Planning Magazine

Daniel La Spata Drives Community Development Without Displacement

The Chicago alderman discusses sustainable transportation infrastructure, housing affordability, and why we need more planners in politics.

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An avid cyclist, Alderman Daniel La Spata advocates for safe, sustainable transportation options throughout Chicago. Photo by Anne Evans/Active Transportation Alliance.

"The most immediate thing I hear from residents is, 'will I be able to remain in my community long-term?'" says Daniel La Spata.

Alderman of Chicago's First Ward since 2019, he's using his recently aquired masters in urban planning to address displacement fears in some of the city's fastest growing neighborhoods.

I recently caught up with La Spata to discuss climate-proofing transportation infrastructure, development without gentrification, and how his planning education guides his policymaking. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SAUNDERS: Tell me about yourself.

LA SPATA: I'm the alderman representing Chicago's First Ward. I moved here 23 years ago from a town of 15,000 — South Plainfield, New Jersey — to attend college. Through my time in college, I had a growing awareness of inequality. That went even further when I got involved with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA). I spent the next 11 years (2005 to 2016) getting grassroots experience on issues like housing affordability before finally going to graduate school to study urban planning at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

My express purpose was to combine the neighborhood experience with the urban planning education so I could ultimately run for alderman in 2018. I took a generalist approach to my studies because I wanted to get exposure to everything aldermen need to know about neighborhood development. That education comes in handy every single day of this job.

SAUNDERS: What's your district like?

LA SPATA: The First Ward covers Logan Square, Humboldt Park, West Town, and Wicker Park in Chicago. My district is facing challenges — but in the best sense of the word. We're seeing lots of interest and energy coming toward this area. There's commercial energy for new development, but a desire to keep longtime businesses; there's residential energy for new homes, but interest in preservation and affordability, too.

SAUNDERS: How did your interest in planning come about?

LA SPATA: I knew little about the profession of planning until I met planners from the city of Chicago. With our interactions with planners at LSNA, I learned about their role in translating community voices and shaping them into a shared vision. But the opposite of that has been imposing plans on communities — that's also a big part of planning's history.

SAUNDERS: Planning can involve a wide range of sub-disciplines: land use policy, housing, infrastructure, development review. Which one intersects most closely with your political role?

LA SPATA: It's hard to say that there's one! Aldermen are like the mini mayors of their communities. It's fascinating to use all the tools we have. But if I had to rank them, I'd say land use, housing, transportation, and infrastructure, especially as we look to adapt our transportation and infrastructure systems in an era of climate change.

SAUNDERS: What's the most pressing issue among your constituents, and how does your planning experience inform your response?

LA SPATA: The most immediate thing I hear from residents is, "will I be able to remain in my community long-term?" Housing is the first and foremost issue. I'd argue that Chicago has never had more tools at its disposal to address this, but we still struggle with their implementation.

SAUNDERS: How can planners help elected or appointed officials build understanding and trust in the planning process?

LA SPATA: I think every elected official has a vision of the community they represent, but few understand how planners can be a partner in the implementation of that vision. We need to challenge the perception of what planners can and should do, instead of pigeon-holing them into focusing on the next building or development project. Planners can help elected officials achieve their vision.

Pete D. Saunders is a practicing urban planner and a community and economic development director in suburban Chicago. He has been the editor of the urbanist blog Corner Side Yard since 2012 and is currently an urban policy columnist for Bloomberg.