The architectural view of Chicago’s Plan for Transformation for public housing

In an interview for Chicago, former architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune Blair Kamin responded to a question about how public housing in Chicago has turned out:

Cover of the 2000 report on the Plan for Transformation.

Overall, though, I would say the Plan for Transformation has been a disappointment. It took far too long. It built too little housing. The overall aim of integrating very poor people into their communities and the city at large has not been fully achieved. The continued segregation of Chicago by race and class continues. I guess you could say that the series helped set the agenda or some of the reforms that occurred, but I’m sure not satisfied with the outcome.

For low-income housing to succeed, it doesn’t need to be an architectural showplace. It just needs to do the basics, right. It needs to provide shelter, it needs to provide community, it needs to provide integration into the broader society, so [that] people can climb the ladder, economically and socially, if they want to. It doesn’t need to win a design award, although good design certainly can be a part of its success.

I do think it’s really important to say that design is not deterministic. In other words, better buildings will not make better people. Design is part of the equation of integrating the very poor into the city. But it can’t do it all by itself. It’s naive to think that. It needs to be combined with social service programs, and other things – schools, families that are supportive – in order for it to succeed. Design can open the door to success, but it cannot achieve that on its own.

And the corollary is true, too. You can’t blame bad design for the failures completely. You can’t completely blame bad design for the failures of high-rise public housing. The failure has had to do as much withe federal policy that was well intentioned, but foolish. Concentrating lots of very poor people and a vast high rise development, like the Robert Taylor Homes or Stateway Gardens, was an invitation to disaster. In a way, it doesn’t matter how the buildings are designed. The design simply accentuated the social problem these high concentrations of poverty.

Kamin highlights multiple important elements at play: how much replacement housing was actually created, the larger social issues still very present in Chicago (“segregation…by race and class”), and the role of design. I’ll comment briefly on each.

First, this was one of the fears of public housing residents as the Plan for Tranformation was getting underway: if high-rises are torn down, will they be replaced and by what? The Plan for Transformation has not delivered on the number of units promised. The issue of the high-rises may have been addressed but the issues simply morphed into different issues.

Second, is the issue really public housing or is it ongoing inequality in Chicago? As luxury buildings keep going up, conditions in many Chicago neighborhoods have not improved. Public housing has never been particularly popular in the United States but neither has actually acknowledging and addressing the deeper issues of why some city residents might have a need for public housing or why affordable housing is in short supply.

Third, considering the full set of forces at work in a particular context – design, social forces and processes, relationships, power dynamics, the organizations and institutions involved – is very important. If segregation by race and class is present in Chicago, certain institutional actors have particular vested interests, and the design all need to be considered, how might this change constructing buildings in the first place?

With all this said, I hope conversations about public housing and affordable housing in Chicago are not solely relegated to discussions of past decisions and poor outcomes.

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