High school students join CMAP to explore planning, metropolitan region

This summer, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) welcomed high school students from across the region to learn about the opportunities and impacts of urban planning. This marked the 14th year of CMAP’s Future Leaders in Planning (FLIP) youth leadership development program. 

The students attended four full-day sessions filled with presentations, educational activities, and excursions across metropolitan Chicago.

Day 1: Intro to the planning field

Panel of FLIP participants
A panel of CMAP staff and interns share why they are passionate about the field. 

On the first day of the FLIP program, students learned about the profession and how planning makes a difference in communities across northeastern Illinois.

CMAP Executive Director Erin Aleman welcomed students to the CMAP office and shared the history of FLIP. “One of the reasons I thought it was so important to bring together high school students from across the region is because you are the future,” Aleman said. “Your voices inspire me.”

Students next heard from a panel of six agency employees and interns who described the passion behind their work. They also stressed the importance of diversity to represent the needs of various demographics in urban planning.

“Everyone comes from different backgrounds, and that’s one of the most advantageous things when it comes to planning — because you have acquired knowledge that others have not,” said Lincoln Edwards, associate planner. “And using said knowledge lets you create change that others wouldn’t be able to create.”

Visual artist Tonika Johnson also joined to present her Folded Map Project, which creatively illustrates the inequities and disparities that have resulted from the segregation of neighborhoods in Chicago. 

The day ended with a scavenger hunt around the Loop as students kept an eye out for infrastructure elements that they might someday help plan.

Day 2: Exploring Garfield Park

The FLIP cohort took public transit to visit The Hatchery and learn about entrepreneurship. 

During their second session, the FLIP cohort boarded the CTA Green Line and headed to Chicago’s Garfield Park, home to The Hatchery food and beverage business incubator. Students learned how the facility supports local entrepreneurs — and even got to sample some of their artisan tacos and ice cream. 

Mike Tomas, executive director of the Garfield Park Community Council, also gave the group a tour of the neighborhood, pointing out how community assets like urban farms, community centers, and art galleries enhance residents’ quality of life. Participants departed with an enhanced understanding of why planning and equity must go hand in hand.

Day 3: Learning about public engagement in Chinatown

Aspiring planners visit the Chinatown library, designed with cultural aesthetics in mind and decorated with locally produced artwork.

During the third session, community leaders took students on a walking tour of Chicago’s Chinatown, explaining the community’s sights and sounds from a planner’s perspective.

Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, met with FLIP students and shared the importance of public engagement in planning efforts.

The tour also included a visit to the Chinese American Museum of Chicago. Its exhibits showcase how history, food, culture, art, policy, and community development all tie together to contribute to the vibrance of Chinatown.

“My favorite part of FLIP is getting a glimpse of what life is like in different parts of the region — and how each area is unique,” said FLIP participant Alexander, a recent high school graduate from Palos Hills. “You can use your observations in each area to help solve the problems that it’s facing.”

Day 4: Understanding equity in planning

Students gathered at Ping Tom Memorial Park
Students gathered at Ping Tom Memorial Park to reflect on their FLIP experiences.

The program’s final session inspired FLIP students to improve quality of life through their future planning endeavors. Using a practice called theater of the oppressed, the cohort acted out various problems they perceived in their communities and described which planning strategies would best solve them.

“As a planner, I would work with the community to improve the foundational things that make communities better, such as schools, parks, roads, or grocery stores,” said Seth, a FLIP student from southwest DuPage County. “Improving access to these things is probably the most important factor that contributes to improving our community.”

Kelwin Harris, director of outreach and engagement at the Cook County Assessor’s Office, presented on creating equitable communities and urged the budding planners to address the inequities in communities created by structural racism.

“Take these experiences at FLIP and use them to figure out: How am I going to use my gifts?” Harris said. 

The FLIP program ended with a gathering beside the Chicago River at Ping Tom Memorial Park. Participants reflected on what they learned from their four-day foray into the world of planning.