Greening of Chicago Starts at the Top Floor

A worker plants a
A worker plants a "green roof" at the Chicago Cultural Center, part of Mayor Richard M. Daley's ecology program. (By Peter Slevin -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 10, 2006

CHICAGO -- Atop the scalding eighth-floor roof of the Chicago Cultural Center, workers dripped sweat as they planted row upon tidy row of hardy plants, the latest signal of one big-city government's determination to be green.

On other downtown rooftops, tall corkscrew-shaped turbines will bridle the winds that race across the plains. A new roof on Chicago's vast convention center will channel 55 million gallons of rainwater a year into Lake Michigan instead of overburdened storm drains.

Skeptics snickered 17 years ago when Mayor Richard M. Daley added flowers and trees to the city's honey-do list. They scoffed at the apparent folly of beautifying a sprawling, gritty urban landscape, figuring Daley for a modern-day Potemkin.

A few tulips, they figured, would be the end of it.

But the city-kid mayor raised on the rough-and-tumble South Side stuck with it. The greening project grew strong roots, giving Chicago a reputation as one of the nation's most committed environmental cities of any size. The company it keeps is not Newark and Detroit, but Portland and Seattle.

The urban environmental movement has spread from the margins to the mainstream, from a countercultural statement epitomized by the 1960s riff, "Save water; shower with a friend," to a policy option welcomed in boardrooms and council chambers. As other cities have climbed on board, Pacific Northwest progressives no longer have a corner on the market.

Since Daley began investing tax dollars in greening the city, Chicago has planted as many as 400,000 trees, according to city spokesmen. It employs more arborists than any city in the country. There are 2.5 million square feet of green roofs completed or under construction, boosted by expedited permitting and density bonuses for developers who embrace the concept.

"A lot of people think this is weird stuff, like yurts and straw bale houses. The mayor has set a big and important commitment. He really wants people to walk the talk," said Judith Webb, a U.S. Green Building Council spokeswoman. "When a city with a reputation and a population like Chicago begins doing green building as a matter of course, that's a real indication this isn't a fad or short-term trend."

On other fronts, the city provides 10,000 bike racks and announced a goal of quintupling bike lanes to 500 miles by 2015. The city spent $3.1 million on a bike station at Millennium Park that has 300 indoor bike spaces, along with lockers and showers.

Daley, who will decide soon whether to run for a sixth term, has taken some big hits this summer. The city council defied him and passed a minimum wage ordinance. A federal jury convicted his former patronage chief of rigging hiring to reward campaign workers. His beloved White Sox are nine games out of first place.

Amid the gloom, he was more than happy to talk about foliage.

"The more concrete we pour down America, the more deserts we destroy and farmland we destroy, the more global warming we're going to have," Daley said in an interview one recent afternoon. "If there's more trees, more flowers and more greenery, it helps the environment and attracts nature."

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