The Bridge to Success

Bridges come in many forms. There are 37 viaducts along the Bloomingdale Trail, the centerpiece of The 606 Project. It’s a northwest side Chicago project whose progress I have featured on this blog more than once in the past. Those viaducts are physical bridges that link the trail (and formerly the railroad) across underpasses that facilitate traffic below. More than a century ago, the city and the railroad agreed that elevating the spur line would alleviate traffic conflicts on the streets below.

Today the work on the trail also features more metaphorical bridges: those between people. Making the planning process and its implementation run more smoothly as the trail is constructed involves the judicious use of public-private partnerships, allowing both the public and private sectors to perform separate functions more efficiently and effectively. For that purpose, at the beginning of the project, the Chicago Park District hired the national organization, Trust for Public Land, as its representative in both organizing and managing public involvement in the project. The Trust for Public Land also helps manages the Park District’s relationships with the other city agencies involved, most notably the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT). CDOT is leading the construction because federal transportation enhancement funds provide the bulk of the funding for the $95 million project. As part of the public/private nature of the project, The Trust for Public Land is also leading the charge to raise money from private sources.

I took time recently to meet with Jamie Simone, who ten years ago worked for me as a research intern on an American Planning Association project on Planning for Wildfires. Jamie was enthusiastic and curious then, as she remains now that she is performing her dream job with The Trust for Public Land as program director for the Chicago Urban Parks Program. We discussed both what The Trust for Public Land actually does and how it does it.

Jamie, left, at a June 21, 2014, open house for the Bloomingdale Trail project at the Tribune-McCormick YMCA in Chicago.

Jamie, left, at a June 21, 2014, open house for the Bloomingdale Trail project at the Tribune-McCormick YMCA in Chicago.

The Trust for Public Land has a formal agreement with the Park District, Jamie noted, in which it serves as the district’s project coordinator and an “owner’s representative.” What this means in practical terms is that The Trust for Public Land provides an interface with other city agencies on behalf of the park district “to keep things moving forward.” What is important about this arrangement is that, for Jamie, this is her main project; for many of the people in city agencies, the park and trail system development is one of several projects among which they must divide their time. In short, The Trust for Public Land staff can give the trail a “different level of attention.” But, in addition, The Trust for Public Land can bring private fundraising to bear on the project, something inherently more difficult for the city itself to do.

Particularly in a big city like Chicago, however, the effective management of opportunities for citizen engagement with the project is critical. The failure to provide such opportunities has derailed more than a few big urban projects across the country over the years. People want to provide input, and when it comes to a project as intimately related to the quality of life in their neighborhoods as the Bloomingdale Trail, they want such input very much. Hundreds of neighborhood residents attended meetings over a period of months in the last two years that allowed them to see and comment on design options for not only the trail itself but the access ramps and their connections to nearby pocket parks and residential streets.  I know that the input was real and sometimes fervent because I attended two of the bigger meetings. People had strong opinions, but they also clearly wanted the project to succeed.

Chicago Alderman Rey Colon addresses the open house audience.

Chicago Alderman Rey Colon addresses the open house audience.

Numerous maps and posters at the open house help explain both the vision and progress of The 606 Project.

Numerous maps and posters at the open house help explain both the vision and progress of The 606 Project.

When the park and trail system open, residents will end up with some sort of access within one quarter-mile of any point along the trail, and the access points will all be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (a requirement in any case). This trail is an exceedingly rare opportunity in urban life, and it was important that it meet people’s perceived and actual needs.

With that in mind, The Trust for Public Land continues to manage monthly public outreach meetings as the trail progresses, with a variety of neighborhoods and organizations involved. But the focus has shifted, as it has with the weekly staff meetings in which city staff and The Trust for Public Land review progress. The design phase is over, and construction has been underway for some months. The emphasis now is on managing a project the likes of which the city has never tackled before. This is, after all, only the second elevated rail-trail in the United States, after the High Line in Manhattan, which is much shorter. The challenge lies in learning how to maintain such infrastructure, with running trails and access parks. It is a different kind of maintenance than the park district has ever done, and there will be a learning curve. The Trust for Public Land helps as a more limber, more flexible organism than the city. Neither is better; they are simply complementary, with notably different assignments and strengths. That is the beauty of a well-executed public-private partnership.


One final note is that, as the whole project moves forward, The Trust for Public Land has also been able to use the services of Exelon Fellow, Jean Linsner, to develop the trail as an urban educational tool, reaching out to 25 schools within a half-mile of the trail, which can become a visible lesson in urban history for thousands of young people. Perhaps including my own grandchildren.


Jim Schwab


Learn from Taxi Drivers

“How old do you think I am?” the cab driver asked.

It was an odd question, but the conversation with my driver from Reagan National Airport to my hotel on 10th St. NW in Washington, D.C., had already caught me by surprise with his first comment before we had ever exited the airport.

He asked where I was from, and I said Chicago.

“I haven’t seen you for a while,” he said. I was thinking that I had never seen him before at all. Why did he say this? I expressed a little surprise.

“Dr. Morse?” he asked. I soon learned that I apparently looked a lot like Dr. Morse, but I informed him that I was neither a doctor but an urban planner. Dr. Morse is apparently a frequent visitor to Washington, was also from Chicago, and must more than once have found his way into this man’s taxi. The fact was that I was not Dr. Morse produced its own line of conversation, and this was one of those rare cabbies who was actually good at generating conversation out of whole cloth. He worked with whatever conversational material his riders apparently seemed to offer, even inadvertently.

The fact that I did not turn out to be Dr. Morse was no obstacle. And now he took off his hat to let me guess his age. I studied his appearance from behind. “Forty-five,” I said after some consideration. He had only the slightest tinge of gray hair, a youngish-looking face, and seemed fit. Middle-aged.

He proceeded to tell me that a local magazine had cited him for looking much younger than his age. I was not the first to peg him at 45 or thereabouts. It happens a lot. Then he finally tipped his cap. “Seventy-two,” he admitted. I admitted that he looked remarkably good for 72. I asked him how old I looked, and he said 62. Off by just two years, I told him, I am 64. Perhaps my gray hair betrays me more than his does.

But this was about more than just age. He informed me that he had run a marathon, coming in fourth, I believe he said, in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Knowing that the U.S. had boycotted the Moscow Olympics that year because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year before, I asked what country he had represented.

Ethiopia,” he answered. But he had been in Washington 12 years and liked it. I did not ask when he came to the U.S. Somehow it did not occur to me. I was more interested in the man’s story than in mere numbers and dates. He seemed to look so young because of sheer fitness. It is curious how many immigrants become taxi drivers—it seems to be a port of entry in the job world, as well as a great way to learn your way around a new city—but few are former Olympians, for this or any other country. U.S. Olympians, of course, often have much greater opportunities in life if for no other reason than access to money, if they become heroes, or at least education. Such opportunities can more easily escape an aging Ethiopian runner. I would wager, however, that it is not escaping his grandchildren or, since he claimed to have some, his great grandchildren. He seemed amused that I could only claim grandchildren who are nowhere close to being old enough to produce their own offspring.

Soon enough, I found myself getting out in front of Embassy Suites. I tipped him nicely, adding $4 to a $16 ride to offer him a twenty. Taking my luggage as he pulled it out of the trunk, I commented that Washington must have been a significant shift from growing up in Ethiopia. He smiled. Yes, it was, and he did not seem to mind.

Earlier that morning, I had a somewhat more mundane conversation with a young man driving me to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. I had noted, in this 5:30 a.m. ride on Fathers’ Day, that I typically take the CTA Blue Line to the airport, that I traveled a lot, but that I simply had too much luggage on this first leg of a triangle trip to Washington, then Boston, then back to Chicago later in the week, to take the train this morning. It was a business trip. Only as we neared O’Hare did he suddenly mention, for a reason I have now forgotten, that he was from Sri Lanka, though he had moved here with his parents when he was five years old.

“I’ve been there,” I mentioned. He was stunned. Almost no one from America, to his knowledge, went to Sri Lanka, and it is probably true. I am sure it ranks poorly on a list of U.S. tourist destinations, although it ranks well with Australians, who don’t have nearly so far to go. I noted that it was unquestionably the longest journey one could possibly take from Chicago.

“When were you there?” he asked.

“April and May of 2005,” I answered. He immediately guessed that the reason for my trip must have been the tsunami. I confirmed that was the case, telling him I had been part of a team of planners and architects invited by the Sri Lankan Institute of Architects—but that I was an urban planner.  We discussed some details like how long I was there (ten days) and the army checkpoints that marked off barriers at the time to territory held by the Tamil Tigers.

By then, we had pulled up to the American Airlines terminal, and I got out and collected my luggage. I am also sure that encounter made his day. He had encountered a passenger who actually knew something about Sri Lanka and had been there for a serious purpose.

It’s amazing what conversations you can have with cabbies if you are willing. It’s a window into the immigrant experience in America. You might learn something.


Jim Schwab


I have a team of friends and acquaintances whom I have put to work for the moment. All are experts on one or more aspects of floodplain management and disaster recovery. They all volunteered for the job because they care about those subjects deeply. I also regard them as a bit of a personal cheering squad, although their real job is to look at what I am proposing to write and give it the evil eye. I have asked them to review my draft outline for a book for which I am currently developing a proposal for a publisher. The topic is the big Midwest floods of 1993 and 2008. Already, they are responding by questioning my choice of an opening chapter, suggesting points I missed, and offering other advice. All that advice probably contains some really good ideas that will ultimately help me write a better book.

People think writing is a solitary act. It certainly can be. But it is not necessarily the perfect occupation for introverts, at least not the types of insecure, amateur writers who protect their manuscripts from criticism. I want to make clear, however, that I am not equating introversion with that particular brand of immaturity. I know plenty of people with tendencies toward introversion who are capable of accepting and even welcoming criticism, and some extroverts who are remarkably thin-skinned. My real point is that I deliberately recruited my critics to provide me with feedback on my outline, and later, I hope, the actual manuscript, by reaching out to them without fear of the critiques they may provide. I trust their sincerity, and I trust my own ability to discriminate between the various pieces of advice they will offer to determine which are useful and which are not.

One reason is that I do not intend to produce a scholarly work, although there will be scholarship in much of the research. It will not be a technical work, though there will be some technical explanations rendered, I hope, in plain English. It will be a book that requires the skill to construct a narrative that attracts readers who might not otherwise indulge in a book about floods. I hope to produce something that will be both educational and fun and fascinating to read. But I also want a book that is meticulous and accurate to a fault. They can help me with that, at the same time that they all know that I am attempting something they might find very hard, if not impossible, to do—mixing technical expertise with solid narrative story telling. Beneath all the mud and the flood waters lies one hell of a story about the human race. And I regard unearthing that as my forte.

A long-time lawyer friend, Steve Kerschner, who died much too young just over seven years ago from lung cancer, once asked me how such a compulsive extrovert as I seemed to be could be an author who had produced two substantial books in addition to numerous articles. Steve claimed to be an introvert, though when he talked a blue streak on a subject that excited him, he could have fooled me. But sometimes that tendency is the perfect foil for an introspective personality. Steve was an attorney diverted from theology, whose shelves were crammed with books on philosophy by the likes of Kant, Descartes, and Nietzsche. He was genuinely puzzled because I struck him as a paradox. All that work on a 500-page book on the environmental justice movement must have kept me pinned to my computer for hundreds of hours, and how could any extrovert stand to sit there working alone for so long? Steve was not asking out of idle curiosity. He wanted to understand.

Have you ever looked at the appendix at the back of Deeper Shades of Green? I asked him. He said he had not, so I showed him. It listed every person I had interviewed for the book, more than 300 of them, in alphabetical order and with any organizational affiliation that was relevant. There’s your answer, I told Steve: I networked relentlessly. After getting to know one person who might be useful to the story, I would learn from them of five others worth talking to, and I would be down the street or across town finding them, getting their perspectives to round out the story. Sometimes it was almost too much information, and not everyone who helped could get recognized in the narrative for his or her contribution. Sometimes, as Hemingway famously said, you must kill your darlings. He was referring to a writer’s tendency to protect those precious lines or paragraphs that seem so clever that you don’t want to excise them from the manuscript, even if you are not already blind to the ways that they hurt your story. For the extroverted writer who interviews everyone who fails to escape his attention, it can also be a matter of realizing that, no matter how fascinating the interview may have been, the person may not fit neatly into your narrative. You can’t include everyone, but you can learn from them all, and most will somehow enrich your perspective, sometimes in ways you don’t immediately recognize.

And so it is, for this extroverted journalist and author, in recruiting a team of advisers to dissect my plans for this new book, a project I have not even started, for which I have not even completed a full proposal or acquired a publishing contract, though I am sure I will. There is no reason to fear input, no reason to be offended if someone is not overly impressed by my initial conception of what the project should be. If I am capable of producing a quality book at all, then I should be able to sort through all their suggestions, assessments, and objections, even the ones that contradict each other, decide objectively which ones are most useful for advancing my project, and set to work incorporating those ideas into the book, and making them my own.

Now, who was that English writer who said no man is an island?


Jim Schwab

Is Hazard Mitigation a Priority?

A few months ago, I was asked to speak at the 2014 annual Science Policy Conference of the American Geophysical Union, a scientific organization that has developed a growing interest in natural hazards. I agreed, and am one of four speakers on a panel that will present a session on “Disaster Preparedness: Mitigating Risk” at 1:00 p.m. on June 17; the conference is in the Walter Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. As part of the advance promotion, each speaker was asked to contribute a blog post for AGU.

Mine has just gone live; if you’d like to read it, click here.

Jim Schwab