affirmative support of the alderman for the ward in which the development is proposed. This investigation identified three ways in which aldermen wield the local veto to block, deter, or downsize proposals to build affordable housing:” [read the rest of they response to CAFHA’s complaint]

On to the interview!

This excerpted part of the conversation starts at 11:14.

Screen grab from the interview of Danielle Allen by Nolan Gray and Ned Resnikoff.

Ned Resnikoff: Nolan [Gray] and I have talked a lot about this idea that we need to, we need to bring back actual planning. So the idea that you have a sort of democratic process for for a citywide general plan, but then if something if a project conforms to that general plan, it’s like, well, the city, the community has already sort of planned to allow for that. And so I guess I’m curious how you think about that, like, is there? Is there a role for project by project planning? Or is it the sort of thing that should happen more at the citywide level or neighborhood level?

[Note that Chicago does not have a general or comprehensive plan. Another way to look at this is that Chicago’s zoning map is its comp plan.]

Danielle Allen: I think it can be either city wide or regional, it sort of depends on what the issue is, or neighborhood. If you take the case of land use in renewable energy contexts, it could literally be like the folks who sort of share the same wind footprint. And so do you think this is the hardest? Well, there’s many hard problems in this space.

But one of the hardest problems in the space is the fact that our current jurisdictional structures don’t always map the footprints of the affected community for a given issue.

[I bolded that statement. I think the issue where this is most relevant is housing production – the people who need or would use proposed housing is the affected community not mapped to the footprint of the Chicago alderperson’s jurisdiction and the application of that alderperson’s power is defined by one of 50 ways, leading to the outcomes of not building enough housing which are outlined in CAFHA’s complaint and HUD’s general agreement of the nature of the complaint.]

Danielle continues… So that’s the kind of thing I’m wrestling with, and my lab is working on, is kind of having concrete cases where that’s true. And then how do you start to actually give people access to a governance structure that aligns with the actual footprint of impact? And how would you make that work given the existing legacy jurisdictional structures? So I don’t think we have answers to that question yet. But I feel like that’s the problem we have to solve.

So for example, again, renewable energy is basically a land use issue, right? Because it takes so much more land to source energy through renewable sources, whether solar or wind. So at the end of the day, it’s like, anybody who thinks about land use, we need you in the kind of climate conversation because it is just fundamentally a land use question. I think what we’re working on is the different structures, that kind of collective ownership, so that the benefits that could come from harvesting the renewable energy resource that you are somehow connected to either because you’re upwind or downwind or someplace in between, but if the wind gets used, you’re going to be affected by it. You know, those kinds of things might give us some new governance structures that can kind of come in and help us break through some of our impasses. That’s the sort of thing we’re trying to figure out, to align the need for that participatory element that does deliver the appropriate kind of empowerment, but is also driving towards something effective.

Update: Three more podcasts I started listening to

Last November I admitted I started listening to podcasts and I shared my list of two essential and two extra urbanism podcasts. Since then I’ve added three more podcasts to my rotation.

a photo of University Center in the South Loop, behind a Green Line elevated train that's headed north.
Chicago urbanist. High-rise student housing and conference center, a 131-year-old elevated transit line (although running over the Harrison Curve track that was built in 2003 to replace two 90-degree turns), and an undeveloped surface parking lot.

(Links go to Apple Podcasts.)

City Dweller

Listen to the episodes where they interview my friend Eric Allix Rogers about what he appreciates in Chicago, and my sometimes conspirator Emily Talen (also an urban geography professor at University of Chicago). Other Chicagoans, Natalie Moore and Mary Wisniewski, have also been interviewed. Episodes are short!

Odd Lots

This is one of Bloomberg media’s podcasts, with hosts Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal. I mostly appreciate the episodes where they explain financial topics I still have a hard time understanding, and I really liked the recent episode where they interviewed Saule Omarova to talk about the FDIC and the Federal Reserve.

Tracy and Joe also interviewed Stephen Smith and Bobby Fijan to talk about apartment building designs, unit layouts, and why the double-loaded corridor is fine for hotels but not fine building apartments for families.

The War on Cars

This should have gone in my previous post because this is another urbanism podcast. The title is a pretty good summary and the three hosts – Sarah Goodyear, Aaron Naparstek, who cofounded Streetsblog, and Doug Gordon – discuss the many, many ways that cars ruin cities.

Shortlist: Four urbanism podcasts I listen to

I started listening to podcasts in 2021. I am sharing a list of four that I listen to regularly. Surprising to me, none of them are about Chicago.


  • UCLA Housing Voice is hosted by four UCLA researchers and teachers. Every week during the season (they’re on season two now) they summarize an academic paper about housing and cities and interview the authors. What I like about this is a few things: the consistent format, summarizing academic papers that I don’t have access to and are sometimes painstaking to read and understand, and getting the authors to expand on what they published.
  • The Livable Low-Carbon City are short, explainer-style episodes about the essentials to designing and redesigning cities and neighborhoods for the low-carbon future that we need. Mike Eliason is well known on “Urbanism Twitter” and “Architecture Twitter” for pushing passive house building techniques, baugruppen (a kind of cooperative housing), and point access blocks. Eliason’s episodes are brief and easy to understand, and are a great outlet to hear about his time working and living with his family in Germany.

Sometimes listen: