What other cities can learn from 'Green Chicago'

In his time as mayor of Chicago (1955-1976), Richard J. Daley would answer his critics with a curt rhetorical question: “How many trees did you plant today?” It was a none too subtle reminder of who made The City That Works, work.
August 11, 2010

“Boss” Daley would be proud of his son, Richard M. Daley. As mayor since April 4, 1989, Daley has planted his share of trees—400,000 and counting. His passion for beautification sometimes borders on the maniacal. What other mayor would order city crews to demolish the runways of the city's lakefront airport in the dark of night so that it could be turned into a park?

Daley's passion for green started with his edict to crown City Hall with a vegetated roof, something his critics thought wasteful, if not ridiculous. Yet today, the city has millions of square feet of vegetated roofs covering buildings and parking garages. But that was just the opening volley in Daley's environmental crusade.

Four years ago, Daley brought in a 29-year-old environmentalist, Sadhu Johnston, as his green guru. By 2005, Johnston and his team in the city's Department of Environment had crafted a 150-page Environmental Action Agenda (available at www.cityofchicago.org/Environment), covering everything from solar grants to bike paths. It is the most sweeping plan of its kind for any major city in the U.S., and, with Daley's emerging role in climate change issues, has put Chicago on the map as a leader in environmental improvement worldwide.

This is not to say that everything in Chicago is hunky-dory. The city's air quality needs a lot of work. Its “blue bag” recycling program flopped; it has been replaced by a much better “blue cart” program.

Yet despite these missteps, important lessons can be drawn from the Chicago green effort:

1. A city's environmental plan must be comprehensive. Too many cities (and states) are taking the easy route by mandating LEED certification for public buildings and leaving it at that. Chicago took LEED as a framework and built on it to create the Chicago Standard, its own interpretation of what green building should be, and put it in the context of a larger environmental agenda.

2. Regulation is not always the best way to stir the blood of private real estate developers. Regulation has its place; for example, Chicago requires major projects to divert at least 50% of construction waste from landfill, and starting next year, projects over 15,000 sf in scope will have to retain the first half-inch of rainfall.

But Chicago has proven that incentives also work—things like creating tax-increment financing districts that encourage developers to install green roofs, and, best of all, speeded-up building permits for green projects. Incentives like these have created a positive working relationship between green developers and city departments.

3. The last lesson has to do with leadership. Daley's environmental crusade has become the capstone of his career. Whether or not Chicago gets the 2016 Summer Olympics, future generations will benefit from the trees—and the innovative environmental policies—that “the green mayor” planted.


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