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The Greening of Chicago: How Mayor Richard Daley Plowed Ahead with Earth-Friendly Measures

The Chicago City Hall Garden
City of Chicago — Department of Environment

A mere generation ago, Chicago was known as a colorful but smoggy, water-polluting metropolis. Now, Nelson Algren's gritty "City on the Make" is home to the most rooftop garden space in the nation. It's a place that encourages the owners of homes and buildings to go green.  


The Land of the Wild Onion no longer smells like one and is taking new steps to curb carbon emissions. The former Hog Butcher for the World is often ranked among America's most environmentally friendly cities. Last fall, Chicago hosted a national convention on sustainable construction techniques, giving Mayor Richard M. Daley — who has been dogged by unrelated scandals in recent years — some positive publicity and another chance to tout his city's innovations. 

"By pursuing green strategies ... you can save money and you can make Chicago a more attractive place to come and visit," says Sadhu Johnston, Daley's recently installed chief environmental officer, who coordinates green efforts across city departments. "[Daley] got those issues in a way that really no other mayor had gotten. In the past five years, it's really exciting to see so many other mayors following his lead and doing this across the country." 

What put Chicago near the forefront of topics such as global warming — and took the city one step further away from its unseemly Al Capone heritage? Many agree that a simple, if slightly controversial, tree-planting initiative sowed the seeds for the transformation nearly 20 years ago. 

Soon after he took office in 1989, Daley began scrutinizing the "granular details" of neighborhoods while he was driven to and from public appearances, his first press secretary, Avis LaVelle, recalls. She says the note-taking mayor was put off by treeless areas of the city. 

"He really liked the tree-lined boulevards," LaVelle says. "He'd make it a point to say, 'Look at how different it looks.'" 

The Democrat's fledgling administration created a program to reforest parts of the city, but not everyone was impressed. Critics said Daley — who had been elected to serve the last two years of the late Mayor Harold Washington's term — was pursuing superficial improvements rather than tackling serious problems as he angled for a 1991 re-election bid. 

  "He had to do something quickly to try to show leadership, and the best way to do that was to try to do highly visible projects like tree plantings," says Bob Crawford, a veteran City Hall reporter who is now retired. "There were jokes going around that he was Chicago's Johnny Appleseed." 

Daley's emergence as a green enthusiast is surprising to some, given that the staccato-voiced former state senator and prosecutor grew up in working-class Bridgeport on the city's south side as the son of legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley. The elder Daley, after all, is remembered for the aggressive buildup of highways, skyscrapers and airports and asking, "What trees do they plant?" as a rhetorical put-down of critics who questioned his leadership. 

Still, "Hizzoner" appreciated his lakefront vacation home in Grand Beach, Mich., and suggested to incredulous reporters in the early 1970s that the polluted Chicago River could one day rebound and become a fish habitat. It has. 

"[It's] the old Irish mentality of no matter how wealthy you are, you want to work the farm, you want to go fish in the stream," says Roosevelt University political scientist Paul Green, who is writing a biography of the first Mayor Daley. "I would think [the son] is obviously much more dedicated to it. Times have changed." 

That's not to say the younger, more progressive Daley, now in his history-making sixth term at age 66, is a tree-hugger. Former aides agree the mayor appreciates trees for their aesthetics and air-scrubbing qualities but that he employed them as infrastructure in a broader, coordinated urban-renewal strategy that also valued components such as accessible parking and attractive facades. 

"He clearly had a sense of the importance of the quality of life, in making cities livable, competitive places," says a former top aide, Bill Abolt, now Chicago office manager for Shaw Environmental Inc. 

Daley, who was re-elected last year with 71 percent of the vote, was not available for an interview for this article, his press office indicated. 

The mayor's earliest environmental priorities were getting control of rampant "fly dumping" of trash in distressed wards and formulating cleanup plans for abandoned underground storage tanks and shuttered industrial sites, says former city attorney Henry Henderson, who became Daley's first environmental commissioner when a new department was created in 1992. He says the agency began as an enforcement arm at a time when "cities were written out of the environmental equation" and the department's successful crackdowns in the early years made loftier green goals possible. 

"When [Daley] was in the Constitutional Convention in 1970, he introduced the plank for increased home-rule authority in the state of Illinois," says Henderson, now Midwest office director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "He understands local government as the first line of defense." 

Today, all city departments are expected to advance the environmental cause. The Chicago Department of Transportation, for example, has built 25 permeable "green alleys" since 2006 that help absorb storm water. The Chicago Department of Planning and Development, which is overseeing an ambitious reclamation of Lake Calumet wetlands, tries to entice developers to use sustainable construction methods in exchange for faster permit approval. The city's Department of Fleet Management division is retrofitting Chicago's diesel vehicles with filters to reduce emissions, and their engines are not allowed to idle for more than five minutes. (But clean-air advocates caution that the city, as a whole, which includes the presence of private coal-burning power plants, still has room for improvement.) 

It's not entirely clear when environmental concerns became so infused in city operations during the second Daley's reign. Some credit growing public awareness and more stringent state and federal regulations with putting green on the front burner in Chicago. Others say the mayor regularly emphasized the topic by design and even spurred experiments, such as the European-style landscaped medians that now decorate 90 miles of city streets. He got the idea while visiting Paris in the mid-1990s. 

"Part of it was organic, but part of it was definitely intention," Suzanne Malec-McKenna, Daley's environment commissioner, says of the green emphasis. "We have institutionalized environment." 

In a 1997 trip to Hamburg, Germany, Daley admired that city's rooftop gardens and suggested Chicago City Hall as a tryout site for one of them back home. Sure enough, when it was finished in 2001, the elaborate $1.5 million, 21,000-square-foot green roof demonstrably cooled the municipal building in the summer, cut energy costs and helped retain rainwater. Today, the city offers grants to businesses and homeowners who follow suit, and Chicago leads the nation with 4.5 million square feet of green roof space completed or in the works. 

"You lead by example and then you build incentive programs," says Johnston, Daley's environmental guru, who recently chaired a "climate action" panel studying ways to reduce Chicago's greenhouse gases by 80 percent in the next 40 years. Incentives will play a key role in the local effort to help offset global warming, he says. 

Not everything has gone smoothly. The city government has found it challenging to meet its current obligations in reducing greenhouse gases as a voluntary member of the Chicago Climate Exchange, Malec-McKenna says. And the city was a few months late in meeting its own voluntary 2006 deadline to acquire 20 percent of its power from renewable sources, Johnston says. 

If Chicago has an obvious Achilles heel regarding the environment, it's that the city lacks a comprehensive recycling program. A plan to expand a seven-ward pilot program for the separate collection of recyclables was scaled back this year because of budget constraints, even though the "blue cart" initiative for homes served by city garbage crews has been particularly successful on the northwest side, where about 25 percent of the trash is being recycled. 

  All residents on city garbage routes can put their recyclables in blue bags, which are supposed to be separated from regular trash at sorting centers. But some environmental advocates suspect the bulk of recyclables are still being buried in landfills. Meanwhile, they say, the owners of large apartment complexes and commercial buildings, who hire private haulers, aren't being held accountable under a city law that requires recycling. 

"The fact that Chicago does not have an effective recycling program is a black eye on the city of Chicago's claim that it's the greenest city," says Julie Dick, president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. "It's such a fundamental thing to be able to recycle. It's one of the few environmental areas that everyone can participate in." 

City officials say several factors, including the layered garbage-collection system and varying degrees of receptiveness across the neighborhoods, have stymied Chicago's recycling efforts. Malec-McKenna says the city's ordinance is due for a rewrite. She hopes that "blue cart" will be offered for smaller residences in all 50 wards within five years. 

"'Blue bag' could have worked, but I think that the jury decided, and it just kind of nailed the coffin shut," she says. "What is the easiest way to get people to recycle? There's not one answer when you have 77 different [neighborhoods]." 

But the Daley administration's environmental successes outweigh the failures, most environmentalists agree. The policies have done more than cleanse the city, too — they've helped scrub Daley's recently tarnished reputation. 

Potential mayoral adversaries smelled blood when federal prosecutors brought hiring-fraud charges against former Daley staffers in 2005. That came on top of a "Hired Truck" bribery scandal that led to Abolt's resignation as city budget director after Daley held him accountable for failing to adequately monitor the program. Also bruising were alleged attacks by off-duty police officers on civilians in barroom settings — assaults that splashed over the media as Daley tried to step up city efforts to land the 2016 Summer Olympics. 

Green, the Roosevelt University professor, says he thinks Daley's environmental preaching from the bully pulpit is sincere, as evinced by the amount of budget muscle the mayor has put into green initiatives. 

Daley can indeed influence big changes when he wants, Crawford, the retired reporter, says. 

"I start off by giving Daley credit for the good things that he's done," Crawford says. "Then my point is, if he can do that much good for the city, then why is it that he couldn't give us honest government as well?"

It's not entirely clear when environmental concerns became so infused in city operations during the second Daley's reign.

Chicago LEEDs the way in greenest buildings

Chicago's bragging rights on environmental initiatives include this distinction: It is home to four buildings or spaces rated at the highest level of green construction standards — the most of any U.S. city. 

The local projects, which include the Chicago Center for Green Technology and the Loop offices of Exelon Corp., all attained "platinum" certification under the voluntary system known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which is managed by the U.S. Green Building Council. 

Independent LEED auditors evaluate different types of construction projects, from new buildings to rehabs of existing structures to office-suite conversions. Among the factors that drive a project's certification level are its energy efficiency and use of recycled material. 

The city-owned Chicago Center for Green Technology at 545 N. Sacramento Boulevard — a site that was once an eyesore exemplifying urban blight — is now a showcase example of LEED ideals. 

The rubble-recycling company that previously owned the land allowed mountains of debris to pile up. After seizing the property in 1995, the city spent $9 million to clear the grounds and redevelop an office building there that had been constructed in 1952. 

Forty percent of the construction materials used in the redevelopment came from recycled products. The building's pristine-looking ceiling tiles are made from old newspapers, while some of the flooring is made from tires. Stall partitions in the restrooms were once milk jugs and soda bottles. Meanwhile, the two-story structure also boasts a green and insulating roof, solar panels and rain-catching cisterns that divert water to the property's vegetation, rather than storm sewers. 

LEED platinum certification also was awarded locally to Exelon's consolidated office space (220,000 square feet) at Chase Tower, the Center for Neighborhood Technology's renovated headquarters in a former industrial building in Wicker Park and Christy Webber Landscapes, a neighbor of the Chicago Center for Green Technology. 

More broadly, Chicago has 210 projects that have either been LEED-certified or "registered" (seeking LEED certification) — more than any other U.S. city, according to the Chicago Department of Planning and Development. 

The boom is partly attributed to the city's own construction of LEED-certified buildings, including libraries and other public structures. Also stimulating the trend is a "green permit" program that offers private developers expedited regulatory approval for sustainable construction techniques, such as rooftop gardens. 

"With developers, what are the two big things? Time and money," says Suzanne Malec-McKenna, who heads the city's Department of Environment. "If you build green, you go to the front of the line. You're given a team of people from the Department of Buildings to help you with it, and we'll waive a good portion of your fees." 

Undertaking the expense of LEED certification makes good business sense, says Doug Widener, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council's Chicago office. He says the construction techniques lead to significant energy cost-savings and are attractive to tenants. 

In fact, individuals in the development industry think "if you're not building a LEED building, you're building an obsolete building," Widener says. 

For more information about the U.S. Green Building Council, the LEED system and a nationwide inventory of projects, go to www.usgbc.org.


Mike Ramsey is a Chicago writer who has covered state government and politics. 

Illinois Issues, May 2008

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