"People don’t usually think about how planning plays a role in the success of communities."

—Debbie Liu

When Debbie Liu grew up around 24th and Canal in Chicago’s Chinatown, it was a place where her immigrant parents could find all the amenities of a big city, yet still feel at home in a cultural enclave, surrounded by familiar food, languages, and experiences. “I learned so much about my culture by growing up there, I didn’t even realize until much later that there were foods, stores, and traditions I might not have known if we had moved somewhere else.”

Now, as the Community Development Coordinator for the Coalition for a Better Chinese-American Community (CBCAC), Liu is working to make sure future generations have a voice in improving their community while protecting its unique character. Chinatown’s Community Vision Plan is one of nearly 200 projects that have been initiated with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) Local Technical Assistance (LTA) Program since it was created in 2011.

“People don’t usually think about how planning plays a role in the success of communities,” she said, citing other ethnic enclaves across the country that have experienced more gentrification than hers has seen. Some aspects of planning in Chinatown — such as language barriers, cultural differences, and reaching a new immigrant population — were specific to that community. But others were quite similar to communities all across the metropolitan region: Residents everywhere want safe options for transportation, access to high-quality education, and affordable housing choices as their community ages and changes.

Engagement with residents was the most important step, Liu said. “It’s not just about reaching out to 10 people, it’s reaching out to 10 people whose voices would otherwise not be heard,” she said. “Those are the people that really should be part of your planning because otherwise they will be displaced.”

Without technical assistance from CMAP, Liu said this would have been a very difficult process. “None of us had a planning background, we didn’t know the best practices to find and talk to people,” Liu said. “Without the LTA program, we would have had to recreate the wheel and I don’t know where we would be.”

“In 2050, I really hope that Chinatown has all the amenities it needs to continue to thrive and to attract Chinese Americans that really depend the services in the community and the comforts from home that remind them of their roots and culture,” Liu said. “This is part of my culture and part of my history, and we have to plan to protect it.”