by Gabriel Piemonte
The meetings recently held by the Chicago Park District and featuring presentations by the Obama Foundation and Tiger Woods Golf Course representatives were touted as “Jackson Park Framework Plan” meetings. By that standard – set out by the organizers – they were a complete failure. In fact, it is unclear what their purpose might have been, beyond getting the most superficial level of input from a particular group of residents and cementing the idea that the Obama Center and Tiger Woods’ plans are connected.
The idea of a long-term framework plan is that an area is examined as it is and stakeholders reason together regarding the ways in which that area might be improved. For one of Chicago’s foundational parks, an essential manifestation of the lakefront promise “forever open, clear, and free” which is itself a formative tenet of this city, this process is a necessary precondition to any large-scale reconfiguration. In this case, there are at least three major proposals for the park, as well as changes that, if there weren’t mega-projects on the table, would be considered important in and of themselves.
These meetings failed on all counts. They did not include any smaller projects or even one of the three major projects. A massive amphitheater project was simply referenced. Other important changes got a corner of a single PowerPoint slide. The entire presentation presumed there were only two things to consider about Jackson Park – the Obama Center and the Tiger Woods Golf Course – and everything was oriented around an assumption that these projects, more or less as proposed, were going to happen. The questions presented were a matter of possible fine-tuning.
The process of so-called engagement had three parts to it. The first was lecture-style presentations of the golf course and the Center. That was followed by a blend of the other two parts – cell phone polls and recording questions and comments. No answers were given to questions. No comments were engaged. When one person pointed out that these questions required answers, she was un-helpfully told that this was a listening session.
From the standpoint of a democratic process, this is unforgivable. The only reason the officials in these meetings would create such a limitation is because they are uninterested in letting the ideas of the community influence their plans. Do I need to point out that people listen and respond at the same time? Do I need to observe that the most effective listening includes engagement that demonstrates understanding of what has been said? It is dispiriting to wonder whether the system reflects even these basic principles of adult engagement.
The Park District had three opportunities to engage in meaningful conversation about what’s going on in Jackson Park and to let ordinary people have a say. They demonstrated instead cynicism and contempt, choosing to ignore taxpayers in an Orwellian forum format that called not listening listening. Shockingly, these meetings were billed as community conversations. A conversation in which the parties do not engage with one another, but instead talk at one another – perhaps we are getting a glimpse of work culture at the Park District through this phrasing. One cannot help but wonder if they hope their offensive behavior will alienate engaged citizens enough to turn them off entirely, letting the bureaucrats get back to their own agenda without pesky interruptions.
There is a final meeting on July 13 to make up for the small venue in which their third meeting was held. Whether that will be any different is a matter of speculation, but it does represent an opportunity to make amends. In the meantime, the lakefront communities most affected by these changes to Jackson Park should hold their own, independent meetings in which citizens can express their views in a format that enhances their voices, rather than muting them. We should always bear in mind that the government is for us – it was invented by citizens, and if it is not functioning properly, we can create our own solutions. Any vision for the future of Jackson Park should be crafted by the people – not handed to them. We should let the powers that be know that we will not let our future be dictated to us.