The Chicago Political System

Is it possible to have good planning without good government?

Urbanist Article

Chicago is famous not just for its height of its buildings, but for the extent of its political corruption. It is the city that comes to mind when people hear the term “political machine.” It is what we compare San Francisco to when we are most despairing about the quality of our own democratic process.

I have no idea if this reputation is deserved or not. Almost everyone I talked with in Chicago seems to think that it is. And yet, it’s not the whole story. Somehow, in spite of everything, the political system is managing to make progress on real social and environmental problems. How do they do it?

This article shares some brief observations on the Chicago political system and civic culture, with an eye toward learning from our cross-cultural exchange.

City of Wards

Every city seems to see itself as a “city of neighborhoods,” but Chicago has truly decentralized power to the sub-unit at the expense of the larger geography. The city is divided into 50 wards, which are redrawn after each federal census to ensure roughly equal population size. This means that wards have approximately 56,000 residents, compared to about 67,000 in each of San Francisco’s districts. Each elects an alderman to the City Council. While SPUR sometimes accuses San Francisco’s supervisors of acting like ward bosses, you should see a real ward boss.

To a degree that would shock and dismay advocates of “coordinated citywide planning,” planning in Chicago is done at the ward level. Each ward has its own priorities for infrastructure spending. Each has its own inclusionary-housing requirement, ranging between 20 percent and none at all. Some aldermen are pro-growth; others are anti-growth — and these preferences hold sway, regardless of what the zoning might say.

The Benign Dictatorship

The wards are linked, in an almost feudalistic sense, to the mayor, chief among the political bosses. The power of the aldermen pales beside the power of the mayor. Richard M. Daley has been in power continuously since 1989. His father, Richard J. Daley, held power from 1955 until his death in 1976. To call the current mayor a hands-on leader would be an understatement. Department heads told us about calls all day, all night and on the weekends. The mayor prefers to get around on bicycle, and is seen all over the city. No detail appears to be too small to merit the mayor’s attention.

The relationship between the aldermen and the mayor is a complicated one, and very much a two-way exchange. The mayor receives “loyalty,” meaning the ability to get the City Council to vote for what he needs. In return, he delivers whatever it is that the aldermen most need, whether that be new development or blocking new development; a new chain store or blocking a new chain store; new parks or new libraries ¾ and, of course, a steady stream of public jobs for the people who are “loyal” to the aldermen.

The term heard most often to describe Chicago’s political system is “benign dictatorship.” Daley’s personal priorities happen to include affordable housing, parks, public transit and natural resource sustainability, as well as infill development near transit. Chicago has gained a reputation as America’s greenest city, under Daley’s leadership.

Millennium Park includes this 300-space heated indoor bicycle parking facility, with lockers, showers and a snack bar.

Life Terms

Neither the mayor nor the aldermen have term limits. The average tenure of sitting aldermen is nearly 14 years, and five aldermen have been in office more than 30 years. There are probably strengths and weaknesses to the idea of not having term limits. California’s experience with term limits has been to create a churn of short-timers in office, who do not have the time to become experts in anything, and our system has been widely thought to have shifted power to the one stable class in power, the lobbyists.

As former Sacramento Bee editorial page editor Peter Schrag observed in Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future, "Term limits in California, together with sharp cuts in professional staff, are here to stay. The net effect is increased power for interest group lobbyists and agency bureaucrats, who are under no term limit restraints and who will increasingly become the major source of legislative information."

Chicago’s politicians are certainly there long enough to learn the ropes. More importantly, they have the time to actually accomplish something and be held accountable to show results while they are still around.

On the other hand, Chicago’s elected officials can become so entrenched that they become immune to challenge and inured to democratic input. Perhaps the lesson is that longer terms in office might be a good idea, but something short of the “life terms” that Chicago seems to favor. San Francisco might consider, for example, extending the number of allowable terms for mayor and city council from two up to three.

Sam Assefa, formerly of the San Francisco Planning Department, is not Mayer Daley's deputy chief of staff for economic and urban development.

The Special Case of Downtown

There seems to be an unwritten agreement that the mayor gets to call the shots within the downtown. Keep in mind that what Chicago considers its downtown is a much larger area than what San Francisco calls downtown. The mayor is intimately involved with the developers, architects and corporations that make new buildings and locate jobs downtown.

Chicago is filled with lower-density neighborhoods and homeowners’ associations that don’t want to see large amounts of physical change, just like San Francisco. But there also are areas that have been designated growth zones to take the pressure off the rest of the city ¾ chief among these the downtown, or so-called Central Area. We observed something similar in Vancouver and San Diego: large areas “downtown” that are being converted from industrial uses to high-rises, even while much of the rest of the city is undergoing more careful and incremental change.

San Francisco is different in this light, not because the outer neighborhoods want any changes to the built environment to be extremely careful and incremental, but because the entire South of Market Area is treated as just as precious as the outer neighborhoods are. We do not have growth zones that are intended to serve as the pressure relief valves the way these other cities seem to.

The city street grid extends into Millennium Park as heavily landscaped pedestrian ways.

The City and the Region

Chicago dominates its region in a way San Francisco does not dominate the Bay Area. With 15 percent of the metropolitan area’s jobs in the downtown central business district, the Chicago region is vastly more “monocentric” than the Bay Area, in which just 10.3 percent of the regions jobs are located in San Francisco’s central business district.

Similarly, the city of Chicago has a population of 2.85 million, 30 percent of the regional population of 9.49 million. By contrast, San Francisco’s population of 764,000 makes up just 13percent of the Bay Area population of 5.94 million.

The region is certainly beset by all of the problems of uncontrolled sprawl. It actually crosses the state line north into Wisconsin and south into Indiana. That said, it is clear where the center is.

The suburbs certainly compete with Chicago for transportation funds and other types of investment, as everywhere. But residents of the Chicago suburbs tend to maintain a greater degree of identification with the central city than Bay Area residents feel for San Francisco.


Three Examples of Emerging Chicago Regionalism are Instructive:


First, the regional association of governments (The Northeast Illinois Planning Commission) and the metropolitan planning organization (The Chicago Area Transportation Study) recently merged, and now are known as the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. This is the equivalent, out here, of the Association of Bay Area Governments merging with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, something that has long been discussed by planning advocates in the Bay Area. After a long campaign, they actually pulled it off in Chicago, with the two organizations expected to be fully integrated by 2008. This experiment in regional planning will be extremely interesting to watch as it develops.

Second, Daley took the lead in forming the metropolitan mayors’ caucus, founded in 1997. The 272 municipalities in the region are now at least talking to one another on a regular basis. While this caucus does not have any formal powers, its existence is credited with improvements to electric service reliability and the delivery of other utilities.

Last, it is interesting to note that all three of the Chicago civic organizations that bear some resemblance to SPUR operate at the regional level: Metropolis 2020, the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Metropolitan Planning Commission. I take this as further evidence that regionalist thinking in Chicago is perhaps more evolved than it is in the Bay Area.

Boat tours run by the Chicago Architecture Foundation provided expert discussions of the city's planning and architectural history. SPUR Vice Chair Anne Halsted and Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf relax on deck.


Could any city have a political culture more different from San Francisco’s? Chicago’s 50 wards make our district-elected Board of Supervisors look downright centralized. The strength of Chicago’s mayor makes our strong mayor system look weak. Compared with Chicago’s emphasis on results over process, our commitment to participatory democracy makes San Francisco look like the Athenian polis.

These differences point to the central ambiguity in the idea of what we mean by good government: Do we mean efficient at delivering public services or do we mean democratic, transparent and free from corruption?

For those who value the latter set of goals, there is not a lot to admire about the Chicago political system, with the exception of the emerging institutions for regional cooperation. But for those who value effectiveness and the ability to get things done, Chicago is clearly an appealing city.

SPUR continues to insist, perhaps against all evidence, that we can have it both ways ¾ that it is possible to have a highly democratic and highly effective local government. In the quest for this ideal, there are things we can learn from any great city.


Gabriel Metcalf is executive director of SPUR.