When Mayor Daley is credited, as he often is, with turning Chicago into one of the greenest large cities in the country, his admirers rarely cite much besides his penchant for planting and a few small-scale demo projects carried out with his support, like the garden on the roof of City Hall. But there’s more to making the city green than prettying up the Loop. The city’s actual performance on environmental issues—confronting climate change, industrial pollution, and municipal waste, for starters—is somewhat mixed.

People working for the mayor aren’t often willing to get past the PR and really discuss policy. But Suzanne Malec-McKenna, appointed commissioner of the Department of Environment last year, has welcomed questions and even debate. In a recent interview, she talked up her boss’s leadership and her department’s accomplishments, as expected—but she also conceded that Chicago’s approach to environmentalism is shaped as much by economics and politics as by science.

Your department has a range of responsibilities, from enforcement to education. What are your real priorities?

Certainly one is climate action. What we’re finding is that the action steps we’re planning on taking [to be detailed in a plan to be released this fall] should be great economic drivers for the city. I’m pretty excited about that, because oftentimes environmental stuff is seen as this thing that takes marginally more money or it’s for people who are elite. And in this case we’re demonstrating the environmental actions we’re taking will save people money.

I’d say another priority is environmental engagement and stewardship. The more we can get residents and businesses involved in taking environmental action to improve their neighborhoods, the better democratic citizenry we have.

I would also say brownfields and industrial redevelopment. [Brownfields are] all these abandoned properties that already have the infrastructure in place, but it’s this scary, “Oh my god, how much is it going to cost [to clean them up]?” It could be $50,000, it could be $2 million. But when you’re talking about many, many acres in a city like Chicago, it’s a huge opportunity. [The city is] looking at how we package the properties, looking at new technologies for how we clean up the properties. Like there’s a lot more phytoremediation going on—using plants to suck up the crud.

Our permitting and enforcement team has done a lot of work the past few years on streamlining ordinances so that people are clearer on what we’re asking of them. And of course a favorite subject—recycling. Blue Cart is going to help immensely. Having said that, [the homes served by it account for just] 14 percent of our [waste] in the city. So what about multiunit [residential], what about commercial-industrial, what about construction and demolition waste? You know our C and D ordinance was passed several years ago, and it now requires that 50 percent of those materials be recycled. And we’re seeing on average like 80 to 90 percent—people do it because not only does it make sense for the environment but it saves them money.

But really we want to be examining what our whole role is in the production of waste before we even think about the handling of waste.

What’s going to be in your Climate Change Action Plan?

Some of our big areas in it are retrofits for buildings. It’s going to be really key because we know the majority of our emissions comes from energy use in buildings. In Chicago, we know it to be about 70 percent. Studies have shown that for every dollar invested in energy efficiency [in buildings], three dollars are produced in economic benefits. So we’re really looking at this as an economic driver for the city. Here’s an example: F&F Foods on the south side, which produces cough drops and mints. We went in and we did an audit. It was $63,000 for the audit. We looked at all these process technologies they had—cooling systems, etc. And as a result of the retrofit, which cost $722,000, they are saving 11 million gallons of water and $296,000 a year.

It sounds like you have a philosophy of working closely with businesses on environmentalism.

Traditional environmentalism oftentimes still has that us-against-them, the-sky-is-falling mentality, but I think it’s changing. There are going to be some businesses that don’t buy into it, but most see that there is potential economic benefit and that the future is going to require it in some way, shape, or form, so if they get on it now they’re going to be ahead of the game. The bottom line is that in the next three to five years we’ll have some national carbon cap-and-trade or carbon tax. Start transitioning your culture and your operations and you’ll be way ahead of the game.

Chicago just passed a plastic bag recycling ordinance. Bags aren’t the most pressing environmental issue out there, but they are a symbol of waste. And some business groups were reluctant to back an ordinance that really dealt with the problem.

Ultimately, we want to stop the production of plastic bags as opposed to recycling them. But the first-step scenario is sometimes where we have to go. Before you hammer people with stuff, try some things out, see how those incremental things can result in positive changes and then ratchet it up—build everyone’s capacity to understand it.

I know the city regularly sets out a list of environmental accomplishments. On the one hand the list is long and impressive. On the other, many of the projects are really small.

Look at the green roof as an example. It was one project—but now we have 4 million square feet of green roofs in the city. We’ve brought the price down for a roof like that from $25 a square foot to $15 a square foot in seven years. We’ve gone from three contractors nationally who can do the work to two dozen in the region.

The mayor has sometimes been really obstinate on key issues. We’re just a couple of miles from two coal-burning power plants that are major sources of harmful emissions. In the past some aldermen have talked about the city imposing tougher standards—

No, we can’t. They’re under federal and state authority. We don’t have the regulatory authority to shut down those power plants.

Well, there are at least carrots and sticks that could be used to get them to clean up.

As you know, there’s been negotiations [between the plants’ owner and the state], and by 2015 and 2017, respectively, they’re going to have to put up or shut up. And they’re doing some amazing things—they’ve got this system that’s going to reduce their mercury [emissions] by 90 percent. Some big huge things take time.

The mayor—and I sense that this might be your philosophy as well—isn’t a big believer in the enforcement model. You don’t like to use the hammer.

We use the hammer when we have to. But you can slam them until they go out of business, or you can get in there, you can fine them, and then you can help them get their crap together and do the right thing.

Spending the time to strategically think about how to make relationships and networks happen that might not be traditional is, I think, the key. We can’t go into it all thinking we know it all. We may have some really good research or some really good case studies or whatever, but that doesn’t mean it’s Chicago. We’re going to have to be flexible too—everyone’s going to have to be flexible. But I’m a firm believer that it’s a much stronger product as a result.

But some would say that as you seek compromise you can give away too much. Underneath what you do there is science—there are facts. It’s indisputable that cars are emitting greenhouse gases, and automakers produce something that contributes to climate change.

There are definitely some lines in the sand you can’t cross over. But incremental improvements—if you can get the auto industry, which is hurting big-time, to respond, it’s going to be because of the economics. I’ve been in lots of conflicts. But ultimately being able to engage in the conflict and the debate is the only way it’s going to work.

Yet you work for a mayor who, frankly, has often acted like an autocrat. Why is a nice girl like you hanging out in a place like this?

The mayor, an autocrat? I would say he is extremely passionate about issues. He’s all about making the city a better place. There is no question in my mind that it’s actually a very, very simple frame for him in this regard: Is this better for the city? Is this going to provide more opportunities for the city? Then why wouldn’t we do it?

But is there room for compromise within that simple frame?

Sure, and there has been. Look at the Children’s Museum, for an example.

Of compromise?

Well, the design has changed quite a bit. And if we didn’t have this emphatic leader, we wouldn’t have Millennium Park, we wouldn’t have a shot at the 2016 Olympics, we wouldn’t have this opportunity for the Children’s Museum, we wouldn’t have this expanded McCormick Place. We wouldn’t have a lot of infrastructural and economic improvements in the city if the mayor hadn’t just said, “Let’s get it done.”

But you’ve just made an eloquent argument about how solutions come from so many different voices and places.

I know I work for him and he signs my check, but honestly, what has occurred is that the mayor has pushed us all to think beyond traditional municipal operations: How can we do this better? How can we do it now? At one point, for example, the mayor saw that tree planting was a way to start reinvesting in our city—and it also helped bring in tourism. He has this innate and instinctive passion about this stuff, and I think on the whole he’s been pretty on target.

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