Melissa Porter ’94 studies U.S. cities. She's the chief of staff and general counsel for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which represents 8.5 million people and seven counties in northeastern Illinois.
The agency has designed a 2050 plan it expects to adopt this October. Rooted in concepts like economic growth, infrastructure and climate change, the plan studies cities that are growing (or not growing) and how northeast Illinois measures up against them.
"How do we prepare for economic shifts and new technologies such as automated vehicles?" Porter asks. "How do we make sure we're building the best infrastructure given limited funding? These are the questions that drive us in this job."
It's taken Porter and her colleagues three years to develop their 2050 plan. With a 30-year planning outlook, they identify current trends and project what they might mean in 2050 terms, predicting and solving problems before they happen. Today, Chicago is suffering from population loss. Porter tries to determine what that will mean in 2050 terms and how will it affect the economy, taxes and the city's ability to generate revenue.
The transportation industry is male-dominated. Porter long has been in the minority as a female in that space.
Today her office is about half men and half women, but it wasn't always that way. For several years, Porter was chief counsel at the Federal Railroad Association, which oversees the passenger and freight rail industries. "There was only a small cadre of women there that you could look to for mentoring," she says.
But Porter did have an influential mentor from her first job who helped Porter land a position on the Senate Commerce Committee and helped shape her career. Now Porter mentors other women in the industry whenever she has the chance. "If you can support other women and pay it forward, why wouldn't you?" she said. "I mentor through the Women's Transportation Seminar, agency memberships and other events. It's always worthwhile."
Porter lived in Washington, D.C. for 16 years before moving to Chicago. It feels like home to her. And Porter is carving her path in Chicago. She works on a smart, dedicated team that cares about the area's future. "It's great to be working in this environment," she says.