When Richard M. Daley became mayor in 1989, he found Chicago a rusty and decaying, soot-stained brick. The city's population had declined by more than a million from its peak, and the crime rate was fast approaching the all-time high. A thousand "Superfund" toxic clean up sites littered the city, and the worst stock market crash since 1929 had halted a Downtown building boom in its tracks, leaving scores of empty lots like the great Block 37 debacle.
The epic renaissance the city has undergone in the 17 years that Daley has been mayor is nothing short of a miracle. When he leaves office, he will do so stepping into the green marbled playground he helped create.
It's true that with great power comes great responsibility, and one of the core responsibilities of the office of Mayor is the health and well being of the citizenry. When all is said and done, Daley's greatest legacy will be how he revitalized Chicago, making it the ideal place to live, work and play. And behind each great act, is a great idea and a conscious intent. Here, we explore Mayor Daley's eco-consciousness, philosophy of government and the path that led him to become America's "green mayor."
Conscious Choice: You've seen Chicago go through a tremendous amount of change in the time you have been mayor. What do you think the most significant change has been, and what would you still like to see happen here?
Mayor Daley: Dealing with the environment becomes everyone's personal issue. It's not just "global warming," you know, it's not something outside your home and outside Chicago. Everybody is concerned about global warming, and they should be. But a lot of that has to do with what they do at home, how they get to and from work, and where they choose to spend their recreation time. It should be a personal thing.
For so many people, they think the environmental movement is in South America or East Asia or someplace else. But now, the new word is global warming. Two years ago, no one knew what global warming was, but as America keeps in place policies that, for example, turn more farmland into desert around the world [with the level of emissions coming from the US], who are we to be telling the rest of the world how to do things? We have a big responsibility, and it's time for the federal government to see its responsibility here. So I look at the environmental issue more personally in the sense that urban areas can be made more environmentally friendly, and that to me is the goal of this city: that everyone can enjoy the city in a quality way. You don't have to drive someplace to get someplace to enjoy the environment, you can do it right here. But until people take responsibility for their role in global warming, nothing the federal government can do will change that.
As far as the city is concerned, there has to be more recycling. There has to be recycling in everyone's home and in every business. That's all part of it. Whether it's on the CTA, or on the Metra, or in a city park, there needs to be the ability to recycle. It needs to become everyone's choice to do it and to make it better. We need to find ways to recycle absolutely everything, to keep it all out of landfills. We also need more green roofs, water conservation, more trees and flowers...all this goes hand in hand with what we are doing inside the buildings, to conserve energy and resources.
CC: What do you think about the problems with emissions...from coal-fired plants, from automobiles, from big buildings?
MD: We are working with the owners of the coal plants to clean them up, but the larger issue in America is that no one likes oil, because you gotta do what we're doing right now to get it and keep it. And of course no one likes nuclear. So there has to be a way to get more energy. They say use wind power, but there isn't enough wind power available, so coal is still a factor. The thing we are doing is working with the owners to work towards shutting down the real bad plants, and making sure the coal that continues to be burned burns clean. And then there is the car factor. People are driving too much, so we need good public transportation that will bring people back and forth, particularly new service for going from the north to the south of the city, and connecting with rail lines in the suburbs.
CC: This next question relates to the work you have done with the Mayor's Statement on Global Warming and the 2030 Challenge for city building. The City Council passed a resolution against the war in Iraq, they attempted to pass the Big Box ordinance that you vetoed, they banned smoking and foie gras, etc. So what we see are cities, and their mayors, taking charge of their own destinies. I'm curious what you see as the evolving role of cities and city governments, particularly when its been made clear that the federal government doesn't particularly want to help us?
MD: This is why we do Tax Increment Financing and why we're privatizing the school system. The state and the federal government doesn't provide for these things, so we're trying to provide creative financing so that we as a city can afford the things that are necessary, like schools, libraries, senior housing, etc. As the government cuts back on programs-and maybe they have too many programs and should have more options instead of having so many complicated programs, that way the money gets spread around more quickly and evenly-that's where the community has to step up and function.
The federal government is much more dysfunctional these days, and it doesn't matter if it's Democrat or Republican, they are so far removed from the average citizen-especially when it comes to the environment. Just today we had the Coast Guard shooting lead rounds into the lake, and we're like, "you can't dump all that lead into the lake!" But with [the federal government] the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing. Local government is hands-on; people can just come right up and talk to us and tell us their real concerns and needs.
CC: So even though there was a battle over the Big Box ordinance, do you feel these sorts of discussions or arguments are what needs to be taking place in city government?
MD: I think the Big Box thing was a good discussion, but you notice, no one is saying anything about Big Boxes opening in the suburbs. We don't need to be overrun with Big Boxes, but we're missing out on millions of dollars in tax revenue because the City wants to say that Big Boxes gotta do this and this and that-pay a higher wage, give benefits-and the suburbs don't. Where do you think they are going to go? There has to be some balance. If you're gonna do a wage law, it should be statewide.
CC: As your reputation as the "green mayor" grows and as more and more people around the world are starting to associate the word "Chicago" with the word "Sustainability," it's curious that most people, even here in Chicago, don't know how you became so focused on environmental and sustainable issues. Tell us that story.
MD: I have always felt that people shouldn't have to drive out to Montana or Wyoming to see a national park, that there should be national parks in Ohio, in Iowa, in Illinois, so people don't have to drive 20 hours to enjoy a park. That's part of why I closed Meigs Field. It should be a national park, why shouldn't it be? That part of the lakefront all up and down should be for the people, not for the private sector.
CC: So did it begin with you wanting to give back more green space, and then you began to learn more about new technologies and practices?
MD: Oh sure, sure. Adding green space and trees and flowers simply adds to the quality of life. You can see it all around us. Trees clean the air, and you have a totally different picture of the city after a while. Before it's just concrete and steel, afterwards it's a beautiful urban habitat. And all the problems with highway construction and traffic and auto pollution showed me the importance of public transportation.
CC: You've had this amazing opportunity to travel the world and see what other cities are doing in the push for sustainability. For example, when you went to Germany in 1996, you came back with the idea for the green roofs. Can you tell us about other things you have seen? For example, your recent trip to Beijing?
MD: Oh, Beijing has a lot of problems. They've got real bad air quality and they have this problem with a growing desert in the Manchurian north than is now encroaching on the outskirts of the city, and when that wind gets to blowing there's a lot of sand and pollution that blows into the city. It's somewhat like Chicago's problem with air quality, but I think our air quality is getting better here, and theirs isn't. The other thing we worry about here is of course what we are going to do with all the garbage. We're basically dumping it in quality land in America, and that is going to be a major issue in the years to come. So we have to find solutions for how we deal with all the garbage. I've been looking at how all these other cities are trying to do it, those that are trying to do it. China right now is going through what we went through a hundred years ago during our industrial revolution, and Chicago was to the industrial revolution what Shanghai is now to the new global economy, so we are sharing our knowledge with them in the hopes that they won't make the same mistakes we made. And since they have such greater problems with pollution and resources, we can learn from them how they are dealing with it, what's working and what's not working.
CC: How about other American cities?
MD: You know, they're always talking about how everyone on the West Coast is "environmental" but what we're doing here is so much more advanced. They can grow anything they want in California, but are there any trees in San Francisco or Los Angeles? San Francisco is supposedly the "most environmental city," but we're the "green city" cause we have green space and trees and San Francisco is, again, just concrete and steel. I think we have implemented so many more programs than they have. Plus, now we're trying to get everyone in Chicago on board with water conservation. Are they doing that on the West Coast? At McCormick Place we're taking 50,000 gallons of rainwater and recycling it right into the lake instead of dumping into our already overloaded river and sewer systems. My goal is to eventually stop everything from going into the river.
CC: Since we're sitting on roughly 1/5th of the world's fresh water supply, which in the future will prove invaluable, making Chicago even that much more relevant in the coming years, have other cities and countries contacted you about gaining access to our water or anything along those lines?
MD: Oh sure, yes. But, actually, the Great Lakes are International bodies of water, so we don't have any direct control over them. But it is our responsibility to keep the water clean and safe. I learned that most recreational boaters just dump their waste right into the lake! That's crazy! So now, they have these systems that clean it all up before anything goes into the water. We need more things like that. I mean ask yourself, how can boaters say they care about Lake Michigan when they are dumping their raw sewage right into it?
CC: My next question focuses on the time after you leave office. I'm certain everyone is curious what your plans are, and what legacies you most wish to keep intact. What do you hope will have the most lasting resonance with the people of Chicago?
MD: Well, you know, it's interesting. Of course, education is closest to my heart, and that's always been very, very important to me. But I think the whole idea of how important the environment is to the well being of people, and how important nature is to day-to-day life, is also equally important. If you walk down a street and there isn't one tree or flower or patch of grass, its cold and dark. When you see greenery and life around you every day, even in the middle of winter when birds sit on trees, you start to understand how important these things are. So one thing I really try to foster is this idea that nature can exist in a city, amidst all the concrete and steel.
CC: Chicago has been reinvented three times. Once following the fire, once following WWII by your father, and once in the post-industrial era, which you have overseen, turning Chicago into a global city. Where do you want to see Chicago head in the future?
MD: The city needs to head into specialized manufacturing that can successfully coexist with the environment, which it can. It's amazing! At the same time, we should have more technology, professional services, and a healthy service economy. You're not going to have one economic sector dominating, or else you end up like every other city whose main industry changes, and you fall on hard times.
It's very important for us to remain diverse in both economics and culture. We need to remain a competitive global city in the future, and that's why I think the Olympics are perfect for Chicago. What a wonderful way for Chicago to showcase its new green technologies, new ways to live, accessibility, and new city planning. It's the perfect vehicle for showcasing what we've done here, and how cities can be in the future.