Poised for Growth: Harris Policy Labs students help uncover opportunities for investment on Chicago’s West Side


After decades of disinvestment, identifying areas for economic growth is key to improving the quality of life on Chicago’s West Side. A team of students from UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy recently worked with local stakeholders on a project aimed at showing potential investors how they can achieve strong returns while catalyzing economic and social impact.

Planning for equity

The six-student team came together in early 2020 as part of Harris Policy Labs. In the labs, which are elective courses offered at Harris, second-year graduate students apply their rigorous quantitative and qualitative education to create solutions for real-life public policy challenges, making a tangible impact on policy even before they graduate. Since 2016, more than fifty government agencies and nonprofit organizations have benefitted from Policy Labs, including several City of Chicago departments; City of Gary, IN; Cook County Health and Hospitals System; Metropolitan Planning Council; Oxfam America; and the Illinois Department of Human Services.

This team’s client, the Illinois Medical District (IMD), is a 560-acre West Side health innovation campus that’s home to more than forty life sciences and health care organizations, including health systems, research labs, universities, and biotech incubators. The district includes a forty-acre Opportunity Zone, created as part of 2017 tax reform legislation to encourage long-term investment in economically distressed census tracts by reducing capital gains taxes for investors. IMD leaders engaged the Policy Labs students to conduct an economic analysis that would help the district attract development and improve residents’ quality of life in and around the zone.

“We wanted to dive deep and figure out the most advantageous types of development to spark economic growth not just in the IMD, but deeper into the West Side,” where more than 430,000 Chicagoans live, said Suzet McKinney, DrPh, MPH, executive director and CEO of the IMD. Disinvestment over the years has created significant income inequalities and health disparities on the West Side, reflected in a West Garfield Park life expectancy of just 69 years compared to 85 years in Loop neighborhoods just a few miles east.

“The IMD leadership and stakeholders recognize how valuable investment opportunities are in the IMD, and they are approaching development through the lens of equity,” explained Policy Labs team member Irene Burke, MPP’20. Following on early work by the Metropolitan Planning Council to identify market characteristics and trends in the area, the team created an economic analysis that highlights assets, development opportunities, and potential investment impact in the area, with an eye toward maintaining affordability and creating opportunity for West Side residents.

Setting the stage for new investment

In its thorough analysis of the IMD, the Policy Labs team identified ways the district can differentiate itself from other investment opportunities; showcase its location, access to transit, and work force; explain to investors the advantages of investing in Opportunity Zones; and target investments — such as mixed-use developments — that will maximize economic impact.

The team also examined how West Side residents can connect with well-paying jobs in the life sciences. “Using census data, we found that a lot of people living on the West Side have completed high school but have less than a bachelor’s degree,” said Burke, “and we also learned that many high-paying jobs in life sciences and health care are available for people with that level of education. There’s also the potential for partnerships with West Side health care and education institutions, like Malcolm X College, to get people the training they need to attain their first jobs or advance their careers in life sciences and health care.”

“The students drew on a half-dozen different types of data and information to do their work — teasing apart and assessing the true economic impact of an investment undertaken in this area,” said Paula Worthington, PhD, academic director of the Policy Labs program.

“Learning how to look for information and how to work with the data you get — because it’s never going to tell you everything you want to know — is key to Policy Labs projects. The whole point is for the students to stretch as they address a project they didn’t create, with all of its real-world limitations.” And client organizations benefit from the diversity and skills of student teams, Worthington said: The IMD team was a mix of United States and international students, whose interests ranged from data analytics and financial modeling to health policy and municipal finance.

After the team presented its work to IMD leaders, McKinney was so impressed that she invited the students to give an encore presentation in May to a larger group of stakeholders, including the Chicago city clerk and other city and state officials, West Side aldermen, municipal finance experts, and leaders from Rush University Medical Center.

“I could not be prouder nor happier about the work the students did,” said McKinney. “The analysis is full of information and evidence-based approaches we can take to ensure a more equitable future for the IMD, the life sciences field, and West Side communities.”

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