The Greenest City in America

My goal is to make Chicago an example of how a densely populated city can live in harmony with the environment and nature.

—Mayor Richard Daley, 2006

What Lincoln Park has undertaken in a single neighborhood is being taken up elsewhere across whole metropolitan regions, in both affluent communities and those that have seen hard times. We need only look to Chicago, where visionary leadership has launched a new direction for one of America's great metropolises, claiming the mantle as one of America's leaders on clean energy and green development.

Chicago is a town with a gritty, rough-and-tumble reputation, known for fading industry, hardball politics, Al Capone, and in modern times the expansive neglect of its South Side. Mayor Richard Daley is a tough politician and one of the last people you'd expect to be a tree hugger. But seven years ago, Mayor Daley realized that more trees were being removed than planted in his city. The fact struck a chord with him as exactly the sort of thing he was trying to change in his efforts to fight crime, rebuild industry, lure new investment, and keep residents from leaving the city. The mayor faced far bigger problems in transforming this city of three million from the capital of the Rust Belt into a hightech powerhouse, but he saw a connection between the city's struggles and its trees.

Daley's plan for revitalizing Chicago was as dramatic as it was simple. He just decided to make Chicago the greenest city in the nation. He didn't do it to take on energy independence or climate change. His goals were economic and social more than environmental. But building a green city could have multiple benefits, all creating an energetic and vibrant quality of life that would attract business, even as it cut carbon emissions and got people out of their cars.

Greening would be a cornerstone of turning around the reputation of the city. According to Sadhu Johnston, the city's dynamic secretary of the environment, that meant everything from changing the city's automobile fleet, to evaluating the supplies purchased, to using renovation of public buildings to promote efficiency and renewable energy. Creating a program for green buildings became a visible symbol of transformation.

Daley demonstrated his commitment by installing a living "green roof" on City Hall, a high-tech sod planting of wild local grasses and wildflowers. The combination of plants and walkways covers 20,300 square feet of the roof and includes an increased layer of insulation. An irrigation system distributes water during the cooling season, and shade from the plants reduces the sunlight striking the building by 25 per-cent.16 The benefits were clear. The green roof reduced the temperatures by 50°F or more on the rooftop, reducing the air temperature above City Hall by 10° to 15°F. The roof saves City Hall $3,600 every year and cuts energy use by 9,272 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 7,372 therms of natural gas for heating annually.17

Johnston and the mayor went further and dreamed of taking the project to scale across the city. Today, Chicago has over 2.5 million square feet of green roofs on over two hundred public and private buildings. Reducing the average temperature throughout the city by 1°F—an achievable goal—by using green infrastructure like green roofs and shade trees is calculated to cut cooling costs by $150 million a year.18

Daley is using public buildings to lead by example. What started with City Hall became a template for new schools, fire stations, and museums—all high-performance, green, and efficient buildings—to demonstrate stewardship of energy and show the private sector what could be achieved. In Chicago, as in Newark, the buildings have become the teachers.

The importance of green buildings goes well beyond the energy savings and the iconic value of green roofs. Green building is a central strategy for addressing our energy addiction and responding to the climate crisis. In the United States today, design, construction, and operation of buildings account for 20 percent of all economic activity. Buildings consume 65 percent of all electricity, 35 percent of total energy, and 40 percent of raw material; and they produce 30 percent of all our greenhouse gas emissions.19 Green building and green infrastructure can slash the environmental impact of development and wasted energy.

To date, Chicago has retrofitted 15 million square feet of city office space, saving $4 million in energy costs. And the private sector is getting involved in a major way, drawn by expedited permitting and incentives, like financing for design and certification costs worth as much as $50,000, and grants for green roof construction and solar thermal projects. The number of green building permit applications has more than tripled, and in 2006 over ninety major construction projects were pursuing LEED certification, which requires energy-efficient construction, alternative energy sources, and improved use of resources and can mean cutting energy use in half.

Daley and Johnston have used the greening of Chicago not only to generate jobs and tax revenue indirectly by improving quality of life, but also to recruit clean-energy businesses directly. They can point to the growing Solargenix Company, which moved its manufacturing plant to the city in part because of the city's multimillion-dollar commitment to solar power. The strategy is also creating new markets in the construction industry for skilled craftsmen, laborers, and energy auditors; and the electricians' union and the local utility have created a partnership for solar installation and apprenticeship training.

Johnston is excited by how the green strategies that the mayor has put in place often solve many problems with one solution. Every year 20,000 ex-offenders are released from prison into Chicago. Recidivism is high for those people, who typically have trouble finding work and rebuilding their lives and too often end up back behind bars. A truly sustainable city must provide work for the least employable; restoring social balance is every bit as important as restoring ecological balance. Mayor Daley, recognizing this, created a number of programs to take on the problem ofjob placement for ex-offenders and simultaneously develop a green-jobs base of skill-building work in a clean-energy economy. The city has created Greencorps, which offers a range of regenerative job training and placement options for ex-offenders, including weatherization of homes to save energy and heating costs and rebuild the housing stock even as it rebuilds people's lives.

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