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Second Nature

Author Rod O'Connor

The lagoon in Lincoln Park, approximately four miles north of downtown

The third largest city in the United States, Chicago is home to a diverse population that includes President Barack Obama and the long-suffering Cubs. Since its stockyard days, Chicago has grown into a sophisticated cultural center.

When someone mentions cutting-edge culinary trends, the art or theater worlds, or inspiring, world-class architecture, Chicago now comes quickly to mind. But mention urban eco-consciousness, and most of us think of crunchier cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Portland.

Until now. Of all the major cities in the United States, Chicago has taken the lead in the urban green movement.

“A few years ago, if I was asked to name the green cities in the U.S. I would have said someplace in California,” says Michel Gourvennec, the North American CEO of the French environmental services giant, Veolia Environnement, which recently moved its headquarters to the Windy City. “But Chicago has become the prototype.”

So what does Gourvennec see in Chicago that others have missed? An eco-boom that led incrementally to, among other things, an abundance of open space, the stunning Millennium Park, and cutting-edge green-roof and green-building programs. As with most things in Chicago, the boom began with Mayor Richard M. Daley, the bicycle-loving, six-term leader who has an almost obsessive love of “greening.” Since 1989, Daley has overseen the planting of more than 500,000 trees, an increase in bike lanes that now extend nearly 150 miles around the city, and the construction of more Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified (LEED) buildings than any other metropolitan area in the United States.

Daley first made his name as a green champion back in 2000, when Chicago’s 11-story City Hall became a test project for the benefits of green roofs. Part of the city’s Urban Heat Island Initiative (a program designed to mitigate the absorption of heat by concrete and asphalt surfaces in dense urban areas), the 20,000 prairie-style plants on the building’s rooftop garden have helped improve air quality, conserve energy, reduce storm-water runoff and cool the surrounding air. It has been a smashing success. Testing showed a difference of 100 degrees between the garden roof and a nearby blacktop roof.

That successful experiment has blossomed into more than 4 million square feet of green roofing either completed or underway in Chicago— more than any other U.S. city—much of it made possible by city grants. Some of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks now feature green roofs, including Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, and the Sears Tower, which has the distinction of being the “world’s tallest green roof.” Downtown’s majestic Millennium Park is built above an underground parking garage and railroad tracks, so in a way, it’s also a green roof.

“Early in my administration, I made a commitment to make Chicago the most environmentally friendly city in the nation,” Mayor Daley says. “When I became mayor, ‘climate change’ wasn’t on the radar for most cities, states and nations around the world.”

Daley’s green thumb was the catalyst for change, but it wasn’t until the last five years that the rest of the city caught on.

In 2007, Daley gathered a coalition of government, not-for-profit and business luminaries to create the Chicago Climate Action Plan, a framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, which would require a cut in total emissions by a staggering 15 million metric tons. The plan is perhaps most noteworthy because it called for extensive research, which resulted in more than 29 suggested actions to mitigate greenhouse gas, as well as nine actions that can help the city adapt to changes already occurring.

When details of the plan were released last fall, Ron Burke, a director with the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the plan “more robust and quantitative than those in any other city.”

“Sometimes environmental groups want to focus just on emissions,” says Sadhu Aufochs Johnston, Chicago’s savvy, 34-year-old chief environmental officer. “But adaptation is a core part of what we’re doing in building a resilient city that can withstand extreme temperatures and extreme storm events—the changes that could come as a result of climate change.”

According to Johnston, Chicago was also the first city to identify emissions sources—and anticipated impacts— before setting its goals. For example, research indicated that 70 percent of the city’s emissions came from buildings and infrastructure, rather than automobiles. So while the Action Plan calls for better access to public transportation, it also includes new programs like the “Green Office Challenge,” which Mayor Daley launched in January. The plan’s goal is to spur high-rise office building managers and tenants to compete to save energy and increase recycling efforts and water-usage efficiency.

“I think research is one of the contributions we’ve made to this movement,” says Johnston. “Before you go out and set aggressive targets, step back and understand how climate change might impact your city. Then develop initiatives that can reduce your emissions and make a more resilient city.” For instance, green roofs keep the city cool and reduce storm-water runoff while also lessening the demand for electricity. And the city is encouraging residents to use rain barrels to capture water and relieve some of the burden on the sewer system. Weaving these eco-threads into Chicago’s urban fabric only reinforces its transformation into a 21st century “Eco-City.”

Of course, Chicago isn’t alone.

The impressive Millennium Park includes the Frank Gehry–designed Pritzker Pavilion—featuring Anish Kapoor’s stunning sculpture Cloud Gate, the subject of our cover illustration, and nearly 25 acres of green space.

Other cities have set equally ambitious goals—Portland and Seattle, for instance, are already below their 1990 emissions levels—but Johnston thinks Chicago’s actions have the potential for greater global impact.

“Seattle, Portland, Boulder—all those cities are pioneers,” Johnston explains. “But their programs aren’t replicable for many of the world’s other cities. Chicago is the first city with a large industrial base to say, ‘This is an opportunity to really improve the way that we impact the environment.’”

Chicago’s green rise comes at the perfect time: Big cities are on the front lines of climate change. For the first time in American history, more people live in cities than outside of them, and while urban communities cover just two percent of the planet’s surface, they consume more than three-quarters of its resources and generate an equal portion of its waste.

In addition to creating lifestyle and environmental benefits, Chicago’s green efforts will make it a hub for eco-construction and wind and solar energy. Not only is Veolia Environnement basing here, there are eight wind companies with operations in the Chicago area (including the world’s largest turbine maker, Suzlon Wind Energy of India), more than any other city in the country.

These newly arrived green companies—as well as forward-thinking local businesses—are working with a government that’s serious about engaging the private sector and finding ways that green initiatives can benefit everyone. So, for example, while Chicago does mandate everything from reflective roofs to construction waste recycling and storm-water utilization, instead of hammering developers with regulations, incentives are the name of the game.

“In Chicago, we’re not going to tell the private sector to do something we’re not going to do ourselves,” Mayor Daley emphasizes. “The actions that have the greatest impact will save companies and residents money.”

From its rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1871 to the beautification of Millennium Park and the current bid to host the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Chicago has a history of partnerships with the private sector.

“The city has definitely been a good partner,” says Mark Bettin, vice president of engineering for the Merchandise Mart, the massive Art Deco commercial building just west of downtown that, at 4.2 million square feet, became the world’s largest LEED-certified existing structure in 2007. “When the city leads by example, it’s saying: ‘If we can do it, so can you.’”

Chicago recently submitted its final-stage bid book to host the 2016 Olympic Games (see “The ‘Blue-Green’ Games,” page 48). In doing so, Daley and the city’s other leaders, like Chicago 2016 Chairman and CEO Pat Ryan, hope the eco-initiatives can push them over the top. Certainly, such a global spotlight would help announce to the world Chicago’s status as the nation’s most environmentally friendly city.

“There’s this incredible energy in Chicago right now,” says Johnston. “And we think everyone should share it.”


Most recent Olympic host cities have referred to their events as the “Green Games.” But according to Bob Accarino, environmental director for Chicago 2016, if Chicago hosts the Olympics, it’ll be the “Blue-Green Games.”

“We want to send a message that we’ll have an emphasis on Lake Michigan, clean air and the parks,” Accarino says. “To a large extent, those are what make the city green.”

While the events taking place along Chicago’s 26 miles of lakefront and within its 7,300 acres of parkland would play a large part in the Chicago 2016 Games, the city’s Olympic bid includes several legacy programs, designed to improve local communities.

Working alongside the local, state and federal governments, and nonprofit organizations, Chicago 2016 plans to use 100 percent renewable energy for the operation of the Games and reduce by 85 percent the amount of waste sent to landfills.

The organizing committee will use only low-carbon vehicles (biofuel, electric and hybrids).

Chicago 2016 is recommending the creation of a new Sport and Environment Institute, which would collect and share ideas about how the environmental protection sector can better interact with sports. Perhaps the most lasting green legacy would come from 21st Century Green Urban Centers, a program cosponsored by the nonprofit Climate Group. The program partners Chicago businesses such as Abbott, Allstate and Motorola with nonprofits to contribute funding, volunteers and expertise to solve environmental issues in the communities around the Olympic venues.

“We’ll be using the parks for many of the Games,” Accarino points out. “But we have a responsibility to use them in a sustainable way, and that’s part of our plan.”—RO


O’Hare International Airport (ORD) is one of the world’s busiest airports, pumping $38 billion of economic activity into the region annually, so when it makes a statement—like implementing its eco-friendly initiatives—the rest of the commercial air industry pays attention.

In 2001, Mayor Richard M. Daley launched the O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP), a massive plan for upgrading the airport. Aside from potentially creating 195,000 jobs and an additional $18 billion in economic activity, it introduced the Sustainable Design Manual, a set of standards that mandate recycling and salvaging, aggressive emissions control technology, and the building of green roofs on several terminals. Since construction, O’Hare has added 33,000 square feet of green surfaces, and the new north air traffic control tower is the first green-roofed FAA tower.

“The OMP includes new and reconfigured runways,” says Rosemarie Andolino, executive director. “Those impervious surfaces can increase storm-water runoff and contribute to Urban Heat Island Effect, so every bit counts.”

Other airports are now following O’Hare’s eco-lead. Most recently, Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) established similar design and construction guidelines based on the Chicago model, and the Airports Council International, which is developing industrywide green certification standards for future airport projects, has cited OMP’s visionary leadership.—RO

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