Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
The graphic novel No Small Plans aims to empower the city’s youth through stories about their neighborhoods.
Two years ago, Gabrielle Lyon, the vice president of education and experience at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, started using Wacker’s Manual, a 1911 textbook fashioned from Daniel Burnham’s 1909 plan of Chicago, with CAF’s teen fellows—local high school students who attend weekend sessions on the built environment and intern with architects, planners, and designers. “It was a hit,” says Lyon. “And it was immediately clear to me that teens are already urban planners if they grow up in a city. They know what works and what doesn’t.” She noticed, for instance, that the students were quick to assess neighborhood features such as walkability, or critique unequal distribution of public transport.
Wacker’s Manual was taught in Chicago’s eighth-grade civics classes until the late 1930s. While it was revised a number of times, its goal remained the same: To get young Chicagoans excited about Burnham’s big vision to bring order, efficiency, and hygiene to the metropolis through such elements as a public lakefront, wider roads, and a highway system. Ultimately, the guide aimed to inspire kids to act as stewards of the city. CAF’s teen fellows wondered why there wasn’t a manual like it today—as did Lyon. She decided to bring some structure to young urbanites’ planning instincts through a new book project: a graphic novel.
Dubbed No Small Plans, the book chronicles young people’s adventures in Chicago neighborhoods of the past, present, and future. Like Wacker’s Manual, it will also be taught in the city’s public schools.
Lyon sought the advice of the teen fellows as she developed the novel’s plot and illustrations with the Eyes of the Cat artist collective, a group founded by the artist Devin Mawdsley and comprised of teachers and a graduate from the Chicago High School for the Arts: Kayce Bayer, Chris Lin, and Deon Reed. The result is a beautifully drawn, three-part volume that recounts stories of Chicago teenagers in the years 1928, 2017, and 2211.
In the first section, set in the past, three friends of different races and classes encounter discrimination from passersby when they attempt to spend an afternoon together downtown. The second section, based in the present, addresses issues of gentrification, affordable housing, and zoning through the story of a girl who is being evicted from her home. Five teenagers work on Chicago’s City Planning Council in the third section, set in the future, and are tasked with reviewing developer proposals for a neighborhood. To make good decisions, they realize they must personally engage with the community to find out what it needs. Each chapter ends with a map of the area featured, as well as a brief narrative about Burnham and the challenges of urban planning.
Wacker’s Manual and No Small Plans are both driven by questions of what makes a city or neighborhood livable, and they are similarly interested in fostering a sense of guardianship of Chicago among young readers. Yet they approach these questions and goal differently—and not only in terms of the form they take. “Burnham and other city planners of his time were mainly thinking about what to build and where,” says Lyon. “Our novel is about who decides to build, and how decisions get made.”
An understanding of who is behind city planning and building is particularly important for students of color, as well as those who come from poor families and families in which English is a second language. These teens often attend schools that are under-resourced, with no government or economics classes and few opportunities to interface with public officials or participate in civic life, says Lyon. As adults, they are less likely to vote, call elected officials, or engage in collective activism. This has real consequences: Lyon notes that studies have shown, for instance, that senators generally vote according to the policy preferences of the (often wealthy) constituents who contact them or otherwise push their agenda.
No Small Plans addresses this gap by breaking down barriers to knowledge about how cities work and helping students develop a civic identity. CAF recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to offset the cost of printing 5,000 copies that it will provide to teens for free this fall through teachers, schools, and libraries. (Thirty thousand gratis copies will ultimately be distributed over the next three years.) Since Illinois recently passed a civic education graduation requirement for public high schools, it will likely be widely used.
The foundation also has a broader strategy to get teens involved in urban planning and civic life. It is working with Chicago teachers to plan experiences that would accompany reading the book, such as a visit to an alderman’s office or attending a town hall meeting. CAF will also work with the city’s public libraries to train youth librarians, especially in neighborhoods featured in the novel, to use No Small Plans as an educational tool.
“The hoped-for outcome is to embed No Small Plans as part of Chicago’s formal teaching and learning for many years to come,” says Lyon. “We want to be the Wacker’s Manual for the 21st century.”
UPDATE: This post has been updated to include the names of members of the editorial and illustration team.