Q&A: Chief Sustainability Officer Chris Wheat

By Matt Baker

For Chris Wheat, numbers don’t lie. “In God we trust,” reads a sign in his City Hall office. “All others must bring data.” Wheat, 35, was recently announced as Chicago’s new Chief Sustainability Officer and Senior Policy Advisor after the departure of Karen Weigert.

WheatPreviously an investment bank analyst and financial consultant, he knows that there’s no hiding behind numbers. He brought that same reliance on data into the public sector when he joined Rahm Emanuel’s Innovation Delivery Team in 2011, an internal consulting group that he would later head up as Director. There, he led the work to make Chicago the first city in the nation to include energy use data on home listings and helped launch the Retrofit Chicago Residential Partnership.

A self-described “quant geek,” Wheat says that he will take a quantitative-driven approach to addressing the city’s sustainability challenges, using hard data to back up assumptions and policy work. “However, we also have to recognize that behind those numbers are real people that are seeing the impacts of a rapidly changing climate day in and day out,” he adds. “It’s important for myself and for the city to keep our ear to the ground and continue to engage everyday residents and everyday communities about what’s important to them.”

We had a chance to sit down with Wheat and discuss the state of sustainability in Chicago and his objectives going forward.

Where did you grow up?

Little Rock, Arkansas. Early in my life I was a political geek. There’s a picture somewhere of me as a ten-year-old interviewing then-Governor Bill Clinton for a fourth grade project. When I was 11, I actually volunteered on the Clinton campaign, making copies in the war room. I was fairly involved as a volunteer, doing stuff as a teenager, but fell away from politics as I got older in my adult years. And then I was given an opportunity to join this administration in mid-2011.

And that was with the Innovation Team. What role do you think innovation will play in your new position?

There are two types of innovation. Chicago has become a global leader, particularly in the scope of clean energy and clean tech. Companies are coming here quickly. I think that the directive I have from the mayor and my charge is to see where the city and its departments can work with these companies not only in terms of bringing them here, but making sure that city assets and city projects are really on the leading edge of technology. A lot of that work is being led by Brenna Berman, the Chief Information Officer and the Commissioner at the Department of Innovation and Technology.

The second piece is really associated with the Innovation Team that I led, which came out of Bloomberg Philanthropies. Their version of innovation is very structured. Its really about how do we take a structured, problem-solving approach to city challenges? How can we use data, use brainstorming in a structured way to make sure that we’re developing good solutions on the front end to the city’s problems? And then, how are we using performance management to make sure that we’re course correcting over time?

The Energy Benchmarking ordinance is a great example of just that; structure, policy, data. There was a little bit of pushback from some organizations when it was first proposed, but now that it’s up and running and we’re getting results in, do you think that program has been a success?

Absolutely. And even some of the organizations that pushed back on the initial ordinance have actually become partners in regards to outreach. Folks like BOMA/Chicago and Chicagoland Apartment Association have been really good partners and make sure that their members are well aware of the ordinance and encouraging them to comply. So we’ve had 1,800 buildings comply in the first couple years. We’ve released the data associated with those buildings. I think we are already starting to see work from those buildings, analyzing what they can do with this data to actually drive reductions in energy use, creating cost savings and reduce emissions on their part. We have another challenge this year, with several hundred multifamily buildings who will be complying. Those are buildings between 50,000 and 250,000 square feet. A lot of my initial work around energy here in the mayor’s office was just spending time with those landlords and hearing about their concerns. We know that a lot of these are entrepreneurs, they’re mom-and-pops who are really just trying to make a dime and they’re not energy experts. So what are we doing to make sure that we make this simple and plain to them, making sure they understand what they can do with this information?

Once that last tier has reported, do you foresee that program expanding or evolving in any way?

We’ll see. I think that we have to look at the data associated with it. We’ll go into the third wave of compliance this year, however the information that’s public is always one year behind and then there’s additional verification that has to happen for wave one buildings, so it’s basically a three- or four-year cycle. So I think we’re still a little early in regards to seeing whether or not we want to make modifications to the legislation, particularly as Chicago has been a leader around this and we’re seeing lots of other cities working to catch up right now and develop their own benchmark ordinances.

We have to recognize that behind those numbers are real people that are seeing the impacts of a rapidly changing climate day in and day out.

As the mayor’s liaison on environmental issues, what are his and your goals for the next year?

I would put it in three or four different camps. First, pertaining to energy, the mayor has highlighted a unique opportunity that the Clean Power Plan creates—and the Clean Energy Incentive Program, which is a subset of that—not only for Chicago businesses but for Chicago residents and small businesses to give them the power to control their own energy usage and reduce certain costs, invest their money back into their families and back into their businesses. So we’ll be working with our partners at both the federal and state level to make sure that program is implemented effectively and that some of the benefits of those programs go to Chicago companies, Chicago businesses and Chicago residents.

The second aspect is working with different city departments and agencies on the great work they’re doing to make sustainability very real in the lives of Chicagoans. That includes the expansion of the Divvy program, which we’re past 5,000 bikes now with the new expansion that was passed by the City Council. We’re bringing it to places like Oak Park and Evanston. The next year of the Greencorps summer jobs program, which is part of One Summer Chicago that has 600 residents as a part of it.

Third is a focus around resilience. The city will be announcing a Chief Resiliency Officer in the next couple of weeks. And we’ll begin our planning around our resilience plan in cooperation with the Rockefeller Foundation.

The fourth piece is the sustainability plan and we’ll start that work in earnest over the next couple months. My directive from the mayor is to make sure that sustainability touches every Chicagoan’s life. And it touches Chicagoans lives in very different ways, from walking on The 606, to taking a Divvy, to having a modern and safe space for children to play, to protecting residents from the impact of flooding. And so, I’ll be working with an internal work group of commissioners and other senior officials around the city, with our friends and partners in the environmental community and with everyday Chicagoans. What does sustainability mean to them? What are the goals and objectives that the mayor and the city should be taking over the next couple years?

You mentioned the Chief Resiliency Officer. How is that search going?

The interviewing has been happening for the last several months. I believe that we’re close to the end of the selection process and we are close to having a recommendation being made to the mayor and then we’ll be in a position to announce in the next few weeks.

What role will that position fill that you don’t?

The role of the Chief Resiliency Officer, and I don’t want to speak too much for him or her, is a function of not only coordinating departments in regards to issues of resilience, but also working with both internal and external partners in regards to what does resilience look like, what should resilience look like in Chicago. One thing that we’ve seen through our research is that resilience means very different things in different parts of the world. Resilience in New Orleans means something different than resilience in New York and it means something different in Chicago. So resilience is not only about the environmental impact, but what are we doing to make sure that we’re making the proper investments in communities that maybe have not been invested in as much as they should have in the past. So that’s why the public engagement aspect of the resilience plan is going to be so critical. One of the things I’ll be working on with the Chief Resiliency Officer is how we can piggy back in regards to public engagement, because those issues of resilience also play very much into those issues of sustainability.

I think the 100 Resilient Cities Initiative identified Chicago’s resilience issues as crime…

Water, extreme heat—thinking back to 1995—and it also looked at crime and economic development.

Aging infrastructure I think was one as well.

Correct. And all of those come together in many different ways. So that’s a lot for the Chief Resiliency Officer to take on. But that also has overlaps with things I think about on a daily basis. I think that part of the role of the Chief Resiliency Officer is to work with communities and work with internal parties about what does resilience mean in Chicago. I was talking with a director of sustainability for a real estate company and he’s been put in charge of resilience and he said, “I don’t know what this is.” And I told him that even in Chicago, resilience in the central business district means something very different from resilience in the neighborhoods, just as sustainability means something very different in the central business district than it does in the neighborhoods. So that’s part of what we have to do, to help translate that for the communities and other interests.

Part of that might be tied in the mayor’s recent proposal to raise development taxes in the CBD and put that money into the neighborhoods?

Right. The mayor will be proposing to the City Council expansion of the density bonus, if you will, to other parts of the city and we’re working with Planning and Development to reinvest those dollars back into the communities. I’m in constant conversations with Planning and Development to make sure that we’re thinking about those things that we can do that not only provide economic development to those communities but also improve the overall sustainability of these communities at the same time.

What gaps do you think that Chicago needs to address when it comes to sustainability?

I think that we have a chronic issue, and the mayor’s talked about this often, around infrastructure and ability for us to invest in infrastructure. As the mayor often says, we’re building a 21st Century economy on a 20th Century infrastructure. That plays out in many different ways and we’re beginning to make improvements in regards to that, such as the significant investments that have been made by the Water Department in modernizing our water mains and pipelines. Which, as someone whose water was actually cut off for about 12 hours last night due to a main replacement, I’m greatly appreciative of those investments. But that also means investments we’re making in individual communities, whether those investments we’re making are in our parks, whether those investments we’re making are in our roads, whether those investments we’re making are in public transit. So we made considerable progress in the first term and we’ve already started making announcements on new investments into O’Hare—expansions there and new gates—to things that touch communities. For example we’re expanding the Space to Grow program, so the Water Department is putting in $14 million to green CPS playgrounds around the city. So, at a time of austerity, the ability to make significant investments in our infrastructure are going to be critically important. That’s why a position like the Chief Sustainability Officer is so important to the city to make sure that that work is being coordinated across our departments, our sister agencies and our external partners.

I think it is the duty of our office that we can no longer talk about sustainability for sustainability’s sake. Sustainability is a critical element of how every Chicagoan livers their day.

Could you expand on the Space to Grow program a bit?

The Space to Grow program is a unique partnership between the water department, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and Chicago Public Schools. What they’re doing is not only putting in new playground equipment but they’re also putting in pervious surfaces. Openlands has some great shots of before and after where you see modern playground equipment but now the track and pavement are able to take in water. It basically serves as a retention pool for that area as well. The Department of Water and the reclamation district see benefits because it reduces the impact on our sewer systems by reducing the impact of basement flooding and it also modernizes our playgrounds.

Do you think we’re approaching a point where sustainability is entrenched in the way we do things with our infrastructure and our built environment?

I think we’re getting there. The economics of sustainability have changed substantially. The way that departments and corporations think about sustainability has changed significantly. I think it is the duty of our office, and what I hear from the mayor, that we can no longer talk about sustainability for sustainability’s sake. Sustainability is a critical element of how every Chicagoan lives their day, from having high quality roads that reduce the impact of stormwater, to having curbside recycling for every citizen, to reducing the impacts of the ten-year flood that now happens every two years. The language and vernacular around sustainability has been changing rapidly, and that’s more for the good and I think that the approach that the city is taking around these issues is more ingrained as well.

We’ve talked a lot about what’s happening in the future, but the city already has a number of sustainability programs in place. What programs do you think are underutilized by the public?

I have a soft spot for the Retrofit Chicago Residential Partnership, since I was involved in some of the development of that. There’s free equipment that comes along with that program, free light bulbs, shower heads and programmable thermostats. I think those programs can be utilized more not only by single-family homeowners but landlords as well. If you look at the rental stock in Chicago, about two-thirds of Chicago buildings are master-metered, meaning the landlord is ultimately taking the hit when it comes to the natural gas cost, the heating cost of a building. So that can weigh pretty significantly on their wallet and because we have partners like ComEd, Peoples’ Gas, Elevate Energy and others, we think that more landlords and homeowners can take advantage of a lot of those programs. There’s also a desire to do more with recycling. Commissioner [Charles] Williams and the Department of Streets and Sanitation has made an educational effort to make sure that families and homeowners are well-informed about what they should recycle or shouldn’t recycle. That will continue to be an imperative effort, to make sure we’re educating the public about the right way to recycle.

I’m guessing that when you worked on that and other programs with the Innovation Team you worked closely with Karen Weigert, your predecessor.

Karen and I have known each other since I started at the city. Our first meeting was right down the hallway here and she came with a series of PowerPoint presentations and charts about the city’s energy usage. As someone who comes from the world of finance consulting, we hit it off from the start. I feel very comfortable in this world. Karen amassed a great track record while she was here and developed a lot of programs and initiatives that the city should be very proud of. So Karen has left very big shoes to fill and the mayor has very high expectations in regards to what the city should be doing around sustainability. My hope is to try to fill those shoes adequately in some way.

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