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Archives, Charles Shaw

ARCHIVES: Building the Greenest City in America

(This article by Charles Shaw was originally published in the Summer 2004 issue of Newtopia Magazine.)

Chicago is sprinting into the 21st Century as the model urban habitat. With an Administration full of Green Initiatives, including a Department of the Environment and the city’s first “Green Czars”, the city has ceased its long standing war with nature and embraced the concepts of sustainability.

Because of its hog-squeal Industrial childhood, the great American city of Chicago has never been considered one of the nation’s most beautiful places. The city’s hardscrabble, top-down Capitalist ethos of profit before protections built this city on a swamp, turned the river into an open sewer, and built the mighty factory god that belched black death into the skies above Lake Michigan for a hundred years. By the 1990s, whole sections of the city had devolved into an industrial wasteland populated by ghettos, projects, and thousands of industrial environmental clean up sites. It was dirty and decrepit, the paradigm of vice and crime, and people wondered aloud if would become the new Detroit.

But then something unexpected happened. Instead of following the same path as other decaying rust-belt cities, Chicago began to experience what has shaped up to be one of the most spectacular urban renaissances in modern history. Today, Chicago is reborn, with a beautiful, revitalized Downtown that is booming, and many completely redeveloped (not necessarily gentrified) neighborhoods. The population is growing at a steady rate of 7-8% a year, one of the few places in America where both the city and suburban/metro area are adding people.

There are varied reasons for this success, including a diverse economy, jobs, immigration, a lower relative cost of living in comparison to other large metro areas, and, of no lesser significance, a spectacular urban habitat rimmed by one of the most environmentally pleasant of the suburban sprawls that have infested the American landscape over the last fifty years.

Chicago was always at least partially beautiful, even amongst the slaughterhouses and steel mills. Unlike most cities, almost all of Chicago’s waterfront property is beach and public park. There are almost 600 inland parks within the city limits, and in the neighborhoods the city blocks were designed to have a strip of grass and trees in-between the sidewalk and the street. These thousands upon thousands of trees act as a canopy over the city, sheltering the dense populace living below. Inspired by sister-city Paris, there is a vast forest preserve that rings much of the city, buffering it from the suburbs.

Back in 1989 newly elected Mayor Richard M. Daley was plagued with how to lift Chicago out of the post-industrial slag heap. He had a simple yet brilliant idea: plant more trees. This turned into a wholesale reformation of the city’s crumbling 100+ year old infrastructure. Since 1989, the city has spent $5.2 billion improving Chicago’s walkways, streets, parks and neighborhood communities. Most impressive amongst a list of admirable achievements was facing the great white elephant that was the Chicago River. Buildings once faced away from the river to avoid the stench, and the extent of damage was reminiscent of the Lake Erie chemical fires of the 1970s. Today large sections along both branches have reemerged as residential districts full of townhomes, high-rises and converted loft communities with a meticulously landscaped riverwalk stretching for miles.

Chicago met federal clean air standards faster than any other large metro, six years ahead of schedule. It cleaned up more than 1,000 acres of polluted industrial land, built the stunning $450 Million neo-modernist Millennium Park over a rail yard that was doubling as an open air parking lot, and created more than 100 miles of bike paths.

That Chicago surmounted a particularly daunting physical challenge should come as no surprise to anyone, least of all Chicagoans. This is a city with an impressive history of innovation that reaches far beyond the hot dog and the skyscraper, albeit with a notoriously feckless relationship to its natural habitat. Is it any wonder the term “ecology” was coined at the University of Chicago in large part because of Chicago’s historical feud with nature?


Chicago has had a few major natural catastrophes beyond the Great Chicago Fire. Long before that, in the middle of the 19th Century, against all known logic, Chicago was built on a stinking bog by eastern speculators who were looking to open up the great American heartland for commerce. They broke ground in a place the Native Americans said only the white man was crazy enough to live, and somehow the city managed to persevere. Yet it was not without what appeared to be impossible obstacles to surmount.

Human and animal waste poured into the muddy city streets and down to the river and eventually backed up into Lake Michigan, where the city drew its drinking water. An outbreak of cholera forced civic planners to literally jack the city up 12 feet out of the mud one building at time while a sewer was built underneath, using a hundred-odd individual jacks turned one-quarter turn at a time by a hundred men cowering under the creaking structures. A few years later, realizing the problem had not been solved, these same innovators told the Chicago River to go where nature had not intended it by reversing the flow so that the waste ran through a natural continental divide south to the Mississippi River instead of back east into Lake Michigan.

These unbelievable tales have become a living metaphor for Chicago’s innovation and persistence against the odds. It has been said that when you dump as much money and human capital into a city as had been invested in Chicago, you find amazing motivation to make the city work at any cost. This ethos has remained as Chicago reinvents itself in the post-industrial era as a 21st Century sustainable “Green City”.

But being a Green city isn’t just about how many parks you have. It’s about the relationship of the environment to the city and the people, about interconnected social and environmental policies, and leadership from designers, planners, scientists, politicians, civic organizations, and cultural figures, who are all helping Chicago move from a wasteful industrial model, to one of sustainability.


Jim Slama is an editor-at-large for Conscious Choice magazine and president of Sustain, one of the country’s leading social and environmental advocacy organizations working with the public, media and policymakers to be active in creating a sustainable planet. One year ago in April of 2003, Slama published “A Green Report Card: Chicago wants to be the ‘Greenest city in America.’ So, how’s it doing?” In it, Slama rated Chicago’s progress in a number of ecological benchmarks including cleaning up the Chicago River, making Chicago the organic food capital of the Midwest, Greening communities, deepening the commitment to Green energy and energy efficiency, and making Chicago the nation’s hub of Green manufacturing and design.

The results are varied. The city has spent a decade cleaning up the Chicago River, and water quality continues to improve, but the biggest threat to the river is storm water runoff that is dumped into the river when the water system is overwhelmed, which causes high bacterial counts and the release of other hazardous pollution. Chicago is still built up on that swap. More importantly, Chicago is rimmed by suburban sprawl in an almost 50 mile radius that greatly hinders ground water absorption. A generation long deep tunnel project to protect storm runoff is still inching ahead, but is nowhere near completion. 2017 is the projected completion date.

Organic food is a more promising development. Farmer’s markets sprang up all over high-density commercial neighborhoods in the 1990’s. A study held last fall by developers of the conservation community Prairie Crossing determined that Chicago-area retailers currently sell $60 to $80 million of organic produce a year, with only 3 percent being grown locally (most organic produce is grown out of state and shipped to Chicago). The study states “The demand for organic food is 30 times greater than the local supply.”

Slama reports that the city “is already walking its talk by turning over vacant lots to community members who are converting them into urban farms. There are over 500 community managed parks and gardens in the city, and the numbers continue to grow. The city is actively promoting these projects with hands-on support from the Department of the Environment’s GreenCorps program, which is a community greening and job training effort geared towards horticultural education and landscaping. Working in partnership with community gardeners, the program provides plant materials, technical assistance, and some of the “heavy labor” at community garden sites. The city has also begun to use “open space impact fees” to help mitigate the loss of open space caused when builders create new developments. The funds are then used to purchase land to be preserved as parks or other public uses.”

Chicago’s City Parks are some of the most expansive in the nation with 7300 acres of parkland, 552 parks, 33 beaches, nine museums, two world-class conservatories, 16 historic lagoons, 10 bird and wildlife gardens, and an active special events department that provides thousands of year-round programs that engage Chicagoans with their environment. Chicago spends more per person on its parks than any other city ($114.48) and spends- more than twice as much per acre of parkland ($26,797.49) than its closest competitor, Boston.

And in keeping with Chicago’s market-driven ethos, the Environment is big business here too. With America’s most diversified economy, Chicago boasts an environmental technology industry that is #2 in the U.S., employs 36,117 people, and produces $852 million in exports that bring in revenues of $5.2 billion a year.

In April of this year Chicago lawyer, writer, and activist Dan Johnson-Weinberger penned “How Green is Our Mayor?”, the follow up to Slama’s article of a year ago. Johnson-Weinberger was the first to respond in depth to the Daley Administration’s newly launched “Greenest City in America” campaign, and he was one of the first to interview Daley’s new Green Czar, more commonly known as Sadhu Johnston, the Mayor’s Assistant for Green Initiatives.

“How Green is our Mayor” pointed out a lot of the apparent contradictions of trying to perform any large-scale reformation project in a city this size, but more importantly, it’s fresh, editorial style helped put a lot of the recent Green rhetoric in perspective.

“The contrasts [in Chicago] are stunning: the lakefront ranks among the best parks in the world, while the Chicago River is still essentially an industrial channel where swimming is verboten. The city touts a nationally renowned Center for Green Technology on the West Side but also is home to two carcinogen-spewing coal-burning power plants in residential neighborhoods. And, of course, we’ve yet to enact a smoking ban that allows us to take deep breaths in public places.”

Johnson-Weinberger goes on to chronicle some of the cities most amazing (and perplexing) developments in Lakefront and Riverfront improvement projects. Some of them are of a truly stunning scale. The former Meigs Field municipal airport is to be transformed back into Northerly Island. Located approximately a mile southeast of Chicago’s downtown Loop and just south of its famed museum campus, this publicly accessible green space designed by the Openlands Project will enhance the already amazing lakefront by providing an entirely eco-scaped habitat. Northerly Island was originally conceived as part of the 1909 Burnham plan and came to fruition as part of the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition. Afterwards it was turned into a private airport that mainly served the recreational interests of the more well-to-do, as the field was too small for anything but expensive personal aircraft and corporate shuttles. Mayor Daley enraged private pilots and advocates of democratic process by closing the airport and tearing up the field in the middle of the night, but by and large most agree this will be an incredible addition to the city.

Just opposite Northerly Island on the far eastern shore of the lakefront there has been an expansion of the “city’s museum campus, where the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium, and the newly rebuilt Soldier Field are located just east of Grant Park on the lakefront. As part of the stadium renovation, the campus added a bike trail, a sledding hill, and almost 13 new acres of parkland. The Neo-Modernist stadium is best characterized as provocative, garnering polemically mixed reviews. Most say it looks like a UFO landed on the colonnades of the old Soldier Field, and the consortium who built the stadium with $400 million in public funds, which included the Chicago City Council, Chicago Park District and Illinois General Assembly, has been assailed for building what is essentially a private football stadium in lieu of “schools, libraries, transit lines or hundreds of other far-more-worthy projects.”

Clean water is going to become a central concern in the next 20 years. The city has developed a detailed water quality/conservation agenda that includes making residents of all single-family homes accountable for their water use. Currently, only 15 percent of these homes have a water meter. And as regards the Chicago River, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the river is the cleanest it’s been in over a century. Still, 60 percent of the river’s flow is treated human and industrial-waste water.

“The Green Roof” rooftop garden on City Hall has been a hallmark of Mayor Daley’s “Green City” evolution, which the city has been advocating for other buildings. This natural urban oasis saves on cooling costs by covering rooftops with landscaped parks rather than tar and stone which reduces the “urban heat island” effect caused by dark colored paving and roofing materials. These Green Roofs improve air quality and reduce storm water, help clean the air of exhaust pollution, and provide a stunning place to lunch, socialize, or simply gather one’s head. The 20,000 square foot compost, mulch, and clay garden atop City Hall contains 20,000 native plants.

The city is also issuing grants for “urban heat island” projects in private homes. These initiatives call for installing rooftop gardens, median planters, and using light roofing materials and solar panels to provide clean energy. The green roof project is so appealing that I brought it to the other five residents in my six unit building and proposed we add one to our roof. You will be able to chart the progress of this project in our new section, “Creative Sustainability”, debuting in issue 18.


Even though Chicago has one of the most developed rapid transit systems in the nation, there are significant portions of the city and metro area not served by El or a regional commuter train. Rail lines currently branch out from Downtown Chicago, but there are few connecting lines that go north-south across these radiating spoke lines. There have been plans in development for a new “Circle Line”, which would be Chicago’s equivalent of Manhattan’s cross-town line, connecting all the current lines (Red, Brown, Green, Blue, and Orange) with one north-south line. An even larger Mid-City line is planned that would run north-south along the Far West Side connecting O’Hare to Midway. In suburbia, the Regional Transit Authority METRA is attempting to develop a suburban north-south line to connect the existing regional commuter rail lines.

There is also an express train planned for both O’Hare and Midway Airports that would originate beneath the planned super-development for Block 37 located across from Daley Plaza in the heart of the Loop. This would all but eliminate the (conservatively) 30-60 minute trip spent driving to the airports, or riding the traditional EL lines.

Add to this the addition of 93 out of a planned 200 miles of bicycle lanes, and the city’s message is clear. Drive less! Please!

This is of course because the biggest concern facing all American cities is not green spaces but their prodigious consumption of energy, and Chicago is no exception. At present, only 10 percent of Chicago’s electricity is renewable, and although the city promises that by 2006 20% of the City’s power will come from renewable sources and by 2010 they will buy 1/5 of their power from green sources. Still, that leaves us today with 80 percent of Chicago’s electricity produced by coal and nuclear power. This absolutely will have to change as soon as is feasible if anyone is to take Chicago’s “Green” claims at face value.

To decrease petroleum use, Chicago has begun adding natural gas and hybrid vehicles to their fleet, and they have built 3 natural gas filling stations. A gradual shift to a complete hybrid and gas fleet would definitely save the city millions in fuel bills, but this may still only be a stopgap measure. In development is the Illinois Coalition’s Hydrogen Highway, the first step towards a renewable-hydrogen energy economy. The project calls for the building of a series of hydrogen filling stations along a commercial interstate route that slices right through northeast Illinois. (You can read all about the Hydrogen Highway and the hydrogen economy in “The Hydrogen Highway: The Road to Renewable Energy”, in this issue)


Because of its spectacular location in the middle of the country on the shores of a massive freshwater lake, early on Chicago developed into the nation’s main water and rail hub. When highways replaced railroads as the primary mode of ground travel, the U.S. interstates all converged just west of the city. As commercial aviation grew into a global enterprise, Chicago laid claim to the world’s busiest airport. With the advent of the information age, Chicago became a thriving telecommunications hub.

Now, Chicago is emerging as a hub of green manufacturing and design. It has constructed a “green corridor” devoted to companies that are engaged in green businesses such as organic food, renewable energy, and native landscaping.

Opened to the public in May of 2002, Chicago’s Center for Green Technology (“Chicago Green Tech”) is a model of sustainable design. It is only the third building in the United States to be designed using these high standards of green technology. The buildings, grounds, and programs at Chicago Green Tech help architects, builders, and homeowners learn how green technology is both cost effective and good for the environment and for the people. It is the only one of the existing three that is an adaptive-reuse renovation of a pre-existing building. The cleanup of the old site took 18 months and cost about $9 million, and over 600,000 tons of concrete were hauled away in some 45,000 truck loads. The city recouped some of the clean up cost by selling the concrete and other materials to recycling firms and to other city departments for re-use in their projects.

The building was designed using a set of guidelines established by the US Green Building Council called LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design). LEED is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings. Chicago Green Tech is the proud winner of their coveted “Platinum” rating.

The structure features rooftop solar panels and photovoltaic awnings, a geothermal heat pump, a shaded, reflective parking lot, green roof, storm water retention, high performance windows, low-polluting paints and sealants, and elevators that use canola oil. Bicycle parking and shower facilities are available for employees who wish to bike instead of drive to reduce air pollution.

The Center’s three anchor tenants were selected the Chicago Department of Environment specifically for their contribution to the Green industry. Greencorps Chicago, l the city’s community landscaping and job training program, Spire Solar, a manufacturer of photovoltaic panels, and WRD Environmental, an urban landscape design/build firm.

The culture of Green design has been warmly received by the Chicago community. Beginning June 1 and running through September 12 is “Big & Green: Toward Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century” at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. This exhibit of the world’s major green projects, the first of its kind in this city, builds on the growing recognition of the relationship between architecture and the environment by showing how large-scale green architecture can be both healthful and practical, approaching energy, light and air, greenery, water, and waste, construction, and urbanism, in new and innovative ways. “Chicago Green” will showcase 15 of the city’s flagship green projects.

The Foresight Design Initiative

The Foresight Design Initiative is a Chicago-based non-profit that works towards improving and sustaining the quality of life in the urban environment through intelligent design, without sacrificing the needs of future generations. They plan to achieve this by fostering sustainability in the practices of industry and design, and altering existing patterns of consumption.

“Sustainability is ultimately about improving quality of life for everyone” says Peter Nicholson, Executive Director of the organization. “Better, smarter design, of all sorts, is integral to this enterprise and yet, so often, it’s taken for granted or omitted from the process.”

Serving as the Chicago chapter of the Global o2 Network (www.o2.org), Foresight has brought hundreds of local professionals, leaders, students, and community members together for events addressing a breadth of local issues, including energy efficiency, renewable energy (wind, solar, biomass), municipal recycling, green economics, affordable green homes, local green businesses, design education, and corporate social responsibility. These events have led to active collaborations, increased integration of sustainability into business practices, more sustainable consumer behavior, and the empowerment of community members to effect change.

To extend this impact, Foresight created the Chicago Sustainability Action Guide , an online directory of local resources to assist individuals in applying sustainability concerns to their professional and personal lives. Designed by a collaboration of environmental and design professionals, the Action Guide is the first of its kind in Chicago.

In order to raise awareness and begin to foster greater engagement with the myriad of issues that come under the sustainability umbrella, Foresight produced the 1st Annual Chicago Sustainable Design Challenge last year. The event brought together over 50 designers, students and related professionals who collaborated to develop 11 compelling proposals to make Chicago a more sustainable, livable city. Plans for a bigger and better second Design Challenge are in the works.

Foresight also organizes Chicago Green Drinks, a monthly socializing, networking and educational gathering for people interested in sustainability issues. An idea that got its start in London more than 10 years ago , and can now be found in more than 40 cities worldwide, Green Drinks in Chicago tends to draw a diverse crowd of more than 60 people each month. Unlike in other cities, the Chicago event also includes an hour-long panel discussion on topics that change each month.

Additionally, all office activities and events in 2004 are 100% powered by renewable energy sources (i.e. solar and wind), thanks to a generous donation of Green Tags, renewable energy purchasing credits, by Mainstay Energy.


When the interstate expressways were built the 1950’s, then Mayor Richard J. Daley demolished miles of neighborhoods to build the massive eight lane highways that snaked in and out of the city. They were also constructed in part to serve as natural barriers between neighborhoods that were divided along racial lines. One of the most glaring was the Kennedy Expressway, which cut a swath right through the Near West Side, just west of the River and the Loop. Today, the Near West Side is connected by a series of bridges, and the canyon itself is ugly, congested, and full of trapped exhaust.

The Architecture firm of Perkins & Will studied the capping of the Kennedy Expressway and came up with a pioneering solution, the “Green Corridor” in Downtown Chicago, based on a series of ideas proposed in the new Central Area Plan and the new reforms in the city’s 50 year old zoning code. This concept solves two pressing problems for the West Loop: the disconnection from the Near West Side, and the lack of abundant public green space.

In this prototypical “Green” community, each cross expressway block forms a mixed-use neighborhood externally connected at the roof and internally connected by public circulation paths through the bridges. The inhabited bridges contain retail and public amenities that connect office structures on the east with residential to the west. These linked communities act as ideal transit spaces which link Loop related office development with residential neighborhoods to the west.

The big curved structures adorning the crests of the buildings are wind shields or scoops that harness wind and direct it downward to “flush” the expressway cavity of CO2 and circulate fresh air into the new park spaces. Green “Network Park” bridges and sky gardens provide a network of open air public green spaces inside the towers.

Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer-Prize winning Architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune called the Green Corridor, “a fantastic vision” that “offers a stinging critique of the city’s rapidly expanding West loop office and residential district, which is all about public buildings and hardly at all about public space.” When the design first debuted last year as an installation by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, it received the awestruck raves that haven’t been heard in this town in a long time when it comes to architectural design. But with this, we were all reassured that the unique, pioneering spirit that designed the first skyscrapers was still alive and well.


Chicago is the epicenter of New Urbanism, an urban design movement that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. New Urbanists aim to reform real estate development and support regional planning for open space, place-appropriate architecture and planning, and the balanced development of jobs and housing. They believe these strategies are the best way to reduce commuting, increase the supply of affordable housing, and rein in urban sprawl. Many other issues, such as historic restoration, safe streets, and green building are also covered in the Charter of the New Urbanism, the movement’s seminal document.

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is a Chicago and San Francisco-based non-profit organization that was founded in 1993. CNU works with architects, developers, planners, and others involved in the creation of cities and towns, teaching them how to implement the principles of the New Urbanism. These principles include coherent, interconnected “smart” regional planning, walkable neighborhoods, and attractive, accommodating civic spaces, including parks and “green spaces”. CNU has over 2,000 members throughout the United States and around the world.

“With its history of design innovation and convenient air and rail connections, Chicago is a great base from which to advance CNU’s ideas for restoring urban centers, replacing sprawl with real communities and adding value to the economy,” says John Norquist, the former Mayor of Milwaukee and current President and CEO of the CNU. Norquist is the author of The Wealth of Cities, and has taught courses in urban policy and urban planning at the University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning and at Marquette University. While in his tenure as Mayor of Milwaukee, among other successes, Norquist presided over a Downtown housing boom that led him to become the nation’s foremost advocate of New Urbanism.

At the end of the month Chicago will host the twelfth annual Congress for the New Urbanism. This year’s Congress will focus on the smallest scale addressed by the Charter of the New Urbanism, defining principles and methods for restoring, infilling, and creating places in ways that satisfy not just aesthetic ideals but environmental and social goals as well. There will also be a special session on “The Sustainable City”. This is one of three major urban design conferences taking place in Chicago the month of June.

You can hear more about New Urbanism in an interview with John Norquist on Chicago NPR’s “Eight Forty-Eight” program.


39 states now require new homes to meet energy efficiency standards for the climate zone in which they are located. In “Green’ Home Building in Chicago” (Conscious Choice, March 2003) Nancy Wagner writes, “A handful of homebuilders in the Chicago area have begun building energy efficient homes to take part in the Department of Energy’s ‘Building America Initiative.’ The program requires new homes to use at least 30 percent less energy for heating, cooling, and water heating than conventional homes of the same size. The ideal green home would be energy-efficient, built to last, use local materials, take full advantage of natural surroundings and have products designed to “be actively positive” for one’s health.”

America’s first “single-family home” was the Chicago Bungalow. The word bungalow comes from bungla, a type of housing that was first built in India for British subjects. Built between 1910 and 1940, there are more than 80,000 of them ringing the outer neighborhoods of the city in what is affectionately known as the “Bungalow Belt”, which accounts for about a third of Chicago’s single-family homes.

Most of these squat, solid, rectangular, one-and-a-half story homes were built from standardized fixtures, and were the first affordable homes for the middle classes, as well as the first to incorporate central heating, electricity and modern plumbing.

The City’s Green Bungalow initiative provides owners of historic bungalows with financial and architectural assistance to transform the houses into environmentally friendly, energy efficient homes. Chicagoans who rehab bungalows are eligible for up to $3,000 in energy conservation grants, vouchers for energy efficient appliances and units.

Under the “Green Homes for Chicago” program, the Departments of Environment and Housing held a single-family home design competition for the purpose of generating creative and resourceful applications of green technology that were also affordable. After the winning entries were selected, five homes were built to these specifications. The homes were showcased for a time and then sold as affordable housing.


Despite widespread popular misconception, being “Green” is not just a political decision, it’s a lifestyle change. You don’t become “Green” by voting for Ralph Nader or by becoming an environmentalist, you become “Green” by making a conscious decision to advocate for a different approach to lifestyle, politics, and society.

Unlike a corporate controlled “Consumer” society that exhausts resources and cultures and favors profit over the well being of the consumer base, Green politics and policies work to create a fair, independently-owned, progressive, “Sustainer” society which is built on entirely different principles: sustainable development, sustainable economics, sustainable foreign policy, and sustainable labor practices. Green politics use a grassroots democratic approach to government in which people are actively engaged in what goes on in their communities. Green policies make sure that the fundamental pillars of a sustainable society are included in public policy: Ecological stewardship, Social Justice, Grassroots Democracy and Non-Violence.

Chicago is a city that is awash in Green policies, but it is virtually without Green politics. The Green Party presence is small, and there are no elected Green officials. Chicago is a Democrat city through and through. For many, it is the very archetype of the Democratic Party.

This is ironic because the original “Green Party” (GPUSA)-there are two, this is the smaller and lesser known)-has its headquarters in Chicago. But the old Green party never really amounted to much and has rapidly dwindled to a few hardcore members, and the new Green Party, although organized and active, is too new and small to make a dent in the mighty Chicago machine. Still, more and more people go “Green” every day, and Chicago is one of those places where this type of evolution, notwithstanding the political, is a natural by-product of its global diversity and environmental challenges.

Chicago is challenged with a citizenry that has strong leadership from the top down, which is the opposite of how the Green Party approaches politics, from the “roots upward”. This has created an interesting dichotomy. The now infamous “midnight raid” to close Meigs Field and turn it into Northerly Island Park was only possible because of the power structure that presently exists. It is very doubtful the situation would have been resolved using grassroots process. Greens are up in arms about this violation of democratic process, but are conflicted by the results, which is at its core that a private airfield for the affluent was turned into a public park for all, a very Green sentiment indeed.

It is important to note that with the current population growth and economic shift, the political base in Chicago is shifting too. There is an entirely new citizenry making this city their home, “knowledge workers”, the lifeblood of the exploding creative and business service economies. For cities to compete in the Information Age, they need to be attractive to these new urban dwellers who want diverse, tolerant, and vibrant cultural environments that are practically and aesthetically engaging. This includes having a tolerant political system. The net effect in Chicago, like in San Francisco and New York, is that the presence of Green policies, camping out firmly to the left of mainstream Democrats, has held the Democratic power structures to task. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom never would have issued same-sex marriage licenses had Green challenger Matt Gonzales not made that part of his platform. Likewise in Chicago, the tireless work over the last 20 years of a small group of environmental activists, most of whom belong to the GPUSA, has kept the Daley Administration in a Green frame of mind. If nothing else, they should always be proud of that.


To create an unparalleled urban habitat, the city has created a Department of the Environment, has a vanguard Department of Cultural Affairs, and has the nation’s first “Green Czars”, who are charged with helping the Mayor and these flagship departments create a new model of urban sustainability. Chicago proves that it can be done in an aging industrial city.

The Chicago Department of Environment was formed by Mayor Daley in 1992 and is staffed by 100 people, including field personnel, engineers, scientists, attorneys and administrators. Their mission is threefold: protect human health and the environment; improve the urban quality of life; and, of course, promote economic development. Their function is to develop environmental policy and enforce the City’s various environmental regulations, promote natural resource conservation, pollution prevention, energy efficiency, and public outreach through environmental services, projects, and programs for the citizenry.

“Mayor Daley’s vision of making Chicago the greenest city in the nation is about providing healthy air and water, being wise in our energy use, and conserving resources. But it’s also about increasing Chicago’s competitive edge: making the city a place where people want to come live, visit and start their businesses”, said First Deputy Commissioner David Reynolds, who has been with the department since 1996.

Reynolds works closely with fellow-Green Czar Sadhu Johnston, the Mayor’s Special Assistant for Green Initiatives, a custom-made position on the mayor’s executive staff. Johnston is a Green pioneer who came to Chicago from Cleveland, another great industrial city that is scrambling to survive, where he founded the Cleveland Green Building Coalition. Johnston’s specific role is to make sure all City departments toe the Green line by taking into account the environmental consequences of policy decisions.

“We aren’t just about greening from the environmental perspective,” says Johnston, “we’re really about making the city healthy, smart and green all the way around.”

Chicago is one of many cities in the post-Richard Florida world that realizes vibrant, cultural, artistic communities are key to civic revitalization and draw in all sorts of new residents, even non-artists seeking a fun place to live that bears no resemblance to their office park in the suburbs. Chicago’s vibrant arts community has always encouraged residents to stay in the city while spurring relocation from others.

The function of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs is to promote the arts as a vital component of urban life. The Department’s website quotes a community economic impact study of the nonprofit arts community, called Jobs, the Arts and the Economy which concludes:

“When our communities invest in the arts they are not opting for cultural benefits at the expense of economic benefits. Careful research shows that in addition to being a vital means of social enrichment, the arts are also an economically sound investment for communities of all sizes. Quite simply, the arts are an industry that generates jobs.”

Sustainable economic growth is the purview of World Business Chicago (WBC), a public-private economic development corporation co-chaired by Mayor Daley. WBC aggressively markets the competitive advantages of Chicago as the world’s best metropolitan area in which to live, work, and play to retain and attract businesses.

Directed at local, community-based economics, Jim Slama’s Sustain has opened a Chicago chapter to train and assist local business owners on how to build a “local living economy”. Living economies are those that offer long term economic prosperity through independent business ownership, living wage jobs, cultural diversity, and a healthy natural environment. “Sustainable Chicago” will educate consumers and policy makers on how to build and support sustainable communities.

As Chicago is a city of dynamic neighborhoods with bustling commercial strips surrounding dense residential streets, it is the perfect model for a diverse, independent ownership base. Eclectic art and culture districts like Wicker Park, Andersonville, River North, Lincoln Square, and Pilsen have all formed organized groups to try and steer economic growth and curb or eliminate the proliferation of chains and big box retail stores. Unfortunately the ability of these neighborhood economies to attract and retain a steady customer base is dependent upon a diversity of businesses along the strips. One major chain store-a Border’s Books, Starbuck’s, or (perish the thought) a Wal Mart-can have devastating effects. It’s no wonder this has moved into the political arena, with community groups warring over whether or not to let a Wal-Mart in the city. As of press time, the first one has been passed through the city council and will soon rise in the Austin district on the city’s Far West Side. It is estimated that the presence of this one Wal-Mart will impact over 300 businesses in the area and lead to a net loss of about 216 jobs, and that’s afterWal-Mart has done their hiring.

Case study: Uptown, a neighborhood made famous by the gangsters in the 1930’s for its night clubs and ballrooms, has seen blight for the last thirty years, and is a haven for drugs, crime and the homeless. But within the last year both a Starbucks and a Border’s Books have opened on the main intersection in Uptown on Broadway and Lawrence sparking a renaissance. But these threaten to shut down such venerable Chicago institutions as the last Coffee Chicago, a once-powerful local chain with true ambience that was squashed by Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, and Caribou Coffee, to name a few, and noted feminist bookstore Women and Children First Books just north of Uptown in Andersonville.

Someone always benefits, someone always loses. It’s a quandary that has no immediate solution for sure.


But of course the Greenest thing about Chicago has always been money, and nowhere is that more evident these days than in the luxury high rise building boom that has been going on for six years now and shows no sign of stopping. The flagship of this boom is Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago, a 90-story stainless steel and glass new Modernist masterpiece. Trump claims that no luxury was spared in the design.

In its quest to be the greenest city in America, Chicago has an opportunity to make its new flagship skyscraper a model of Green design,” said Stacy Malkan, Editor of the Green Pages, the news publication of the Green Party of the US. “That would be the best contribution Donald Trump can make to the city of Chicago, to have it lead by example. The Trump Tower should be LEED certified, and should be free of PVC, mercury, brominated flame retardants and other materials linked to disease. Otherwise their claim lacks credibility if the city isn’t willing to push developers to go above and beyond business as usual.”

At least from the outside, this is not business-as-usual. The Donald was held to a higher standard here in Chicago than he ever was in New York, and the building’s lead design architect Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill is a hallowed figure in the world of Supertall architecture. Their design went through a series of revisions and extra requirements required of any structure that will occupy such a prominent location and status in the city that invented the skyscraper. Trump’s tower is distinguished by one significant contribution: the plans call for a completely landscaped river walk, where there is now only a sheer concrete wall. This project will anchor the Downtown river-revitalization plan that the Mayor has envisioned, where someday rather than the concrete channel that now exists, the Chicago River will bend through the loop with a terrace full of cafes and shops and trees and fountains.

But Mayor Daley isn’t going to be around forever. And if Chicago wants to lay claim to “The Greenest City in America”, it will need to sustain this level of innovation and initiative for years to come. Being Green means holding oneself to an even higher standard than that of plain Consumer society. It means giving something back every day so that there is always something for tomorrow. Chicago has always overcome the greatest of challenges, and its post-industrial renaissance is truly one for the books. If Chicago keeps this up, it won’t be the Greenest City in America for long, the envy of other cities will throw a much more resonant hue of Green across the American landscape.

The author would like to acknowledge the generous assistance of the Mayor’s Office, Sadhu Johnston and David Reynolds, Carl Wasielewski and Meghan Risch of World Business Chicago, Ralph Johnson and the Architecture Firm of Perkins & Will, and the entire gang at Conscious Choice magazine.

Conscious Choice magazine’s “Green” series:
“How Green is our Mayor?”, by Dan Johnson-Weinberger
“A Green Report Card”, by Jim Slama
“Green Home Building in Chicago”, by Nancy Wagner
The Chicago Center for Green Technology (“Chicago Green Tech”)
GreenCorps Chicago
The Openlands Project
The Chicago Central Area Plan
BIODIVERSITY: Understanding and Conserving the Web of Life
Green Building & Builders:
Bigelow Homes, 847-705-6400
Cambridge Homes, 847-362-9100
Chicago Green Bungalow Initiative: 312-744-7606 or 744-5701:
Historic Chicago Bungalow Association, 312-642-9900
Prairie Crossing, 847-548-5400
Energy-efficient products: Lists all Energy Star products and links to stores that carry them.
Solar heating: Solar Service, 847-677-0950
Solar electricity: Spire Solar Chicago, 773-638-8700
Chicago Architecture Foundation: “Big & Green”
The Foresight Design Initiative
The Chicago Sustainability Guide
The Chicago Sustainable Design Competition
Mainstay Energy

Written by Charles Shaw

Newtopia founder and editor emeritus CHARLES SHAW is an award-winning journalist and editor, author of the critically-acclaimed memoir, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, and Director of the documentary, The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs & The American Criminal Justice System.


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