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A More Sustainable Chicago

December 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Jo McKee

If there were any lingering doubts about the Emanuel administration’s commitment to sustainability, the 2015 Sustainable Chicago Action Agenda will hopefully lay them to rest. The green itinerary calls for aggressive actions on the part of the Chicago government and its citizens to reduce our impact on the environment over the

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next two to three years.

“A sustainable Chicago,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in his opening remarks to the action plan, “is a city that spends less on energy use with each passing year, creates good-paying jobs in up-and-coming industries, responsibly maintains and upgrades its infrastructure, and ensures every Chicagoan has the opportunity to live a healthy and active lifestyle.”

The goal of the Sustainable Chicago action plan is to provide practical tactics to keep Chicago among the country’s most sustainable cities. These are just some of the goals and strategies that the mayor and his Sustainability Council put forward.


The first avenue of sustainability is job creation and economic development. The action plan points out several projects currently underway that do or will provide green jobs, such as a $1.1 billion investment in smart grid technology and sewer, CTA and airport infrastructure projects. Between 2007 and 2010, renewable energy jobs increased in Chicago by more than 12% and pollution reduction jobs increased by nearly 14%, more than double the national average.

In that same time, wind technology grew in the region by over 23%. Through efforts like last year’s green manufacturing plan, Chicago Sustainable Industries, the city aims to leverage public-private partnerships to ensure that green jobs continue to grow here.

“This roadmap not only sets the goals that will shape our priorities for years to come,” Emanuel said, “but establishes a swift course of action that will challenge us to create jobs, foster new industries, and reduce costs for residents and businesses.”

The action plan stresses making Chicago a hub for the sustainable economy by recruiting sustainability companies to locate here and increasing demand for green products through municipal procurement. The plan also claims that the city will “identify, prioritize and eliminate code barriers to sustainable practices.”


There are over 600,000 buildings in Chicago, which combine to create over 70% of the city’s carbon emissions. Keeping in mind that this plan has a 2015 deadline, one major goal is to improve citywide energy efficiency in those buildings by 5% and by 10% in municipal buildings.

The plan stresses the creation of 20 MW of new renewable energy—at least half of that on city-owned property. Given that the Fisk and Crawford coal plants were shuttered earlier this year, this may be motivated as much by necessity as idealism. Currently, renewables account for roughly 2% of the city’s energy demand.

Strategies the city hopes to have in place toward these goals include cutting the solar permit approval time in half, replacing street lights with energy-efficient bulbs and installing smart meters in homes and businesses.


Vehicle emissions are of course an enormous source of greenhouse gases. One solution to reduce these is to increase the amount of pedestrian and bike traffic in the city. For commuters, the only real way to reduce carbon emissions is to encourage the use of public transportation, which has plummeted since the 1940’s.

The city has already installed a number of dedicated and/or protected bike lanes across the city this year. The action plan calls for an additional 100 miles to be created by 2015. A bike sharing system with an inventory of 4,000 bikes should also reduce the number of car trips that Chicago residents and visitors make. For pedestrians, a new Navy Pier “flyover” will enhance foot and bike traffic to the city’s most popular tourist destination.

The CTA had over half a billion riders last year. But that’s still not enough. To increase ridership, the transit agency will be adding bus rapid transit next year and continue improvements to rail infrastructure. The CTA will also replace or rehab 1,500 buses with low-emission models. The Red Line is currently undergoing a large modernization project, with seven stations getting facelifts and the entirety of the Dan Ryan route under reconstruction at some level. It is hoped that these improvements will cut up to 20 minutes off of a daily commute.


Chicago is shaped by waterways; Lake Michigan forms one border and the Chicago River defines the city’s neighborhoods. The lake is our playground, but also our source of drinking water. The twice-reversed river, on the other hand, is our stormwater reservoir and wastewater catchment. It is imperative that we protect both, for the flora and fauna that call them home and for the future of our economy and well-being.

The 2015 Sustainable Chicago Action Plan calls for a reduction in water use by 14 million gallons per day. Keys to this include replacing aging water mains, an expansion of gray water use (including possible changes to the municipal code) and more aggressive water metering.

Better stormwater management will go a long way to not only keeping Chicago basements dry, but the Chicago River clean. Portions of Deep Tunnel, the decades-long underground reservoir project, are already online, but plans are in place for the Thornton Reservoir to open by 2014.

The city also hopes to enhance access to the lake and to make the Chicago River the area’s second waterfront. Crucial to the this last goal are filling in the gaps along the riverfront trail and constructing boat houses and other recreational opportunities. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District also voted this year to finally begin disinfecting sewage discharge into the river, making recreation on the river an attractive and viable goal.


Compared to other major US cities, Chicago is dismal at household recycling. The action agenda pushes for the blue cart program to be available to every household within the next three years. Combined with the change to a grid-based waste pickup strategy, rather than the inefficient ward-based scheme in place now, these efforts will help save on fuel and reduce the amount of household waste going to landfills.

Making up more than 60% of Chicago’s waste stream, however, is construction and demolition (C&D) debris. Chicago ordinances mandate that half of all C&D waste be diverted from landfills. Here the city is leading by example; new projects being implemented by the Public Building Commission are on schedule for a 90% C&D diversion rate.

“From improving citywide energy efficiency and promoting diversified transit options, to launching citywide recycling,” Emanuel said, “the roadmap is robust and comprehensive, touching upon the full spectrum of life for Chicagoans.” The action agenda addresses many more areas of sustainability, including parks and open spaces, efforts to curb climate change, access to healthy food and much more. You can read the full report at the city’s website: www.chicagosustainability.org.

Hedge Fund: Rebates for Your Sustainable Back Yard

December 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Linda Seggelke

In 2010 the City of Chicago established an educational and incentive program that highlights the many ways that Chicagoans can create more environmentally friendly landscapes. The program, titled Chicago’s Sustainable Backyards Program, is now being managed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT). As more and more individuals become concerned about the negative impact we have on the city, the country and even the planet, the sustainable backyards program allows property owners to garner rebates while improving the look and efficiency of their yard.
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Building in Harmony

September 17, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Baker

Image courtesy of Harmony House.

It’s the greenest animal shelter in Chicago and possibly the nation. Harmony House for Cats, which officially opened its new location this past July, was designed to be a net-zero energy facility with sights set on LEED-NC Platinum. Attaining Platinum appears to be manifest at this point. “It’s only a question of how high our score is going to be,” said Ann Dieter, the Board President of Harmony House.
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Sewerthermal Activity

September 17, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Baker

The James C. Kirie water reclamation plant in Des Plaines.

Sohail Murad, who heads the Chemical Engineering Department for the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), was touring a water reclamation plant in suburban Des Plaines when he took note of the relatively warm water being expelled into Higgins Creek. “I suggested to them, this has a lot of energy in it and it should be easy to harvest using a geothermal system,” said Murad.
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Reversing Course: Fixing the Chicago River

September 17, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Baker

Image courtesy of Jeremy Atherton.

Long before Michael Phelps, the United States rallied around another legendary Olympic swimmer. Johnny Weissmuller—who would later gain further fame as the lead in a dozen Tarzan films—won five gold medals during the 1924 and 1928 Olympics. But in the interim between those two competitions, he did something that today seems much more incredible: he swam in the Chicago River.
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North Chicago’s New Brew: Honey Badger Beer

September 17, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By Julie Henning

Inspired by the wildly-popular Honey Badger video on YouTube.com, the Lincolnshire Marriott Resort in Chicago’s North Suburbs has gotten in on the craze with its Honey Badger Beer. A project in regional sustainability as much as marketing genius, the signature beer is brewed using honey extracted from bee hives located on the 175-acre resort property. One of many paradigm-shifting programs set into action by Executive Chef Joe Plucinski, the Honey Badger Beer is brewed in partnership with nearby Lake Bluff Brewery.
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It Doesn’t Get Any Greener Than This

September 17, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

By David Buss

Homeowners and business owners searching for an environmentally friendly, energy-efficient home heating system are turning with increasing frequency to geothermal systems to meet their comfort needs, responsibly and affordably. And for good reason. Geothermal comfort systems are proving to be the world’s greenest heating and cooling systems.
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Program Seeks to Identify, Unite Chicago Area Green Projects

August 24, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Since last year, several volunteers and more than 200 students from 17 local and national universities have been canvassing all 77 community areas in Chicago, looking for sustainability projects in an attempt to create the city’s first comprehensive green initiative database, map and website. It’s a large undertaking that has never been done before, largely because many of these green initiatives are flying under the media radar and have gone unrecognized even within their own communities.
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The Crossroads of Environmental Science, Engineering and Construction Management: A Discussion on LEED

August 21, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

LEED certification appears often on Sustainable Chicago, like in the unveiling of a zoning map that pinpoints examples of green building design in Chicago. LEED standards directly relate to contemporary building processes. Today, green construction expert Noelle Hirsch writes about the potential benefits and drawbacks of turning LEED certification into an industry standard. Noelle’s articles frequently appear at www.constructionmanagement.net, an online resource for construction managers and students.

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O’Hare Plans Massive Solar Panel Installation

July 24, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

By Matt Baker

The Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) recently announced that it is seeking a developer to design, construct and maintain a new solar power generation installation on the grounds of O’Hare International Airport. Development will occur over two phases with an expected completion by 2016.
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