Green Games: Inside Chicago’s Olympic Bid

By Matt Baker

Over a hundred years ago, Chicago was awarded the Olympic Games.
But it wasn’t meant to be. The 1904 Games were instead moved to St. Louis, to be held in conjunction with their World’s Fair planned for the same year. This proved a disaster for the Olympics, which spread out over four months and were lost in the chaos of the Fair, amounting to little more than a sideshow. Hoping to right this wrong, and to secure Chicago world-class status on the international stage, the city hopes to win the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. And actually host them this time, a century delayed.
Chicago has recently tried to position itself as a world leader in environmental responsibility. As the Chicago 2016 Bid Committee (Chicago 2016) crafted the city’s proposal, they felt that this strong emphasis on sustainability could become a winning part of the plan. The environmental considerations in the Chicago 2016 bid are comprised of three components: efficient venues, renewable energy technologies and carbon-reducing strategies and offsets.
For venues, the greenest are those that already exist. Given the Games, Chicago would make use of its existing stadiums and public facilities, such as the United Center, Soldier Field, McCormick Place, Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Chicago and several others. For most of these sites, hosting sporting events are the prime function and very little retrofitting would be necessary.
Of the proposed new venues, the two largest have received the most attention. To house the 15,000 athletes, trainers and staff, Chicago 2016 has proposed an Olympic Village on the site of the moribund Michael Reese Medical Center. The 37-acre site, located in the city’s southside Douglas neighborhood, currently features over a million square feet of built space.
These existing buildings range from pre-industrial to Prairie Style to Bauhaus. Demolishing them, no matter how green their replacement, would take a cultural toll, not to mention the environmental cost. The city plans to develop the site whether they win the Games or not, so it is hoped that the buildings be saved where possible and deconstructed (as opposed to demolished; see “The End of Demolition,” SC Spring ’09) where not. “We’re looking at the application of deconstruction techniques for some of those buildings,” said Bob Accarino, Director of Environment for Chicago 2016. But he emphasizes that no plans have been finalized.
Every Summer Olympic Games features as its centerpiece an Olympic Stadium. Soldier Field would seem an obvious choice for this role, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) prefers larger capacities than its 61,000, so Chicago 2016 proposes building a temporary stadium in Washington Park.
This idea has proved controversial for several reasons, not least for its legacy. The 80,000 seat stadium would be ideal for the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as track and field and other events. Recognizing that the neighborhood has little need for such a large arena post-Games, the Chicago bid calls for the stadium to be pared down to a 5,000 seat facility for the community’s use.
What’s to be done with the extra 75,000 seats and the infrastructure supporting them? Chicago 2016 came up with a prototype wheelchair, using seats extracted from the proposed stadium. In theory, each of the extracted stadium seats could find new life as a wheelchair in a developing country. “When the IOC evaluation commission was here in the beginning of April, we shared that idea with them,” said Accarino. “I think that was a very attractive idea to them.” Chicago 2016 hopes that this repurposing of some of the stadium materials offsets any environmental impacts.
Many of the sustainable elements in Chicago 2016’s Olympic bid come in the form of curbing the use of carbon fuel. Most of the venues would be in a rather compact area. This is a refreshingly novel idea for the Games, given that, for example, portions of the Sydney and Beijing Olympics were held in Melbourne and Shanghai, respectively.
Keeping the venues close allows the Chicago plan to heavily use the established public transportation system. The Olympic Village would put athletes within fifteen minutes of most venues, many of those in walking distance. For those events held outside a walkable distance, Chicago 2016 envisions a “green fleet” of buses and shuttles that run on biofuels or battery. The committee has acknowledged that the current CTA and Metra systems would be inadequate to support Olympic personnel, spectators and daily commuters, but feel it is premature to make explicit any plans for expanding service.
While the IOC dictates that any host city provide transportation for athletes, “[t]here is no parking for the public at any of the venues,” said Accarino. Spectators will be encouraged to walk, bike or take public transit to the Games, reducing carbon emissions. “Park and ride” facilities will further offset emissions for those relatively distant venues, such as the proposed equestrian facility in Lake County.
Where the 2016 Games can’t physically eliminate or reduce carbon output, Chicago is pledging to purchase offsets in partnership with the Chicago Climate Exchange. Surprisingly, calculating the travel-related carbon output of athletes and spectators wouldn’t start when they arrived here. The Chicago bid is the first to incorporate air travel to and from the Games in its carbon offset model.
These offsets play a big role in another surprising pledge: a 100% renewably-powered Games. One can only guess what the energy market will look like in seven years, but the Chicago Olympics would purchase from those renewable energy providers that there are. Energy might also be generated at the point of use with portable or installed solar panels, biofuel-powered generators and/or wind turbines.
But even Accarino concedes that because of storage constraints and the nature of the energy market, exclusively buying or generating renewable energy won’t be possible. “You can’t provide that instantaneous power need from renewable sources.” Only through carbon offsets would the goal of 100% renewable energy usage be possible. “[O]ur plan calls for the estimation of the energy that will be required to operate the Games,” he explains, “…and then essentially the allocation of renewable energy that’s equivalent to the Games-time electric energy needs.” This in-kind renewable energy purchasing would probably take place over a period of time after Olympics are over.
Procurement can be a nightmare when carbon output is to be considered. 15,000 athletes need a lot of food, as well as silverware, napkins, plates and glasses to consume it with. And that’s just breakfast. Transporting athletes in biofueled buses only goes so far if you’re feeding them apples shipped in from Chile. To counter this, suppliers would be encouraged to manage carbon output along their supply chain. “If you can reduce the amount of potentially wasteful materials on the front end, then it makes your job easier on the back end when you have to get rid of waste materials,” said Accarino. Where possible, Chicago 2016 hopes to source materials locally.
Chicago 2016’s plan calls for some relatively standard green considerations. Construction and procured materials will skew to the recycled and recyclable, as well as those that are low-VOC. New and temporary venues will be constructed with as little wildlife impact as possible. Green roofs may be installed on venues or on buildings left after the Olympics are over.
But the Chicago bid also proposes some out-of-the-box ideas too. One proposal envisions an ultraviolet-, water- and wind-resistant fabric derived from corn for some facility facades. Another idea is a fiber-reinforced cement made from up to 50% recycled content that promises a long life with low maintenance.
Perhaps the most bizarre technology conceived is an electricity-generating floor system. The “crowd farm,” first developed in 2007 by two MIT grad students, would employ modular floor tiles that, once installed in high-traffic areas, convert the kinetic energy of pedestrians into supplemental electricity.
Energy and carbon are only part of the problem, however. Recognizing this, the bid committee is billing a possible Chicago Olympics as a “Blue Green Games,” indicating an awareness of water use and conservation. The committee proposes stormwater collection and reuse, sustainable landscaping to cut down on irrigation and a twenty percent reduction in water use from baseline levels through the use of low-flow fixtures and other smart technologies.
Once the Games are over, their legacy must be considered. The Washington Park Olympic Stadium would be only the largest temporary venue; the plan calls for several more across five historic Chicago parks. Chicago 2016 has vowed that, given the Games, they would plan the structures with deconstruction and material reuse in mind. They also pledge to return the parks to their pre-Games conditions or better with scaled down sport venues and community gardens.
In October, Chicago will learn whether or not it is to host the Summer Olympics in 2016. If it is awarded the Games, there is little doubt that the sustainability built into the plan will have contributed greatly to the IOC’s bringing them back here a century late. If Chicago does not win the bid, one hopes the city can stay a century ahead as it builds into a greener future.


Chicago 2016 has estimated the carbon footprint of a Chicago Games at 804,000 metric tons, and they hope the IOC will adopt their carbon documentation process for future Games.


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