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Chicago Goes Green

Chicago has had many nicknames: monikers like the Windy City; the hog butcher of the nation; and the city of big shoulders, poet Carl Sandburg's description of the industrial, blue-collar metropolis. But environmental policies being implemented by Chicago's mayor are earning the city a new nickname.

"Mayor Daley really has committed to making Chicago the greenest, most environmentally friendly city in the nation," says Sadhu Johnston. As Chicago's environment commissioner he is responsible for making that happen. But he says the greening of the city began long before he joined the mayor's staff three and a half years ago.

"The mayor has been working on the greening of Chicago since he came into office about 17 years ago. (It started after) he met with his Bureau of Forestry (officials) and asked them how many trees they were planting, and he was told that we are removing more trees than we are planting. And that is when it turned around. He said, 'We have got to plant more trees.'"

True to his word, Mayor Daley has overseen the planting of 400,000 to 500,000 trees over the past decade and a half, not only in parts of the city frequented by tourists but in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. The mayor's new budget calls for an additional 6,000 trees to be planted in 2007.

Sadhu Johnston says the trees have had both an environmental and an economic impact on the city. "The trees filter air and shade the streets and buildings, so they keep them cool, which saves air conditioning costs. But also, people want to be in a neighborhood with mature trees, and they want to buy houses in a neighborhood with mature trees, and they want to shop in a neighborhood with mature trees, so you see people start to fix up storefronts, restaurants open, people start to invest, reinvest in their properties."

Trees were only the beginning of the mayor's greening of the city. Walk or drive down Chicago's multi-lane avenues and you'll see grassy medians planted with beds of flowers. Even the city's grittier streets, where the elevated train rumbles on tracks overhead, have baskets of blossoms and vines hanging from street lamps.

In 2004, Chicago opened a new public park on 10 hectares that Johnston says used to be a polluted eyesore along Michigan Avenue. "Before it was a kind of abandoned rail yards and brownfield site. It was not a great environment. People didn't want to be there."

Now they flock to Millennium Park to walk or jog, listen to concerts in a venue designed by Frank Gehry, attend dance performances in a new theater, dine at the elegant Park Grill, and enjoy the great public art on display.

But Johnston says Millennium Park is more than a playground, it's a green roof covering an underground parking garage. "And that green roof helps to cool the city, and absorbs storm water. It's got solar panels on it so it produces energy, and it's got a bike station so it supports alternative transportation."

Green roofs are usually above street level. When gardens replace black tar on rooftops, Johnston says, the temperature of the roof in summer can drop from 70 to 27 degrees Celsius.

Chicago's first green roof was planted on City Hall in 2000. "It's over 20,000 square feet [2,000 square meters] [with] over 150 different types of plants there," Johnston says. "There are beehives [with] bees that harvest honey from within a five-mile [8 kilometer] radius. Thousands of workers and homeowners, condo-owners, look down on it every day. So it really is changing their psyche to see the changes in seasons, the wind blowing and the grass, that sort of thing."

Johnston says the roof has also served as an example for the city of how green roofs work. "Now every new public building has either a solar or green roof," he notes.

City Hall has helped launch 250 more green roofs in Chicago, covering a total of more that 230,000 square meters.

Johnston says a green roof is required on all buildings that receive some city funding, and there are incentives for other builders to install them. "We provide grants up to $5,000 for homeowners and small business owners to install green roofs. We provide up to $100,000 for large developments to install green roofs in the downtown area here."

In addition, he says, builders who install green roofs are allowed a density bonus, permitting them to put more housing units or offices in their buildings. Green builders can also get their building permit expedited.

Johnston says Mayor Daley's environmental agenda addresses issues beyond construction and landscaping. For example, the city recently got funding from Congress to install the first hydrogen fueling station in the U.S., which will be used for city shuttle buses. And in an experimental project to tap the Windy City's most famous resource, four wind turbines have been installed atop one of the city's many skyscrapers.

The environment commissioner says people come from all over the world to learn from the mayor how to utilize green technology to do the work of the city. He believes the greening of Chicago could be one of Richard M. Daley's most important legacies.

More images of Chicago's Greening