An Urban Planning-Themed Graphic Novel with Big Plans
Urban planning and cartoons may not seem to be the most likely of pairings. But in that combination, the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) saw an immense opportunity to connect young people with the idea of civic engagement, and help them understand their roles as stewards of their cities.
No Small Plans, published by CAF in July, is a graphic novel that takes readers on a journey across Chicago through the ages, from its past into the future. Each chapter follows the neighborhood adventures of Chicago teenagers as they grapple with the complex issues that come with designing a city that’s right for everyone.
We spoke with Gabrielle Lyon, vice president of education and experience at CAF and one of No Small Plans’ authors, about the project, its commentary on historic preservation, and more.
How did you come up with the idea for this project?
We developed No Small Plans, in some ways, in honor of our 50th anniversary at the CAF. We were looking for a kind of legacy project to celebrate our past 50 years and look ahead to our next 50 years. And we’ve been thinking a lot about what it would mean for us to really be working more closely with students, to be more relevant to the lives of young people in Chicago.
It turns out there was a textbook that was used for three decades in Chicago public schools called Wacker’s Manual. It was a kids’ version of Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago. We were very inspired by this idea of: “What if all young people in Chicago could once again read about their city and think about their role as stewards, and think about the ways in which neighborhoods are connected to the life of a city?”
So we decided that we would reinvent Wacker’s Manual, but do it as a graphic novel, with the input of teens we were working with at the time.
What does the project seek to accomplish?
No Small Plans sits at the heart of what is now a three-year civic education initiative. The Chicago Architecture Foundation is really committed to closing the gap on access to the kind of experiences that help young people and future adults think about themselves as having a role in shaping their communities as livable places. And in addition to printing No Small Plans, we’re giving away 30,000 copies to Chicago teens over the next three years, and we’re working with Chicago public schools and the Chicago Public Library to train teachers and adults to use the novel in their classrooms and programs. It’s all centered around this question of what makes a good neighborhood.
What does No Small Plans argue is the key to a good neighborhood?
I think it’s actually the opposite. What No Small Plans does isn’t offer a solution. What it does is create a scenario where young people are asking questions. It’s really a curriculum of questions. It’s a book that, when you come away from it, you start to look around your own environment with new eyes.
And what we’re finding from the teachers we’re working with and from teens is that that hope is coming to fruition. Some of the most common questions we’re getting from teens are: “How did Chicago come to be the way it is? How do I get involved in stopping segregation? Who is making these decisions? How did those decisions get made? How can I be involved?”
So No Small Plans is not about “teens have the answer, and this is the answer.” No Small Plans is about the fact that all of us are living in cities and communities with very different perspectives, and coming together around those perspectives. That’s the goal—to catalyze conversations citywide about what people think makes a great neighborhood.
It sounds like you had a really strong vision for this piece. Which aspects of it did you find most challenging to figure out?
Some things were easier than others. My co-authors and I are kindred spirits in our belief in the capacity of young people—that they’re smart and perceptive and full of possibilities. So there was a shared vision about young people having agency.
The thing that was hard for us in developing the chapters was picking where the stories would be set. There are 17 different neighborhoods that end up being depicted in the story, but we talked a lot about the geography. Chicago is very segregated. Some of those neighborhoods are very isolated, so those choices we took very seriously.
Each chapter had its own challenges. There were two versions of Chapter 3, where we try to depict the future, that ended up in the wastebasket. We had to rewrite that chapter several times. In Chapter 2 we spent a lot of time wondering, “should we use the 606 [parks and trails network]? Is that overplayed already? Should we pick something else less obvious as a point of contention?”
[No Small Plans] had to be about young people having agency, but not about characters who are superheroes and save the day. These are complicated issues with nuances, and people change in the course of thinking about them. Those were things I personally had a lot of clarity on from the very beginning of the project.
What do you think No Small Plans has to say about historic preservation? How does it attempt to reconcile preservation with the passage of time and the changes that come with it?
I think the question of preservation, renewal, and reimagination is a really interesting and important theme. No Small Plans serves as a jumping off point for talking about people’s places. Every place in the novel is a real place—there’s a map at the end of each chapter and you can go to these places. No matter what state a building or structure is in, it’s capturing a snapshot of the past and present, and it’s got a possibility of a life in the future.
One thing No Small Plans is saying is that once you decide to build something, it’s around for a long time. Buildings don’t grow. Even in our future, people aren’t planting building seeds and a building grows. So heightening awareness that everything around you that’s built is a reflection of people’s decisions, including the decisions to take stuff down, is part of what No Small Plans is trying to do.