Sustainable Chicago

Chicago is filled with pocket parks like this one, a few blocks from Navy Pier. (Image: Matthew Smith CC by/nc/sa)

By Margaret O’Dell

What do the New York Times, National Geographic, and the environmental news site Grist have in common? They’ve all cited Chicago as one of the world’s greenest cities.

Despite its “big shoulders” industrial heritage, its population of 3 million (10 million in the metropolitan region), miles of asphalt (an estimated 55,000 in the 1990s), and millions of miles traveled each year by car (50 million on expressways alone in 2011), Chicago has worked hard to become green, sustainable, and livable. And it shows.

Most observers trace the current green revolution to the mid-1990s, when then-Mayor Richard Daley began a landscaping program before the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

Green city

By the time Daley left office in 2011, the city had planted 500,000 trees, added and naturalized parks, and planted native species on roadsides, urban planters, and traffic islands throughout the city. It also had a Climate Action Plan that identified numerous ways the city and its citizens could reduce their carbon footprint.

Initially focused on beautification, the city soon began to see the potential for economic payoff. In 2001, a green roof was installed atop Chicago’s city hall, reducing air conditioning costs. This launched a citywide green roof campaign that has produced 4 million square feet of rooftop gardens including Millennium Park, a 24.5-acre urban park, sculpture garden, and music venue in the heart of downtown Chicago.

At 25 acres, Millennium Park is the world’s largest green roof, covering two parking garages, a commuter railway and an opera house. (Image: Ian Freimuth CC by/sa/nc)

Considered the world’s largest intensive green roof, Millennium Park was built over open railroad yards and parking garages, connecting Chicago’s downtown commercial area to the lakefront. The park incorporates many elements of green design, including a solar panel system that powers lighting in the park itself and the parking garage below, passive solar heating for the garage, and bicycle parking facilities.

Beyond its role as recreational and entertainment venue, Millennium Park has provided significant direct and indirect economic benefits. It’s estimated that the park has boosted the value of nearby real estate by $1.4 billion, and that hotels, restaurants, arts presenters, and other businesses are benefiting economically as well.

Green design

Green design characterizes public and private development and redevelopment throughout the city. Chicago has 124 LEED-certified buildings – more than any other city on earth, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. (LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a voluntary certification program that sets standards for energy and water efficiency, reuse of materials, and low-toxicity paints and finishes.)

This roster includes the Merchandise Mart, the largest commercial building in the world, and 32 municipal buildings. LEED retrofits in process include the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), the Western hemisphere’s tallest building.

The Chicago Transit Authority hosts a large green roof. Grass roofs clean the air, mitigate heat islands and absorb noise. (Image: Kevin Zolkiewicz CC by/nc)

Moreover, the city has created an innovative mix of incentives and disincentives to encourage green design and retrofits at every level of the built environment. New city buildings and renovations must meet green design standards. Private projects that receive financing or zoning assistance from the city must also include green elements.

Special efforts have targeted energy efficiency retrofits of low-income housing. And a Green Permit Program offers large-scale developers who plan to seek LEED certification and homeowners who meet the city’s Green Homes Program criteria expedited permitting and the potential to save on permit fees.

Green Center

Chicago’s first municipal green building retrofit, the Chicago Center for Green Technology, celebrates its tenth anniversary this June. The LEED-Platinum rated center was designed by Farr Associates, a pioneering green architecture firm whose other projects include a private residence in Ravenswood that’s 100-percent carbon neutral and the highest-scoring LEED building ever built.

CCGT hosts educational events for the public and offers technical training and continuing education credit for architects and builders. Recent offerings cover greener textile and materials, landscaping choices that support native species, carbon-neutral construction, and how renters can reduce their ecological footprint. Its resource center and library are a go-to source for developers, architects, builders, and homeowners.

The Green Exchange, billed as the nation’s largest sustainable business community, is housed in a LEED-Platinum retrofitted lamp factory in Chicago’s rapidly gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood.  Workers, the local alderman, and neighborhood organizations formed a unique public-private partnership when the factory closed in 2004, working with the city, LISC Chicago, and a developer to repurpose the building in a way that would create jobs.

The restored historic façade belies sophisticated heating and cooling systems, a rainwater collecting cistern that waters a green roof, high-efficiency windows, solar collecting panels, and live-work space for tenants on the upper floors. Tenants include a transport logistics company, a construction company, a flooring manufacturer, an architectural firm, a community bank, and a day-care center, all committed to green business practices and to moving green business from the margins to the mainstream.

Chicago has launched innumerable other urban greening programs. Among them: a Sustainable Streets Program that fights the heat-island effect and the runoff of polluted stormwater by replacing concrete alleys, plazas, and parking lots with greener surfaces; a bike-friendly infrastructure including 117 miles of bike lanes, a 19-mile lakefront bicycle trail, and citywide bike parking facilities; a growing number of electric vehicle charging stations; a Green Taxi program; and a Sustainable Backyards Program that uses rebates and resources to encourage homeowners to landscape with wildlife-friendly, water-conserving native plants.

The Union Stockyards, made infamous by Upton Sinclair, now host LEED certified grocer TESTA Produce, whose commitment to renewable energy spins overhead. (Image: Josh Mogerman CC by/nc/sa)

Green business

The greening of Chicago has paid off in terms of business and business development. A mix of 21st-century energy businesses includes the global or U.S. headquarters of thirteen major wind developers and many firms that make components for wind turbines, as well as Exelon’s 10-megawatt urban solar power plant in West Pullman on the Far South Side. The biggest urban solar plant in the nation, the 40-acre installation replaced a contaminated site, created 200 construction jobs, used locally sourced materials, and generates enough clean energy to power 1500 homes each year.

Educational institutions are also a source of energy innovation: the Illinois Institute of Technology is building the first-ever prototype of a Perfect Power microgrid – an electric system that will not fail – on its main campus in Chicago.

Chicago’s leading businesses are pushing the envelope on sustainability. In November 2011, United Airlines launched the first commercial flight powered by algae-based biofuel. Ultimately, United hopes to develop a local supply of bio-based aviation fuel. Also last fall, Boeing delivered its first Dreamliner 787, a super-efficient airplane that will reduce fuel consumption by 20 percent.

In 2010, Baxter International (headquartered in Deerfield) became the first manufacturer to receive carbon reduction certification from the UK-based Carbon Trust for a medical product.  And 20 North Michigan Avenue is one of the first commercial office buildings in Chicago to offset 100 percent of its base electricity by purchasing wind and solar power.

Local restaurant Uncommon Ground’s rooftop farm provides produce for meals made below. A “harvest” involves sending a cook upstairs with a bowl. (Image: Organic Nation CC by/nc/sa)

Local food

For the “City in a Garden,” local food is a natural, and Chicago’s restaurant scene includes many leaders in the growing movement to make food and the venues in which we consume it more sustainable.

Award-winning chef Rick Bayless, co-founder of the Chef’s Collaborative, has long partnered with farmers to feature locally-grown food in his Topolobampo and Frontera Grill restaurants. His new venture, Xoco, goes farther: it received a LEED-Gold rating with a rooftop garden that supplies fresh greens and collects stormwater, reclaimed and nontoxic interior finishes, high-efficiency systems that use 40 percent less water and 50 percent less energy than a typical restaurant of its size, renewable energy credits, and a state-of-the-art composting and recycling system. And the tortas, empanadas, and churros are great.

Another local leader in sustainable food, Uncommon Ground, has the first certified organic rooftop farm in the country and was named “the greenest restaurant in America” by the U.S. Green Restaurant Association. It produces zero waste, uses solar power, and converts used cooking oil to fuel its vehicle.

The greening of the food business in Chicago goes far beyond fine dining, however. It is an engine for economic development and job training throughout the city. Logan Square Kitchen is a repurposed LEED-Gold facility rescued from foreclosure and developed as a food business incubator. The Plant, housed in an old Chicago meatpacking plant, is a vertical farm that includes aquaponic growing systems and incubates sustainable food businesses.  The facility aims for net-zero energy and waste by 2015.

Linnae Woods are 25 miles north of downtown Chicago. (Image: Urban Woodswalker CC by/sa)

Last year the world’s first airport aeroponic vertical garden opened in Terminal 3 of O’Hare Airport.  With 928 square feet of growing space, using cutting-edge soilless growing methods for year-round, high-yield cultivation, O’Hare Urban Garden currently provides fresh lettuce, herbs, chard, green beans, and other foods to an estimated 10,000 travelers per year; eventually it is hoped that all fresh produce used by O’Hare restaurants can be grown on-site.

Regreening the city

Among the many ambitious efforts to reclaim former industrial space, one stands out for its scale and the partnerships that support it. In the Calumet region on the Southeast Side, a paradoxical mix of high-value wetlands and industrial brownfield, the city is acquiring and restoring land to be part of the 4,800-acre Calumet Open Space Reserve. Conservation groups including the Field Museum and Chicago Wilderness are partnering with the city to rehabilitate migratory bird habitat and create trails and opportunities for environmental education and research.

Those efforts will feed into the Millennium Reserve initiative, announced by federal, state and local officials last December. Millennium Reserve will transform the entire 140,000-acre region into the nation’s largest urban park. The initial phase involves restoring 6,000 acres containing important biological communities, enhancing recreational opportunities, expanding and updating the port facility, and reclaiming 3,500 acres of brownfields and underutilized land that can be converted to green and growing purposes, such as gardens and renewable biofuel production.

The hope is that, like Millennium Park but on a much larger scale, Millennium Reserve will become a magnet for nature, recreation, and related economic activity on the city’s southern edge.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology is rolling out more fully electric vehicles into the iGo car sharing fleet. (Image: CNT CC by/sa)

There are many exciting ideas for the future greening of Chicago. Many come out of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a “think-and-do tank” (located in a LEED-Platinum renovated factory building) that pioneered urban environmentalism and helped guide the city’s Climate Action Plan. CNT’s many innovations include electric car-sharing, smart energy pricing, and new stormwater management techniques.

Among the most visionary new ideas is Growing Water, a plan developed by UrbanLab, a local architecture and planning firm that worked with the Illinois Institute of Technology and the alternative design school Archeworks.

Recognizing the precious nature of water in a warming 21st-century world, Growing Water proposes a citywide infrastructure of “living system” boulevards that would incorporate wildlife corridors, swales, aquatic systems, wetlands, aquafarms, and recreational areas. This living machine would treat 100 percent of Chicago’s wastewater naturally through natural filtration and microorganisms, and would return it to Lake Michigan.

Growing Water, which is completely achievable with current technology, won the History Channel’s first City of the Future competition in 2008, and has continued to receive awards and recognition. Perhaps it, along with urban tower farms, microgrids and urban solar power plants, and an urban landscape where people and nature can co-habit, will be part of Chicago’s green future.

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