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 plastic that isn’t getting recycled.)
Here are some of the ways Chicago’s taking care of its environment–and 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 methods.
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 (chicagoreader.com/features/stories/recycling) 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.
GOOD: Bicycling, both for recreation and transportation, is gaining popularity, encouraged in part by the city’s creation of more than 100 miles of bike lanes.
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 electrical equipment.
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.