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Mayor Daley’s leadership puts Chicago on the map for urban greening initiatives

Chicago has become nationally known for its leadership in the environment…. It improves public health; it beautifies the city; it enhances the quality of life; it saves money; and it leaves a legacy for future generations.
Mayor Daley, (City of Chicago: Department of the Environment 2006)

Chicago has been getting greener thanks in large part to the leadership from Mayor Richard M. Daley. Traditionally known more for its architecture, gritty industrial roots and gangster history, Chicago has been showing a greener side to both visitors and locals alike. In addition to having one of the largest public-access waterfronts in North America, Chicago has recently been adding seasonal planters to main boulevards, planting millions of trees, greening schoolyards, increasing parkspace, and greening rooftops.

Chicago Cultural Centre green roof overlooking Millennium Park
Chicago Cultural Centre green roof overlooking Millennium Park

Originally intended to beautify the city, the City is realizing that greening the city provides multiple benefits that go beyond aesthetics. Green initiatives are now a cornerstone of Daley’s administration, and have won him both international leadership awards and recognition. Daley was initially criticized for spending money on planting trees when some of Chicago’s poorest and most segregated neighbourhoods face significant challenges in violence and unemployment. In light of both the multiple benefits these urban greening projects provide and the international recognition they garner, however, even some of Daley’s critics admit that these greening initiatives have proven to be a powerful symbol of change and revitalization.

Green = Investment and Revitalization

Adding greenspace to the city has proven to be a smart approach to signify investment and pride in neighbourhoods in Chicago. Developers hunting for the next up-and-coming neighbourhood keep a close eye on investment by the City in the form of planters along boulevards, upgraded parks, and street beautification. With the largest number of TIF (Tax Incremental Financing) districts in the U.S., City Hall has also been able to mandate green roofs, increased greenspace and green building features on schools and new developments that receive money from the city. Landscape ordinances mandate that parking garages be covered with vines or vegetation, while laneways are being greened through the City’s Green Alley Program. Bringing this all together is the City’s new Green Urban Design Guidelines (GUD) (2007) that form the first comprehensive, interdepartmental greening plan. The GUD lays out urban greening criteria based on hydrology, neighbourhood, air quality and other factors that influence the required level of greening for a particular devleopment. Chicago has also been selected to pilot one of a handful of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Neighbourhood Design (LEED ND) projects in the U.S. which aims to blend green building and smart growth objectives. With these initiatives urban nature is beginning to be equated with revitalization, care, and investment, turning a midwest city into a symbol of progress, innovation, and health.

Along Michigan Avenue
Along Michigan Avenue

Green Roofs

“We do this not because it’s fashionable, but because it makes sense. It improves public health; it beautifies the city; it enhances the quality of life; it saves money; and it leaves a legacy for future generations.”

Mayor Richard Daley

Perhaps the most famous of Daley’s greening initiatives are Chicago’s green roofs. Leading the way with an award-winning green roof on their City Hall, Daley’s tough green roof incentives and requirements have made Chicago the North American leader for green roof implementation for four years running (Green Roofs for Healthy Cities). Known for their ability to reduce stormwater runoff and reduce the urban heat island effect, green roofs have also proven to be perhaps the most symbolic of all Daley’s initiatives. Other cities wishing to implement green initiatives have admired Daley’s use of green roofs as a symbolic figurehead for his other greening initiatives, and is perhaps a good lesson in public perception. Green roofs are sexy and innovative, and easily capture the public imagination. The most famous green roof in Chicago may not even be recognized as one- Millennium Park.

The multi-million dollar green roof/park that covers sections of the railway that had previously cut off part of the lakefront from downtown has boosted tourism and become a centerpiece of the Loop. Combined with favourable incentives to bring housing downtown, the loop has for the first time been seen as a popular place to live and the residents are moving in. Though green roofs have also been criticized as merely symbolic, they are but one of a number of features that can make a building green* and have paved the way for further greening initiatives such as the current LEED-Gold standard for all new City buildings and LEED certified for all renovations for City buildings.

View from green roof of the Chicago Center for Green Technology, first LEED Platinum building
View from green roof of the Chicago Center for Green Technology, achieved LEED Platinum

Still dependent on coal and suffering from raging sprawl outside the city like many other North American cities, along with a still-lagging recycling program, Chicago still has a long way to go before being considered truly “green.” With the increasing awareness and acceptance of Daley’s green agenda by Chicagoans and the international community alike, however, Chicago may be a good lesson for other cities wishing to move green initiatives forward- don’t forget the vegetation in green.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON CHICAGO’S GREENING POLICIES:

Chicago’s Green Roof and Green Building Policies

Chicago’s Green Roof Policies

Chicago’s Environmental Initiatives

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