CAF’s No Small Plans Explores Urban Planning and Civic Involvement in a Graphic Novel

No Small Plans, a new graphic novel, tells the stories of three sets of teenagers and how they live in and try to understand their changing city in the past, present and future. Published by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the book is inspired by Wacker’s Manual, a 1911 textbook that was used in Chicago Public Schools for several decades to teach young people about the goals of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. The authors of No Small Plans are Gabrielle Lyon, Devin Mawdsley, Kayce Bayer, Chris Lin and Deon Reed. The 140-page book doubles as an urban planning manual for young people and adults. The stories themselves are told graphically, separated by three “Burnham Interludes,” where the great architect and urban planner talks about his plan for Chicago and the Wacker Manual. Daniel Burnham was not only Chicago’s great architect and urban planner. He developed city plans in Washington DC and Cleveland and designed buildings all over the world. He was the director of works for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which helped inspire the City Beautiful movement. The three stories are told in colorful graphic novel style, using a variety of panel sizes and some full-page cartoons and maps as well. The 1928 story links three friends during the height of a construction boom in Chicago. Reggie, Elisa and Bernard come from different neighborhoods and backgrounds and face discrimination and thuggery as they explore the central area of their city together and marvel at the changes taking place. State and Madison streets, ca. 1928. Image courtesy of CAF. In 2017, Jessie, David and Cristina go to the same school where they have discussions about zoning, fair housing, gentrification and displacement. Their friend Natalie lives in Logan Square, where her mother grew up. Now a developer is evicting the family and the friends try to find ways to help her. They take a walk on the 606, go to a basement punk show, and later meet community activists who were involved in the earlier Pilsen alliance and meet a lawyer who may be able to help Natalie’s community. The 2211 story is about a Chicago that is even more geographically and economically segregated than it is today. Friends use virtual reality to connect across their neighborhoods. It’s the story of Tsang, Codex, Octavius, Gabriela and Rafael, who are involved in city planning for a project in Uptown during their year of public service. Tsang lives in Obama-Gresham and Codex in New Lawndale on the new west side; the other three live in the upper class city core and seem quite divorced from realities of the others’ everyday lives. Tsang and Codex, who have only met by VR before, finally face-meet and spend time in Uptown and at a community meeting at the Uptown Theatre, seeing what people are talking about and trying to learn what the community needs. Their team disagrees on what the Uptown plan should be and Tsang and Codex learn that Rafael and Gabriela come from a family of real-estate developers, which seems to affect their planning vision. “Oh, definitely, the condos. Very sleek. Very chic.” Each story poses questions such as Who is the city for? Who gets to make decisions? And what does community involvement look like? Graphic spread from 2017 story. Image courtesy of CAF. The book manages to create a real vision of how young people might react to and create changes in their city. The 2017 story, however, is most personal and affecting, but that may be because the parameters are most familiar to our current lives. The story was inspired by teens in the Allstate Teen Academy at CAF. Teens were involved with the CAF team throughout the process, including helping select artists and reviewing early drafts. CAF is distributing examination copies to teachers and will conduct a two-day institute for a pilot group of teachers. They’ll also publish a free online toolkit for teachers who will use No Small Plans in their classrooms. Chicago Public Schools will hold a “Meet Your City” program on Tuesday, September 5, the first day of the fall school term. Although the book is intended for young people, the content and reader’s toolkit could make up discussion materials for other groups concerned with urban development and planning. You can buy a copy of No Small Plans from the CAF online store for $19.95 (discounted for members). A reader’s toolkit is available online. The book was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign and by support from the American Planning Association, Microsoft, Tawani Foundation and the Land Economics Foundation.
Picture of the author
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.