CHICAGO, ONCE KNOWN for its
filthy steel mills and meatpacking
plants, has earned a
reputation for cleanliness and environmentalism
since Mayor Richard
M. Daley vowed several years ago to
turn it into the greenest city in the
nation. Over the last two years alone,
Daley’s won a string of environmental
awards and accolades, and
while the city hasn’t hit the top spot
(awarded in most studies to Eugene
or Portland, Oregon), he’s often
called America’s greenest mayor.
Still, a bike ride through any
working-class neighborhood, a few
steps down any alley, or even a deep
breath of air on a hot day will tell a
more complete story: that Chicago’s
environmental health remains a
mixed bag. (And that bag
is made of nonbiodegradable
that isn’t getting recycled.)
Here are some of
the ways Chicago’s
taking care of its
some of the ways it isn’t.
GOOD: Large swaths of the city,
especially downtown and the north
lakefront, have never been greener—literally—thanks to Daley’s aggressive
campaign of planting thousands
of trees and flower beds.
NOT SO GOOD: The city is wasting
the equivalent of millions of trees a
year by not offering better recycling
to residents and businesses.
GOOD: This year the city won a
$200,000 federal grant to continue
its efforts at cleaning up brownfields,
abandoned land contaminated
by industrial waste.
NOT SO GOOD: More than 1,000
brownfields are still scattered across
Chicago, and it’ll cost millions more
to make even a few of them usable.
GOOD: Since 2004 new municipal
buildings, including libraries and
police stations, have been built with
environmentally friendly materials
and energy- and water-conserving
designs. And last year the city
started a program that speeds up
the permitting process for
private contractors who
use green materials and
NOT SO GOOD: So far,
the initiatives have
together yielded just 54
green building projects:
35 from the city, 19 by
private builders. In 2005
alone, more than 18,000
home construction permits were
issued in Cook County.
GOOD: Recycled materials are
used in all kinds of city business,
from copy paper in city offices to
plastic railroad ties on the CTA’s
el and subway lines.
NOT SO GOOD: Our recycling programs
are a mess. A recent Reader
cover story found
that the city’s Blue Bag program is
particularly ineffective: only a small
fraction of the paper, glass, metal,
and plastic that could be recycled
from residential waste actually is.
Overall, Chicago homes and businesses
recycle less than a third of
what they easily could. Most of the
city’s garbage is simply trucked
downstate and buried in landfills.
NOT SO GOOD: Chicago’s auto traffic congestion is the second worst in the
nation, according to one major study.
It found that local commuters spend
an average of 58 hours a year, on top
of their normal travel times, sitting in
their cars during traffic delays.
GOOD: Over the summer, the state
set an example by getting two firms
that operate coal-burning power
plants downstate to agree to upgrade
technology and cut emissions of mercury,
nitrogen oxides, and sulfur
dioxide, which should improve air
and water quality in Chicago.
NOT SO GOOD: The deals won’t take
full effect until 2012, and the
Chicago City Council has failed to
compel the two plants in the city to
clean up their acts; according to a
Harvard study, the pollution from
these two plants alone cause 2,800
asthma attacks, 550 emergency
room visits, and 41 deaths each year.
In the meantime, Chicago remains
in violation of federal standards for
smog and soot.
GOOD: According to a report by the
National Resources Defense Council,
Chicago’s drinking water, drawn from
Lake Michigan, is purer than that of
any other big city in the country.
NOT SO GOOD: Sometimes after
severe rainfall Chicago has to release
raw or partially treated sewage into
the lake, and fish are contaminated
by pollutants from all over the Great
Lakes, including mercury from
power plants and PCBs from poorly
regulated manufacturing plants and
GOOD: In 2003, Mayor Daley mobilized
city workers to create a huge
new park and bird sanctuary on
Chicago’s downtown lakefront.
NOT SO GOOD: The space happened
to be Meigs Field, a small airport
handling 30,000 to 50,000 flights a
year. Daley had the workers tear up
its runways in the middle of the
night, he broke federal law by doing
it, the city has paid for it with fines
and legal fees of $500,000 and
counting, and the Park District says
it doesn’t have the money to finish
the park or sanctuary.