The Trickle-Down Effect
Richard M. Daley knows that greening Chicago requires serious incentives, starting at the top
Cassie Walker -- Interior Design, 6/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley loves trees. So much so that Hizzoner has kept track of the number planted during his 19 years in office. The tally: 500,000—and counting. "Growing up, I always heard people say that, to enjoy nature, you had to leave the city," he recalls. "But I believe you can stay in the city and enjoy nature, even though you have high-rises and skyscrapers." In Chicago, you definitely have both. For every few paces of concrete, however, there's a tree or a plant. Even the busiest thoroughfares accommodate flower-filled medians—a signature of a mayor who, late in life, has discovered a passion for environmental landscaping and green design.
Scratch the surface, and you'll also see that Daley's desire to make Chicago the greenest city in the U.S. goes deeper than horticulture. His motto, Lead by Example, starts with 97-year-old City Hall. On a trip to Germany in 2000, Daley saw a green roof and immediately seized upon its benefits. First, the roofs absorb rainwater, cutting down on flow into an overburdened sewer system. Second, they lower the temperature of the air around them and reduce energy costs. Here were two major municipal problems, solved. Soon, City Hall was getting outfitted with its own roof of native plants and grasses. Word got out that developers of downtown projects would receive density bonuses for doing the same. Now there are more than 4 million square feet of planted and planned roofs within the city limits.
Daley didn't accomplish all this simply by issuing sweeping mandates. "Most politicians in government tell you what to do, and then they don't do it themselves," he says. Rather, the city had to dive into green building first. After Farr Associates's Center for Green Technology on the West Side became the first municipal structure in the world to earn a LEED Platinum rating, he mandated that every new school, police station, and library meet LEED standards. And that's just a start. Currently, the city is experimenting with an array of eco-friendly technology. A ground-up recycling center—a joint project by Green Works Studio and Harley Ellis Devereaux—features Chicago's first solar wall, which helps heat and cool the building. Photo-catalytic concrete, a smog-reducing material, is being tested on a South Side industrial corridor. Incorporating wetland reconstruction, a modernization project at O'Hare International Airport is considered a national benchmark for environmental design in civil construction.
As a keen guardian of Chicago's architectural legacy, Daley has spent a considerable amount of time coming up with ways to spur developers and designers to follow the government's lead. In the big-city bureaucratic maze, expedited permitting has become a magic bullet. Green projects typically get the city's stamp of approval in half the time, and the permit is half the price or, in some cases, even free. "The consumer is getting more educated, too," Daley states. "A building can't just be painted green. The buyer wants to know: Is it safe for me to live here? Is it safe for me to breathe the air?"
For inspiration, Daley travels. Last summer, the mayor flew to Paris to study Velib, a service that allows commuters to pick up and drop off bicycles at automated kiosks all over the city. "I enjoy finding out what works and what doesn't," he says, "then coming back and figuring out what we can do." He's now weighing the benefits of a similar program for Chicago.
He surrounds himself with bright minds as well: Environmental policy is the sole responsibility of one of his deputy chiefs of staff, Sadhu Johnston. Recently, members of his environmental team flew over Chicago in a helicopter equipped with software that mapped out the city's "heat islands," which contribute most to global warming. One of the egregious zones was around the United Center, the massive stadium where the Bulls play basketball. What to do? As usual, Mayor Daley ordered up more trees—linden and London plane. Slam dunk.