MarySue Barrett
MarySue Barrett helps the Metropolitan Planning Council nurture the “art of what is possible.”

Chicago prides itself on being “the city that works,” but making good on that mantra requires strategic planning, ingenuity, and the ability to evolve. For MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), which celebrates its 80th anniversary on March 12, it’s about collaborating with public-and private-sector groups and organizations to grow the Chicagoland area. “The blueprint for success for the world’s most successful cities is that they are constantly reinventing themselves,” says Barrett, who previously worked as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief of policy.

In a nutshell, it’s about nurturing the “art of what is possible,” Barrett says, a philosophy that has guided the organization (originally called the Metropolitan Housing Council) since it was founded in 1934 by a group of prominent business leaders who wanted to improve the slumlike living conditions of Chicago’s working class. That same year, the Chicago World’s Fair—dubbed “the Century of Progress”—proved to be the perfect venue for MPC’s founding executive director, Elizabeth Wood, to showcase two traditional worker cottages: One was left in squalor, and one improved with minimal funds to show how living conditions could easily be improved. “It was an opportunity to talk not only to Chicagoans, but also to the world about the need to do better,” Barrett says.

MarySue Barrett office
MarySue Barrett’s office.

That’s a sentiment that continues to resonate 80 years later. The MPC still consists of public-and private-sector business and civic leaders focused on “sensible planning and development policies” to solve current and future problems in the Chicagoland area. “We are a complex city and region, and getting anything done is complicated, but you need intermediaries—and that is what the Metropolitan Planning Council has tried to be,” says Barrett, herself a resident of Lakeview.

For Barrett that means managing more than 20 people and collaborating with hundreds of community leaders and active volunteers, including a 60-member board and 273 mayors in the six-county region in Illinois, plus Northwest Indiana and Southern Wisconsin. Barrett is tasked with convincing cities to collaborate, then uses those discussions to give recommendations to improve housing, transportation infrastructure, economic development, and the management of natural assets, all while finding funding sources. As the middle of five children, Barrett jokes she has always been in the negotiator role. “I definitely enjoy finding the shared self-interest. Where is the win-win?”

Finding those victories means weighing in on important issues like how to find solutions for Lake Michigan’s water loss, the creation of a Cook County Land Bank Authority to tackle vacant foreclosed properties, and championing the Lakefront Protection Ordinance to help convince the Chicago Children’s Museum to stay and expand at Navy Pier instead of moving to Grant Park.

MarySue Barrett office
MarySue Barrett’s office holds mementos and awards from the American Planning Association, Publicity Club of Chicago, and the Governor of Illinois.

To help fund these ventures, Barrett is looking at public-private partnerships coupled with state and federal funding. “You can either compete against everyone else in the country in an environment of bipartisan gridlock and budget crisis, then wait,” she says. “Or you can take your destiny in your own hands and try to figure out some self-help solutions. We’ve been big proponents of cities and regions that will succeed in this new global economy by embracing this self-help.”

That’s something Barrett, 49, a single mother of two (Jacob, 14, and Cassandra, 12), learned early on. After earning a bachelor’s degree in speech communication from Northwestern University, the native of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, headed to Washington, DC in 1986, where Rahm Emanuel helped her get a job as a part-time supervisor at a phone bank at the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee. After leaving Washington to work as the deputy field director for Illinois Senator Paul Simon’s presidential campaign, she became the field director for Richard M. Daley’s 1989 mayoral campaign and eventually became Daley’s chief of policy and chief of staff to the Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees, helping the city’s bid to host the 1996 Democratic National Convention during her seven-year tenure.

Those experiences left Barrett well prepared for the challenges she now deals with on a daily basis. “I could not have predicted I would enjoy staying at MPC all these years, but the challenges are ever evolving, and I am drawn to that,” says Barrett. “It’s a place I feel I’m making a difference.”

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