In 1906, the Merchants and Commercial Clubs of Chicago hired architect Daniel Burnham to create the Plan for Chicago, an early example of comprehensive city planning. When the plan was published in 1909, it laid the groundwork for Chicago’s expansion and became a template for city planning across the United States.
Now 100 years later, young people at the YOUmedia center at the Chicago Public Library have published their own additions to the plan, including ideas for projects in their own communities. They drew their inspiration from a ground-breaking book from the 20th century, but the tools they used were decidedly 21st century: digital media devices including smart phones and software like computer assisted drawing (CAD) programs. This technology, unknown and unimagined in 1909, allowed the young city planners to research and develop their ideas and independently bring them to a wide audience.
Digital City Planners
The YOUmedia program, called Digital City Planners, was a six-week competition held in the summer of 2009 sponsored in partnership with the New Learning Institute the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Public Library. Sixty students, working in small teams, took part in the competition, which was based at the YOUMedia center.
The competition took place in the context of the centennial of the 1909 Burnham Plan or The Plan for Chicago. To mark the centennial, the Chicago Public Library chose a contemporary view of the original plan, The Plan of Chicago by Carl Smith as their One Book, suggested reading for the entire city for the year.
Working with an NLI digital arts team and the staff of YOUmedia, the students began by studying the original Chicago plan and imagining what changes they would make in their communities as Chicago enters the 21st century. Once they developed a plan, the students documented and promoted their ideas. They used Nokia smart phones to capture video footage, photos, sound recordings and post those resources to blogs and the Remix World network. They also utilized the resources at YOUmedia to produce 3D CAD drawings, mini documentaries, original music, poetry and visual art.
The students produced engaging and thoughtful videos that allowed them to express their voice, use and explore multimedia, and participate in the citywide conversation about the future of Chicago. They also competed for the opportunity to present their ideas to a global audience at United Nations World Habitat Day held in October 2009 in Washington D.C.
Seeing a Different City
The competition required the young people to imagine a different city than the one in which they live. One team drew up plans to revitalize a street that is currently lined with vacant lots and is the site of recurring gang violence. Their plan, called, "Art Inspires," included art installations along the street and the construction of a large green space that would serve as the focus for community renewal. The team created a digital film that presented their ideas and the reasoning behind their plan.
Another project used digital images and animation to demonstrate how a garbage-strewn lot could be transformed into a beautiful city garden. The finished film allows viewers to watch the step-by-step process take place in a virtual reality created by the filmmakers.
At the end of the six-week competition, four teams were selected as the winners and the authors traveled to Washington, D.C. to represent YOUmedia at the United Nations World Habitat Day in October, 2009. The work of the young Digital City Planners received a warm welcome at the international gathering, which for 2009 had a theme of "planning our urban future," with the goal of, "raising awareness of the need to improve urban planning to deal with new major challenges of the 21st century."
Giving Young People a Voice
The Digital City Planner project is a perfect example of the power that mobile digital devices have to unleash student’s creativity and self-expression. Young people are investigating and mastering communications technology on their own time, in their own ways, and learning to adapt those technologies to their individual needs. With guidance and some assistance by professionals like the ones at NLI and YOUmedia, they can go even further, deepen their learning and acquire skills they will need to be successful in the future they are so actively imagining.