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Riding the Green Zeitgeist in Chicago

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Message Charles Shaw
Chicago's hog-squeal industrial childhood and gangster-machine adolescence had the unfortunate consequence of branding this great American city as the very paradigm of crime and grime. The city's hardscrabble, top-down capitalist ethos of profit before protection was the Cartesian stubbornness that compelled land speculators to build in a swamp and turn the only available river into an open sewer.

Chicago's explosive growth during its first 50 years-on record as one of the three fastest growing cities in history-created the look, feel, and eventually, the critical problems of a modern industrial city. The environmental devastation of Chicago's first hundred years will be the stuff of legend for generations to come, and it was a miracle (or manifest destiny) that the city ever persevered, much less experience what has shaped up to be one of the most spectacular urban renaissances in modern history. Chicago was reborn yet again, and is now chugging forward in a period of renewed prosperity. And once again the eyes of the world are fixed upon the glimmering shores of Lake Michigan as Chicago pulls ahead of the pack, re-engaged in yet another long, windy evangelization like the boosters of the Burnham/Harrison era. Yet this time, the green they are hawking around the world is not the greenback, but "Green is the New Black." The newest commodity being traded in Chicago is sustainability.

We give much credit for this rebirth to our strong and visionary mayor, whose idea 18 years ago to plant more trees has evolved into more than $5 billion in improvements to Chicago's walkways, streets, parks and neighborhood communities, and led to the creation and implementation of the most comprehensive green agenda of any American city.

But Chicago's re-emergence on the world stage as a 21st century model for a "green city" is the result of so much more than one man's vision. Four years ago, when the Green Report Card was first published, the "green city" concept was in its relative infancy, and few people took it seriously. Oh what a difference four years makes! And the difference, really, is that unquantifiable x factor that is the convergence of time and place and ideas known as the zeitgeist. If there is a ground zero for the urban sustainability movement, it is in Chicago, where public policy has intersected with public mobilization and parks are more important than parking lots. The whispers amongst Chicago's green community are that our time is nigh, like it was a hundred years ago when the Burnham Plan forever changed the way cities were viewed and planned.

For over one hundred and fifty years the city's motto, Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden), was never anything more than an ironic footnote to history, uttered in jeers as people hurried past the Stockyard, or Bubbly Creek. But the City in a Garden resonates more and more meaningfully these days, as Chicago's city departments, other governmental agencies, non-profit groups, and many corporate and individual citizens work hard to show that an old industrial American city can truly become a green post-industrial playground with clean air, organic food, clean water, abundant recreation, and good ways to move around the city.

Four years ago, Conscious Choice developed an 11-point plan to improve all these aspects of life in Chicago, and issued a report card to survey how well the city was doing in relation to these 11 goals, surveying expert opinion on each, and assigning a letter grade. We then offered suggestions for improvement.

The 2003 survey was undertaken before Mayor Daley recruited Sadhu Johnston to be his Special Assistant for Green Initiatives, and eventually, Commissioner for the Department of Environment. After Johnston's arrival, the city began to ramp up its efforts, creating viable greening programs and the necessary policy support to implement them.

Four years seems a fair enough time for a quantifiable measure of change, so we revisited the 11-point plan for a much-needed update, paying particular attention to the status of the suggestions made four years ago.

What we found was a city that had mobilized, and was now beginning to reap that which it had sown. What Chicago had managed to accomplish in just four years was worthy of the highest praises, though most of the greatest achievements were in spheres rarely visited by the average Chicagoan, and in areas that are difficult to grade.

Our greatest "green" achievements (as a city) are the expansive and integral role our city government has taken to help transition the public to sustainability, and how that translated into a marketing juggernaut that penetrated the mass media in 2006. As the American public, via the Katrina-Inconvenient Truth express, suddenly found themselves in unprecedented numbers focusing on global warming, their collective search for a way out of this mess kept turning up the word "Chicago," and its newfound greenness. These and other mass synergies will be the catalysts for great change in these coming years of the green revolution. It was no mere coincidence or Burnham-era hucksterism that brought the Green Festival to Chicago (next April 21-22, McCormick Place), it was the zeitgeist moment we live in today which demanded it be in Chicago, just like the Columbian Expo was symbolic of the advent of the industrial 20th century, for which Chicago was its smudge-faced poster child.

Still, change is hard and progress often slow, and Chicago's mythopoeic rise out of the industrial slagheap notwithstanding, there is still much left to do, some of it rather pressing. Although we now have Millennium Park, Northerly Island, a downtown bike station and the largest green roof program in North America, the two black eyes besmirching Chicago's extensive green facelift are the worsening problems with air quality, and the tragicomic drama that is our city's recycling program. Neither of these very serious problems can be ignored for much longer. The deal recently struck by the state and Midwest Generation to clean up coal plants is a start. But it's clear that the time has come for innovative solutions if the old, familiar channels are proving themselves obsolete and ineffective.

So, with all praise to collective Chicagoans, who really deserve all the credit, we humbly present:

The Chicago Green Report Card 2007 (consciouschoice.com/2007/01/reportcard0701.html)
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Charles Shaw is the Editor-in-Chief of Conscious Choice magazine, and the National Editorial Director of Conscious Enlightenment Publishing, which includes Conscious Choice (Chi), Whole Life Times (LA), Common Ground (SF), Seattle's Conscious (more...)
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Riding the Green Zeitgeist in Chicago

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