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In Chicago, a Green Economy Rises

Smart investments and lots of mulch help city bloom

May 17, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


The green roof on Chicago’s city hall symbolizes the city’s embrace of Smart Growth principles.

CHICAGO—In many ways this city’s flourishing fortunes are all about mulch. It’s everywhere. Bark mulch neatly circles the city’s trees; roughly 30,000 new ones are planted annually. Leaf mulch fills planters along State, Michigan, and other major avenues now blossoming in spring color. Mulch adorns 70 miles of green medians that have been sown over the last decade with native flowers, grasses, and bushes. It’s spread on the gardens and open spaces the city requires around new homes, stores, and office buildings. And it rests on many of the energy-saving, heat-absorbing “green roofs” of 200 buildings here, more than any city in America.

But even more than its soil-enriching, moisture-conserving utility, mulch also serves as an organic metaphor, tying together the various pieces of this city’s novel Smart Growth development strategy, praised by the Sierra Club and the Chamber of Commerce alike.

By wrapping its famous big shoulders around the city’s Latin motto—Urbs in horto, city in a garden—Chicago has become a global model for how a major urban center can ardently pursue environmental goals to achieve remarkable economic success. During the last decade the city’s performance, measured in virtually every conventional category of civic well-being, has been off the charts. Chicago attracted more than 100,000 new residents, added tens of thousands of new downtown jobs, prompted a high-rise housing boom, reduced rates of poverty, built thousands of affordable homes, spurred a $9 billion a year visitor and convention industry, and transformed itself into, arguably, the most beautiful city in America. 

Chicago changed from a grimy, hard on its luck, industrial city to an ultra-modern and energetic metropolis because it anticipated and responded to rising energy prices, infrastructure costs, fiscal constraints, globalization, and consumer demand. Today the nation’s third-largest city can better compete with its suburbs as a good place to live.

The great generator of Chicago’s mulch, and its prosperity, is none other than Richard M. Daley, the city’s unorthodox and popular Democratic mayor, who took office in 1989 vowing to replant the urban forest of his youth, which was lost to Dutch elm disease and other blights. The pledge raised the eyebrows of supporters and critics, who chalked up the mayor’s love for trees to his birth on Arbor Day in 1942.

The tree planting program, though, evolved over Mr. Daley’s five terms into a much more sophisticated understanding of the benefits—including to the city’s treasury—of conserving resources, saving energy, expanding parks, constructing environmentally sensitive buildings, reducing storm water runoff, restoring wetlands, generating renewable energy, and doing everything feasible to heal instead of harm the city’s natural systems. 

“What I'm trying to do in the city is to make good habitat for nature and people,” he told Chicago Wilderness Magazine in 2000.

A Proven Formula for Success
In the years since, Mayor Daley’s multi-faceted plan to turn his home town into the “greenest city in America” has ceased to be a unique experiment. Urban policy specialists now see it as effectively responding to the rapidly changing expectations that business executives and residents, especially young professionals, have for cities. Mr. Daley’s program has emerged as a proven formula for 21st century civic prosperity.

“It’s not so much about saving the world,” said Sadhu Johnston, Chicago’s 31-year-old environment commissioner, in an interview. “It’s more about using green technology to save $4 million here, or earn $10 million there and make the city better by doing that. It’s an approach to how we as a city do business and lead by example.”

The intellectual roots of Chicago’s program grow from two schools of thought about linking economics and ecology. The first is journalist Paul Hawken’s notion of “natural capitalism,” which he described in 1997 as the “living systems that feed us, protect us, heal us, clean the nest, let us breathe. They are the ‘income’ derived from a healthy environment.”

The second is what Bruce Katz, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, calls “transformative investment,” the clearly focused public and private spending that “remakes the urban physical landscape to stimulate economic growth, improve fiscal vitality, and advance social equity.”

The breadth and diversity of Mayor Daley’s environmental and economic pursuits, with one idea connected to and supporting the next, mimic natural systems. Take, for instance, Mr. Daley’s fondness for mulch. It’s useless unless it gets spread.

That falls to people like landscape contractor Christy Webber, who’s turned Chicago’s devotion to lawns, gardens, planters, parks, and green roofs into a $13 million-a-year-business and one of the city’s fastest-growing small companies. “By planting more gardens, the mayor encouraged new businesses to grow,” said Ms. Webber, whose company, Christy Webber Landscapes, has had a hand in installing many of Chicago’s important new gardens.

Ms. Webber, who is 44 and was raised in a working class family outside Flint, Mich., started her landscaping company in 1990, the year after Mr. Daley was elected. Her company’s rise closely follows the mayor’s growing embrace of environmentalism as an economic plan.

The Daley administration has planted 500,000 trees, is erecting the most energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive municipal buildings in the country, has agreed to provide developers much faster permitting if they construct similarly “green” buildings, instituted a $600 million-a-year program to repair neighborhoods and city parks, promised to secure 20 percent of the electricity used by the city from clean and renewable sources, and converted hundreds of abandoned and contaminated properties into new businesses.

“I believe very strongly that the cities that pay attention—really pay attention—to quality of life will be the cities that thrive in the 21st century,” Mayor Daley told a conference of park and recreation officials four years ago.

Making, Riding a Green Wave
Though the city’s environmental leaders note that there are gaps in the green program— including allowing two big coal-burning power plants to keep operating here without modern pollution controls—they commend Mr. Daley’s expertise and commitment.

“The mayor took the idea of green and has become increasingly serious,” said Scott Bernstein, the founder of the Center For Neighborhood Technology, a research and policy organization which earlier this year earned “platinum” designation from the U.S. Green Building Council—the nation’s highest environmental rating—for the renovation of the center’s West Side office. “If you compare where the city was when Daley first came into office and where the city is now, it’s night and day.”

Nobody, including the mayor, seems to know exactly when environmental sensitivity became central—along with improving public schools and fighting crime—to Chicago’s development strategy. Ms. Webber thinks it happened in 1996, when Mr. Daley began spending money on a city-wide beautification program to impress the delegates and the media attending the Democratic National Convention, which Chicago hosted that August.

City crews cleared abandoned buildings in the West Side neighborhoods near the site of the convention. Mr. Daley accelerated bush and flower planting, hung flowering pots from newly installed period street lamps, and promoted neighborhood gardens.

The city’s sparkling appearance turned heads, catapulting Mayor Daley and his green initiative to national and international prominence. In 2001, Boeing moved its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago, in part because the company’s executives said they wanted to live there. That same year Mr. Daley built a signature green roof on City Hall.

Ms. Webber, meanwhile, rode the green wave to new contracts to plant, mulch, and maintain enough gardens and parks to employ over 100 people. In 2004, Inc. Magazine said she and her squad of workers were the 54th fastest-growing “inner city” company in America. It will soon move to an arresting new green headquarters.

“After the convention, business just took off,” said Ms. Webber, whose building is going up on the reclaimed site where all that 1996 West Side demolition debris was dumped. “And it hasn’t stopped.”

Big Green Numbers
The full magnitude of Chicago’s transformation became clear when the 2000 Census was published. The city’s population increased by 112,000 people—the first time Chicago grew since the 1940s. Downtown neighborhoods surged by 16,000 residents during the 1990s, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. The city’s median income increased 12.6 percent in the 1990s, 2 percent higher than the median incomes of the state or the six-county metropolitan region. The Illinois Employment Security Department last year reported that Chicago’s central business district expanded its boundaries, in part because businesses employed 20,000 more than in 1991.

Aside from Chicago’s growth, Ms. Webber and others here assert that Mr. Daley’s crowning achievement is Millennium Park, a 24.5-acre, $475 million expanse of green lawn, wild grass prairie, sculpture, and gardens that connects the fast-growing neighborhoods along Michigan Avenue to Grant Park and the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Hardly anybody is still complaining anymore about the project’s delays and cost overruns. Landscape architects say the park set a new standard for design. Environmental leaders note that it showcases a number of green technologies, including the largest green roof in the world, which spans a parking garage and ribbons of old Illinois Central track that for more than a century separated the city’s South Loop from the lakeshore.

Mr. Daley and his staff say that Millennium Park provides more evidence of the value of going green. A study commissioned by the city and published last year found that Millennium Park attracts nearly 4 million visitors annually, encouraged at least 25 percent of the 10,000 units of new housing under construction or planned in nearby neighborhoods, and increased hotel, restaurant, shopping, and entertainment sales by $190 million a year.

This week, on land along Millennium Park’s flank, Chicago hosts Garden in a City, an eight-day “urban horticulture and community greening” design show that is attracting tens of thousands of home owners and landscape professionals. Mr. Daley bills the exposition as the first of its kind in the United States. On display are plants that thrive in cities, and lots of demonstrations are scheduled about how to adorn bungalow backyards or build beautiful plazas.

Ms. Webber prepared an exhibit to showcase her company’s exquisite work. Of course, it features great brown beds of mulch.

Journalist Keith Schneider is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s editor and director of program development. A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2006 edition of The New York Times, which has regularly published Keith’s work since 1981. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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