Rahm Emanuel, the hyperactive mayor of Chicago, is drawing up plans that would transform the city into one of the most wired urban centres in the world and affirm its status as the broadband backbone of America.
Emanuel has instructed officials to examine the technical and financial implications of turning the whole of downtown Chicago into a wireless network zone. Under the plans, the city’s traffic and street lights would be turned into smart polls, ensuring unbroken internet access throughout the city centre that would be extended underground across the entire CTA subway system.
Combined with the already existing connectivity of Chicago’s two great electronic trading exchanges – the Mercantile Exchange and Board of Options – the audacious plans would give Chicago, Emanuel believes, a huge strategic advantage. “We are the broadband backbone of America, right here. That’s a physical fact, and I have to use that advantage to its maximum capacity, both in the city and in terms of connectivity with the rest of the world.”
Wiring the entire downtown area is just one of a long list of innovations that Emanuel, 52, has put in train since arriving at City Hall in May last year. The famously foul-mouthed overseer of the West Wing during Barack Obama’s first two years in office hasn’t so much hit Chicago’s ground running as burnt it up in a frenzy.
He has introduced a $7bn plan to overhaul the city’s crumbling infrastructure, replaced the membership of city boards, reshuffled departments, introduced safeguards against petty corruption, cut remuneration for commission members, hosted the Nato summit and encouraged companies such as Walgreens and Chase to expand their presence in the city – all within 13 breathless months.
All his moves, Emanuel insisted in an interview in the board room of City Hall, have been taken with an eye to Chicago’s long-term future as one of the world’s great cities.
“There are 100 cities in the world that drive the creativity, the economy, the world GDP, the culture – and Chicago’s one of those 100,” he said. “The decisions we make here in the next two to three years will determine whether Chicago 20 or 30 years from now stays in that 100 club or veers off track. That’s true for the mayor of Shanghai, or London, or Paris, or New York – what we do now will determine our trajectory.”
On current growth projections the population of metropolitan Chicago is expected to exceed 10 million people by 2030, which will gain it entry to the very select club of global megacities. Emanuel sees that as another huge opportunity, though he adds it is “fraught with danger if you don’t plan right”.
The first task the mayor set himself was to face head-on the historic legacy problems of a crumbling city. The Chicago he inherited from his predecessor, Richard Daley, who served 22 years as mayor, is in some regards in spanking good health with a vibrant economy, sparkling riverfront, world-class universities and effervescent architecture.
But in other aspects it is desperately in need of a facelift: its water services and sewers are rotten and bursting, its public high schools have a shocking 50% graduation rate, the subway is creaking in parts, unemployment is rampant in the poorer outlying neighborhoods and the murder rate is high and rising.
As a symbolic example of the problem, it is reported that when Emanuel took possession of the mayor’s office he found that it wasn’t even wired for the internet.
Over the next three years Emanuel will pump $7bn to bring the ageing city up to scratch. That will pay for a massive upgrading of the underground water infrastructure, two new runways at O’Hare airport, an overhaul of subway stations, $660m investment in public schools, a rapid-transit bus system in the centre of the city and the first steps towards making Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the world.
Looking further ahead, the mayor is setting up a Chicago Infrastructure Trust composed of private and public members to advise him on how to push the city into the future. Its first act will be to carry out a $225m “retrofit” of public buildings to make them more energy-efficient, and then he will be looking for ideas on how to ensure that Chicago is what he calls “a knowledge-based, creative economy built on 21st-century foundations and moving at 21st-century speeds”.
His overall ambition, he said, is to make Chicago “one of the most liveable of cities in America”, but to keep true to its roots as a city of neighbourhoods with deep ethnic roots and 28 different languages spoken. Emanuel is fond of calling his city “the most American of American cities”.
What does he mean?
“We are the capital of the midwest, but we also gather people from all over the country. We are a city of immigrants, from America and the rest of the world,” he said, adding that he is himself a typical Chicagoan with a father from Israel and maternal grandfather who came from the Russia-Romania border.
Should Emanuel succeed in implementing even a portion of his ambitions he will have written himself into the history books as one of a new generation of activist mayors grabbing American cities by the lapels and giving them a good shake. The most visible example is Michael Bloomberg in New York, who has startled the US with his proactive policies for fighting obesity and making the Big Apple green.
But in Emanuel’s case, the determination to press ahead with large-scale revitalisation of the city has a peculiarly personal quality. It is founded upon his recognition – based in turn on his own close-up experience of the gridlock in Washington as Obama’s former chief of staff – that government in America is not working and thus can no longer be relied upon to deliver change.
“Washington is not moving, Springfield, our state capital, is not moving. I cannot tie this city’s – my city’s – future to that dysfunction. If they were to get a highway transportation bill in Washington, all the better; if they were to make a major investment in our national infrastructure, all the better.
“But a strategy for a city’s growth is not one based on hope. I have to get things done. I am going to take as much of our own economic destiny into our own hands.”
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