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Chicago, the Green City? Is It St. Patrick's Day Already?

May 27, 2011

Will newly-installed Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's former hatchet man, be the one to clean up the Chicago River? "Chicago environmentalists expect big things from Rahm Emanuel," writes

"Chicago environmentalists" -- wipe coffee from computer screen. Huh? Broad-shouldered Chicago... we are talking about the one in Illinois, right? Environmentalism as a genuine concern in Chicago municipal elections? Forgive me: I did not realize Chicago was a green city showcase. How times change.

I went to college in Chicago's western suburbs, long enough ago where the only thing "green" associated with the Windy City outside of Wrigley Field was the infamous Cabrini Green government housing development and the green dye poured in the Chicago River every St. Patrick's Day. There might have been some actual living trees in Lincoln Park but I can't swear to it.

My Chicago -- which I love, let's be clear -- is the South Halstead blues clubs and Gino's Pizza. It's the Lincoln Park pirates and potholes filled with leftover road salt, Lou Mitchell's for breakfast, hearing Polish, Hungarian and Czech spoken on the street and some of the most wonderful delis known to man. Politically my Chicago is not candidates promising to plant more trees, it's Harold Washington and Ed Vrdolyak dreaming of each other planted toes up. If you wanted trees you could go to Wisconsin. You came to Chicago for environmental consciousness the way you'd come to San Francisco for cheap real estate.

Yet Chicago has decided to go green, starting with the infamous raid on Meigs Field, the shot heard 'round the green world.

Reclaiming Chicago's Green(er) Past -- Richie Daley's Childhood

According to Metropolis, on March 30, 2003, "in the dead of night, a bulldozer lumbered through downtown Chicago. Dispatched by Mayor Richard M. Daley with a police escort, it turned onto a 90-acre peninsula, home to a tiny airport known as Meigs Field, and without warning, plowed giant Xs into the airport's single runway, rendering it useless."

Daley uttered some perfunctory excuse about the war in Iraq and "fears about airport security." But it turned out to be for... a park. That's right: Hizzoner was intent on doing for urban blight in Chicago what Rudy Giuliani did for crime in New York.

"My belief is that environmental initiatives should not just be out on the West Coast, in Alaska, or by the ocean, but in cities," Metropolis Mag quotes him saying. "If we don't do this, the expansion will be overwhelming: more cars, more concrete, more pollution in the air and water. They won't have any environment left out there, and no one will want to live here either."

Astoundingly, it turns out Daley was merely reclaiming Chicago's not-too-distant past. "After taking office Daley asked the Bureau of Forestry what had happened to all the trees he remembered from his childhood," Metropolis Mag says, and was told that "the bureau's entire budget went only to tree removal and not planting."

That got rectified toot sweet. As of 2004, Daley had overseen 400,000 trees being planted (still "half the number from the 1950s"), planted 63 miles of median strips, lured a trophy shelf of green tech firms to Chicago and built world-renowned showcase green buildings. But he was far from done.

Lower Crime, and More Manufacturing Jobs Than Yellowstone.

As crafty as any Chicago pol above dogcatcher has to be, Daley kept the burghers of Chicago, who after all are not living in Portland or L.A. for a reason, plied with sound, sensible reasons for his green crusade. "Greening in people's lives has a direct link to lowering crime rates, improving test scores, boosting real estate values... That's the stuff that people really care about," said Lisa Roberts, Daley's hand-picked director of the Garfield Park Conservatory at the time.

Daley then hired the head of Cleveland's nonprofit Green Building Coalition, Sadhu Johnston, his assistant to the mayor for green initiatives. Sprucing up Cleveland is about as thankless a task as managing the Chicago Cubs to the World Series, and Johnston was "blown away" by Daley's vision of a green Chicago. No word yet on whether Lou Piniella has taken Johnston's old job.

Daley, born on Arbor Day in 1942, kept coming. He reclaimed Lake Calumet wetlands from decades of industrial abuse, and succeeded so well that as Metropolis Mag noted, Henry Henderson of the Chicago Environmental Fund, remarked dryly that "there are 2,000-plus species in the Calumet area, more diversity of species than you have in Yellowstone. And I would also point out that we have more manufacturing jobs here than they have in Yellowstone."

"A Total Public Relations Fraud, Like BP."

Not all have been sold on Daley's sincere commitment to a greener Chicago. The city's 2009 bid for the 2016 summer Olympics threw a spotlight on the city and Daley's promise of a "green Olympics." It also sent reporters in search of skeptics and malcontents, those for whom no amount of progress will ever be satisfactory, who can always be relied upon for a good contrary sound bite.

"On biodiversity, Daley is doing pretty good, but then take something like transportation ... With the air pollution from cars and congestion, I think it's a miserable failure," said Harold Platt, a professor of urban and environmental history at Loyola University Chicago, and author of the book Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago, to the Chi-Town Daily News. "Where has Daley been in terms of promoting public transportation? Even the Olympic committee said that's been one of the city's worst failings, public transit. So it's not just lefty green tree-huggers."

In fact, Platt said, "I think it's like BP. It's total public relations fraud." And bear in mind Platt was speaking a month before BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He then went on to whine about Chicago not being in Copenhagen's league on something or other to do with bicycles.

Millennium Park. Like Central Park in... That Other City

Daley built the Chicago Center for Green Technology (CCGT), as Metropolis Mag says, "the first and only municipal building in the United States to be awarded LEED Platinum status by the U.S. Green Building Council." But of course the crown jewel of Chicago's green efforts is Millennium Park. Planned by Daley in 1997 on land occupied mainly by derelict railroad yards, it opened in 2004, only four years behind schedule and a few hundred million over budget, not bad for a municipal project of such scale -- is the Big Dig in Boston done yet, or do they need another billion dollars?

It's basically Chicago's answer to Central Park, a place for city dwellers to attend concerts, have picnics, stroll amidst greenery, an ice rink, fountains, plazas and ponds. The park features the largest green roof in the world, and has already proven a tempting set for Hollywood movie makers.

Forget Second City, Windy City, How About The Mulchy City?

But the core of the greenifying of Chicago is planting, planting and more planting. In fact, there's been so much planting that a visting New York Times reporter in 2006 noted how everywhere you turned, you seemed to be stepping in yet more mulch -- even on "many of the energy-saving green roofs of 200 buildings."

The Times noted that in addition to planting trees at a rate Johnny Appleseed would be humbled by is all good for business -- tellingly, the article ran on the Times' "Business" page, not "Lifestyles" page. Why? People who can afford to live anywhere like living in nice, green cities: "In 2001, Boeing moved its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago, partly because the company's executives said they wanted to live there. That same year Mr. Daley built a green roof on City Hall."

By 2008 Chicago was named one of the Top 10 Greenest Cities in the U.S. By 2010 they were challenging other cities to walk a magnificently mulched mile in Chicago's Birkenstocks -- according to the industry journal Environmental Leader, The Green Office Challenge, a program created by the city of Chicago and ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA as a way to help reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020, issued an invitation to Charleston, Nashville, San Diego and Arlington County, Virginia to achieve the same goals.

Now About That Chicago River...

Candidate Emanuel, never seriously challenged for the mayoralty, said all the right things during the, uh, campaign. He pledged support for each aspect of a 20-point Green Growth Platform, supporting the goals of the Chicago Climate Action Plan to reduce emissions.

Henry Henderson, who has since moved on to be Midwest director of the National Resources Defense Council, noted accurately that the river "operates as an open sewer. We need to fix that." With presumably more than a load of green dye.

Nobody's betting on Emanuel being the second coming of Richie Daley. "'Green mayor' isn't the mantle he's going to put on himself from the get-go," Henderson told Earth911. "But he's put together some key cabinet officials who understand how environmental integrity and initiatives deliver to the bottom line."

Chicago, the environmentally-conscious poster city of America. What would Al Capone think.