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Chicago, My Kind of Green

The Windy City Presents a Snapshot of The Sustainability Movementís Strengths and Shortcomings.


By Blair Kamin

When I was having lunch the other day with Chicago architect Doug Farr, who has made green design a hallmark of his practice, I got a bit of a shock. As we sat in the Cliff Dwellers Club, the aerie with the stunning views of the lakefront, Farr revealed some surprising numbers. In Chicago, which Mayor Richard M. Daley famously wants to make “the greenest city in America,” there are just 27 LEED-certified buildings. That’s more than in any other American city except Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, but still, only a tiny fraction of Chicago’s total of more than half a million buildings. Nationally, as I found out with a phone call to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the picture is every bit as bleak—with only about 1,100 LEED-certified structures, though thousands more are said to be in the pipeline. I left the lunch reeling. After all the hoopla about green design, this was the state of our progress in combating the scourge of global warming?

64-story 340 on the Park is Chicago’s first green all-residential skyscraper.
Photo © David Seide

The recently completed 64-story 340 on the Park is Chicago’s first green all-residential skyscraper.

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Well, not entirely, but that snapshot offers a cautionary note as the council prepares for GreenBuild, its annual  convention to be held this year in Chicago. With pathbreaking early skyscrapers, the legendary “White City” of the 1893 World’s Fair, and scores of other design innovations, the city has long served as “the great American exaggeration,” a boisterous, make-no-little-plans town that has expressed in bold relief the best and worst of American architecture. Today, the city has reprised that role, representing the green movement’s strengths and shortcomings.

Certainly, the movement’s strengths are personified by Daley, the tree-hugging, democratically-elected monarch who was born on Arbor Day and who has remade—or, more accurately, has re-layered—the city’s face since he took office in 1989. If a latter-day Rip van Winkle had fallen into a deep slumber in that year and awoken today, he would notice an astonishing change in the city’s once-harsh landscape: 500,000 trees planted, more than 80 miles of landscaped medians constructed, and 2 million square feet of green roofs built or negotiated—more than all other American cities combined. Among them are the green roof atop Millennium Park, the 24.5-acre post-industrial playground that sparkles with contemporary art and architecture, and its less flashy counterpart at the McCormick Place West Building, designed by TVS and the site of GreenBuild. (At press time LEED certification for the McCormick Place expansion was pending. If certified, it will be the nation’s largest certified structure.)

I once got a rise out of Daley by calling his penchant for trees, shrubs, and flowers the “Martha-Stewartizing of this tough-guy town.” But the more I see of his greening push, the more I think it’s beyond just literal greening; it’s conceptual greening that civilizes the urban jungle, encouraging high-density living, and thus saving energy.

Since 1998, developers have completed—or started construction on—more than 200 condominium and apartment buildings containing more than 35,000 units in Chicago’s greater downtown area, according to Gail Lissner, Appraisal Research Counselors vice president. All this makes the Loop, still girdled by the famous elevated structure and its rumbling trains, a kind of giant, transit-oriented development. And green is part of this boom, most notably at Santiago Calatrava’s Chicago Spire, the 2,000-foot twisting tower that will be the nation’s tallest building. It will seek LEED Gold status after completion in late 2010, based on many features including special glass to protect migrating birds.

While Chicago trails New York in the number of planned green skyscrapers and lacks a green monument on the order of Foster + Partner’s Hearst Tower, it is making strides, as evidenced by the opening of its first green all-residential skyscraper—the 64-story 340 on the Park. Designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz’s Martin Wolf, the building comes complete with a 25th-floor winter garden and massive glass doors that open onto a terrace overlooking Millennium Park. Here, the tower’s skin is cracked open to reveal it as a place to live, not a place to work.

Meanwhile, Chicago has been in the vanguard of constructing sustainable public and non-profit buildings, mostly because Daley’s iron fist/green thumb has led to the creation of green schools, green police stations, green libraries, even green SROs. The city requires all new public buildings to achieve at least LEED Silver status. In addition, public and private projects receiving city assistance must either have a green roof or pursue green building certification. The city has matched such sticks with carrots. One example is a program that expedites permits for green buildings and a density bonus for downtown buildings that install green roofs. Even if the results can be incongruous—a downtown Chicago flagship McDonald’s, exemplar of the car culture, has a green roof, which is sort of like putting a thin leaf of lettuce atop a bacon double-cheeseburger—the overall picture is bright, and it extends beyond downtown to the city’s neighborhoods and to some of its poorest citizens.    

A leading example of that trend is Murphy/Jahn’s new Near North Apartments (for the case study, see page 74) near the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project. The jury is still out on whether the SRO’s green features, such as rooftop wind turbines that take advantage of the Windy City’s dependable breezes, will help rebuild the lives of its troubled residents. But at schools like the two-year-old Tarkington Elementary School by OWP/P Architects and Warman Olsen Warman, the city’s first LEED-certified public school, the benefits are already apparent: Better indoor air quality, more natural light, and play facilities that are shared with the local park district, saving land acquisition costs. Chicago also claims to be the only city in the world with three LEED Platinum buildings, including Farr’s Chicago Center for Green Technology, a recycled factory on the city’s gritty West Side with just about every green feature imaginable.

Needless to say, this visible greening makes both the city and the mayor look good. But the benefits are not merely cosmetic. The green mandates have helped weave ecological building practices into the fabric of Chicago’s design culture. And they have uplifted the public realm.

“We calculate that we are removing the air pollution from 40,000 cars a year,” says Sadhu Johnston, Daley’s deputy chief of staff and former commissioner of the Department of Environment. “For a city like Chicago, the benefits are really about quality of life.” Referring to the view of City Hall’s green roof from adjacent skyscrapers, he explains: “you’re looking down at a prairie with dragonflies, butterflies, and birds. You’re seeing the wind blowing the grass instead of a black roof with heat waves on it.”

Johnston also points to the other benefits of green roofs, such as reduction of the urban heat island effect. “We estimate that if we can bring the temperature of the city down by one degree, the public and private sector will save $150 million a year in cooling costs.” It means, he adds, that people can be out on the streets instead of holed up in air-conditioned apartments.

Despite its impressive achievements, Chicago’s environmental record is hardly spotless. The Chicago Tribune reported in July that the city’s emissions of pollution have soared since 2001 when Daley vowed to make Chicago a leader in the battle against global warming. However, officials of the Chicago Climate Exchange, the financial institution that seeks to cut greenhouse gases through its cap and trade system, dispute the story, saying the city is meeting its emission reduction commitments.

But even Johnston acknowledges that the 27 LEED buildings in Chicago merely scratch the surface, especially in light of the energy-wasting sprawl that continues to transform the Chicago region. (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, built as a rural retreat about 60 miles southwest of the city, is now nearly engulfed by sprawl.) “You can live in a wonderful green mansion and work in a wonderful green office, but if you’re driving two hours between the two, it doesn’t really matter,” he says.

To battle sprawl, Daley has joined with other mayors from the region to form the “Greenest Region Compact,” but it is unlikely that fledgling alliance will have the sort of teeth that has given regional planning in Portland its bite. Within the city’s limits, Johnston speaks of the need to focus on greening existing buildings, such as Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture’s recent recycling of the Daniel Burnham Jr.-designed 24-story Medical Dental Arts building just outside the Loop into an apartment high-rise that is seeking LEED certification. While such conversions are far less sexy than new buildings like New York City’s Hearst Tower, they will do far more to conserve energy given the sheer numbers of older buildings.

Like other cities around the world that are participating in the Clinton Climate Initiative, which addresses the fact that cities pour about three-quarters of all greenhouse gases into the world’s atmosphere even though they occupy only two percent of its land mass, Chicago is not waiting for a lagging federal government to take action, but doing things now. One example: Targeted greening, which plants trees in industrial areas to combat the urban heat island effect or uses green roofs to reduce stormwater runoff and prevent flooded basements. Such efforts, which unite the local with the global, offer a pragmatic path toward the essential shift that the green movement still has to make: from green buildings and green infrastructure to a green way of life.

“When your basement floods,” Johnston says, “you’re not calling the federal government.”

Blair Kamin is the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune and an Architectural Record contributing editor.

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This article appeared in the October 2007 print issue of GreenSource Magazine

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