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Scorecards, Standards and Certifications: Rethinking Chicago’s Infrastructure

Posted By Matt Baker On December 16, 2010 @ 3:02 pm | No Comments

By Jon Sedey

Chicago has more than eighty-eight LEED-certified buildings, thirty-two of which are city-owned, making Chicago top in the nation in LEED-certified municipal buildings. In addition to that, Chicago is among the top in the nation in green roofs with 600 planned, under-construction or completed, totaling approximately eight million square feet. By all appearances, city officials seem to understand the benefits of environmentally-sound buildings and will continue to promote green building.

But what about Chicago’s infrastructure system? LEED does not have a rating system for this nor is there any other rating system that will certify the sustainability of infrastructure. Is it possible to rethink the infrastructure to make it green? Can Chicago or the state of Illinois standardize what that even means? According to Doug Knuth, Project Manager at Jacobs Engineering, “It is already being done.”


Photo: Tripp Watson

Illinois-Livable and Sustainable Transportation Rating System and Guide, or I-LAST, is an advisory guide intended to incorporate sustainable practices on state highway projects. I-LAST does not replace current Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) standards, but suggests concepts to improve the current roadway system. “We weren’t out to change policy at the top level of the DOT,” said Knuth. “We wanted to move quicker than that.”

The guide contains a checklist and a description of the goal along with a measurement of efficiency. Similar to the LEED rating system, I-LAST provides categories in which points can be obtained towards a certification level. However, scoring levels have not been set; there is no gold, silver, or bronze level because there have not been enough projects scored. “We really thought it was different from LEED, with different scopes,” said Knuth. “We wanted one version that needed to be low cost, and we needed to score along the way of the process.” I-LAST has been in place for ten months and despite the state’s deep fiscal issues, the program is already seeing positive results.

Chicago has taken it upon itself to improve the conditions of a commonly overlooked infrastructure feature: alleyways. Chicago has over 54,000 miles of streets and roads and possibly the largest network of alleys for a major city in the nation, if not the world. Chicago’s alleys represent a land area equivalent to five Midway Airports, so greening them isn’t as insignificant as it would seem. Instead of repairing them using traditional methods, the city rebuilds the alleys with sustainable solutions.

“Green alleys” provide the chance to better manage resources and enhance the environment through stormwater management, heat reduction, recycling and energy conservation. The green alleys are composed of permeable pavers, high albedo surfacing, energy efficient lighting and the use of recycled materials. As a result, water filtrates through the pavement, which decreases flooding of adjacent properties as well as reducing run-off to the city’s overtaxed stormwater system.

Lake Shore Drive was forced to close twice this past summer when the road expanded so much due to heat that it buckled. Recognizing that an altered climate will have incredible, unexpected consequences down the line, the city expanded its efforts, including the sustainable streets program that grew from the green alleys project. Through this program, the city aims to address standing water, provide alternative transit options and increase energy efficiency.

“There is no LEED rating system for this and we don’t have a rating system,” said Janet Attarian, Project Director for Chicago’s Streetscape and Sustainable Design program. “We’ve been tracking the whole design process, the decisions we made and why we made them.” But just because there are no standards for roads does not mean that they were not designed with the environment in mind. If the city uses the resources available and incorporates best management practices, there does not need to be a LEED or similar standard for these programs.

On several of these projects, the city has installed placards describing the extra effort that went into the streets and the benefits they provide, as well as other outreach actions. Community education is important because it is the city’s residents who not only benefit, but will be expected to be stewards for the land. “We might have all these goals,” said Attarian, “but the community has to buy into that, because they have to take care of it.”

But roads are only part of the picture. The greater metropolitan region has roughly nine billion people and the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) provides those residents with over 600 million rides annually. Just how sustainable is the Chicagoland transit system? Senior Deputy Executive Director for Planning and Regional Programs of the RTA, Leanne Redden thinks it is very green.

Mass transit reduces green house gases, congestion and promotes higher density development which leads to walking and the use of alternative forms of transportation like bicycles and buses. In addition to that, bus and train occupancy is higher than the average automobile occupancy, thus making it greener than using a single automobile.

Currently, the RTA does not have standards or a rating system for their infrastructure to certify it as green. However, they developed a sustainable and climate action plan for their transit system. The purpose of this plan is to demonstrate the benefits of transit as an emissions reduction strategy for their transit fleets and buildings.

As a result of the plan, the RTA hopes to see an increase in ridership, a boost in multi-modal transportation, reduced carbon emissions and an elimination of wasted energy on their vehicles and in facilities. The challenge of the plan is to think holistically, incorporating sustainable land use practices with sustainable transportation systems. “You can have a LEED platinum certified building in a green field out in the hinterland of this area, and that in itself is a great accomplishment,” said Redden. “But if you look at the use of that building and all the employees have to drive there, how sustainable or green is that?” As of now, the action plan is already a success. Ridership has increased since 2007, harmful pollutants have decreased, fleets have been equipped with hybrid vehicles and facilities are being retrofitted with green roof structures and other energy saving technologies.

Can Chicago rethink its infrastructure to make it more sustainable? Yes, and it can be done without a rating system or a LEED certification. Scorecards, standards and certifications are an important part of the picture, but they are only a small fragment of the overall image. Instead of relying on a rating system or a certification level, some of the most sustainable solutions or best management practices rely on what already exists. Several ideas for the future of Chicago’s infrastructure include bringing the systems up to a state of good repair, maximizing the capacity of the existing infrastructure and enhancing the systems with the use of technology. By doing so, Chicago will be able to expand the current systems in a more creative and sustainable way leading toward a greener area.

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