Saturday morning’s iGov session was a gift to those of us wishing we were still in grad school:  a somewhat academic but intriguing overview of urban planning, values-based economic development and the role of community engagement in designing plans and strategies to direct growth, investment and density.  The workshop provided both context and commentary on how Oak Park is and should be positioning itself for the future.

Three specific phrases stuck with me:  community assets, place-making and affordability.  Professor D. Bradford Hunt talked about the importance of understanding your community’s strengths and weaknesses.  The panel emphasized that Oak Park’s location and access to mass transit will continue to attract people to the Village.  John Houseal noted that unlike some communities, Oak Park’s issue is not attracting people to live here, but accommodating that demand without compromising our self-defined values and character.

Once people are here, they look for a “sense of place” that makes their home part of a community, not just a zip code.  Place-making means creating shared public spaces that provide inviting experiences.  These spaces let people know they are “somewhere” and not “just anywhere.”  The best place-making combines intentional and organic growth and planning, something to think about in our commercial districts.

Finally – affordability.  Affordable housing and manageable property taxes dominate the discussion.  I see similar issues with affordable commercial rent, although that doesn’t attract the activism engendered by housing issues.  Yet the same economic forces that drive skyrocketing housing prices are crowding out small, independent start-ups.  These micro-businesses cannot easily absorb the cost structure (read: Oak Park rents) that national brands and established regional businesses can afford.

We will continue to focus on these elements at the Chamber throughout 2018.  How do we better market the community assets already present in our commercial districts?  What more can we do to build sense of place in various locations throughout the Village?  Finally, what can we do as a community to support our mom-and-pop independent businesses,  the ones that provide local character but are being squeezed out by the rising costs?

Thanks to the organizers of iGov for continuing this important conversation.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...