Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Greening of Chicago: Hype vs. Reality

We are, I suppose, still a little heady from all the favorable national publicity our city has received recently, touting our fair town as one of the nation's "greenest" cities and heaping accolades (many deserved) upon Mayor Daley, citing the many civic improvements and major steps taken toward improving our parks, cleaning up the formerly toxic and fetid Chicago River, encouraging recycling and waste reduction, and developing the beautiful Millenium Park, a wonderful civic amenity of the type that people come to live here in order to enjoy. Additionally, he has led the city in taking baby steps toward sustainability, such as requiring all new public buildings to be Leeds-certified, and starting a recycling program of sorts.

However, I tend to be a little skeptical of anyone who has become the object of widespread and unquestioning adulation on the part of the media pundits. Mayor Daley is not only beloved of the greenies, but receives high ratings from suburban Republican power brokers, which is reason enough for skepticism.

I recently picked up a copy of Conscious Choice, a locally-published, free magazine dedicated to eco-consciousness, with which I'm sure the reader of this blog is familiar. What drew my attention to this particular issue was a cover blurb that said: Mayor Daley Talks Eco Consciousness. Inside the rag, I immediately found the article entitled "The Great Green Augustus- Conscious Choice talks eco-consciousness with our mayor".

The article that followed the attention-grabbing title was an interview that, giving the author every chance and making every allowance for naivete and good intentions his part, was an outrageously flattering and utterly uncritical "puff piece", that depicted Hizzoner as the Great Green Savior of Chicago, and depicts the city as it was previous to Daley's reign as "a rusty and decaying, soot-stained brick" , and our mayor as the "Great Green Augustus" who "found the city brick and left it marble", as was said of Roman Emperor Augustus Caeser, to whom Shaw compared Daley.

These days, "green" and "eco-consciousness" and "sustainability" are popular "buzz words" among politicians, who now strive to surround themselves with a 'green' aura in the same manner that some other pols evoke God and Country', and Daley has so thoroughly wrapped himself in the green mantle that national media is as uncritical as the local free papers in their plaudits to the mayor.

Yet just how "green" is Chicago, really? One site dedicated to urban affairs, City Mayors(http://www.citymayors.com/environment/us_greencities.html) has ranked Chicago number 10 among the 10 greenest cities in the country, noting the city's high water quality, number of green-certified large building projects, and citing the fact that a third of the population uses public transportation to get to work. Other surveys, however, manage to cite the city as one of the greenest while forbearing to mention public transportation, which is just possibly due to the fact that Daley is notoriously stingy with funding for the deteriorating agency: funding is frozen at the same level it was in the early 80s- a miserly $3 million per year.

I find that the people who rank these things tend to overemphasize appearance and green "window dressing" at the expense of initiatives that could make a real dent in the city's fuel consumption. Chicago's much-touted recycling program is, at this point, scarcely enforced and therefore meaningless. Conscious Choice, in "Riding the Zeitgeist: The Chicago Green Report Card 2007", did not even mention public transportation in the criteria used to rank the city, yet nothing could do more to reduce the city's dependence upon depleting fuel supplies and help Chicago retain its liveability and economic viability in the fuel-short times to come.

Most of all, the city's transit is not used by enough of the population enough of the time to make a serious difference in fuel consumption and automobile dependence, which are the two most serious environmental and economic issues confronting the country and the world at this moment and in the future. As previously noted, only one third of our population commutes by public transit, while 82% of New York City residents do, and public transit in general seems to be a low priority item among both our city leadership and our local environmentalists. Yet, given inexorable trends in world oil production, you would think this would be the most urgent issue on the mayor's agenda.

However, instead of committing to adequately funding the CTA and working with its management to ensure that it functions adequately day-to-day; and committing to expanding and improving the system so that it will meet the needs of all residents in the post-oil age that is nearly upon us, the mayor has starved the system of necessary city funding while committing obscenely excessive amounts of money to pharoanic 'vanity' projects that do little to enhance service, such as the ludicrous $213 million Block 37 superstation, to which the city is committing $42 million. However, the $3 million committed to operations has stayed level for nearly twenty five years and therefore has lost at least half its value due to inflation.

The need to repair and expand our decrepit and increasingly unreliable transit system was never more urgent. The United States currently imports over 75% of its oil, since our own production peaked in 1970 and has since fallen to 5 million barrels a day (and still dropping), while our daily use has increased to 22 million barrels per day, while the world's oil fields are now plateauing or declining in production. Many prominent oil analysts and geologists believe that we are now at or past peak, and are now on the way down the slope of depletion.

Chicago's economic vitality and perhaps its very viability as a civilized place to live and work is dependent upon these resources and the prudent management thereof. It is sobering to consider how a reduction in available oil of, say, 10% would affect this area in its current state of almost total dependence upon automobiles.

Unfortunately, our mayor seems to be less than obsessed about the possibility of the city being rendered partly immobile and far less liveable by increasingly expensive and unreliable fuel supplies, and more interested in "green" projects that win plaudits for beautification and amenity while neglecting the system that really is the lifeblood of the city. Meanwhile, widely-touted 'green' initiatives such as the city's current recycling program, are failing in their purpose through lack of interest in ongoing support and enforcement. Blogger Toni Duncan of 24/7 HowardWatchers has provided valuable information on Chicago's recyling program (http://www.howardwatchers.com).

Worse, under Daley's leadership, the city has diverted hundreds of millions of future tax dollars away from essential transit , schools, police and fire protection, emergency preparedness, and other essential services, and instead is pouring them into the pockets of politically connected developers and corporate entities via TIF districts, resulting in a steep net loss to the city of not only future tax revenues, but of small business and jobs essential to the finegrained urban interface. The fact that most TIF districts fail of their stated purpose doesn't seem to be a deterrent to either King Richard or his Club 50, whose sheeplike members can be relied upon to rubberstamp each TIF boondogle as fast as it is conceived.

What will we do when we really need the money? How will we cope when we badly need to expand the transit system drastically, find alternative energy sources for our dozens of massive skyscrapers, and most of all provide a minimal level of basic city services in a time when the economic base may be rapidly eroding due to a critical lack of essential resources?

There is really no way to adequately prepare for a time when we will have, at most, half the oil available to us we have now, and there's barely time even if we could- the suggested timeframe for preparation is 20 years, which we don't have. By the best estimates, world oil production will peak in year 2015 latest, and many oil analysts, most prominent among them Dr. Kenneth Deffeyes, Professor Emeritus of Princeton University, feel that we are now past peak.

Chicago may have made the first halting, and largely symbolic, steps toward sustainability, but the city is at this point in time critically lacking in the systems and arrangements that will make life possible, let alone comfortable, in such a pass as Dr. Deffeyes, Dr. Colin Campbell, and other experts assure us will surely be the case in another ten to twenty years. The fact that we are in better case than most of the rest of the U. S. is nothing to boast about, since most locations in this country don't even possess a transit system of any kind, and yet other major cities, notably Phoenix , Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, are also confronting catostrophic shortages of water. It isn't impossible to imagine that, in an era where we no longer have the cheap fuel to build and maintain monster water diversion projects, that Chicago and other midwestern cities might find themselves overwhelmed with an influx of desperate refugees from cities that have become suddenly very hostile to human habitation , as well as floods of suburbanites fleeing suddenly non-negotiable suburbs and insupportable heat bills on 4,000 square foot houses.

Hizzoner might not have considered all this, because, remember, he has just discovered a "new word": global warming. Yep, really. Well, it's time to teach him and Club 50 a couple more new words, such as Peak Oil and Resource Depletion.

We like to think that somewhere in the vast labyrinth of our federal, state, and municipal governments, and the various agencies, there are brainy, dedicated, informed people of ability and resolve who are working quietly and relentlessly on the city's deficiencies, but we can't count on that. The destruction of New Orleans, and the ineptitude and total cluelessness of every single person upon whom a population depends upon for organization and guidance in the event of calamity, in the chaos and total breakdown of lifeline services in Katrina catastrophe, revealed a chain with not just one weak link but that was rusty and broken from one end to the next.

So, while there is time, we need to do the following:

Repair and vastly expand public transit. At this time, Chicago's doddering transit system is completely inadequate to serve the city and inner Cook County in its current form. The current radial train system, in which all lines run from downtown to points north , south, and west, with a loose network of buses that run infrequently and unreliably, is unusable by the majority of the population that dwells in the 'bugalow belts' of the northwest and southwest side neighborhoods, in that it leaves large gaps measuring many square miles almost completely unserved by reliable, fast transportation. In fact, many neighborhoods have no service at all after 8 PM, leaving their residents no alternative to automobile dependence. This happened because these neighborhoods were built to very low density not much different than that of the typical older, inner-ring suburb. A near term solution are both inner-circle and outer-circle trains that connect the existing north-south rail lines, which takes us to.....

Planning and rezoning for greater transit use and walkability. High population densities are necessary to support transit, especially heavy rail, and only downtown and on the north lakefront does Chicago possess the population density necessary to provide ridership in the numbers necessary to support rail. Worse, low-density neighborhoods of single-family homes lack the dense commercial and retail that make a neighborhood negotiable on foot. As most neighborhoods now are configured, you have to drive some distance, often out of the neighborhood, just to get a loaf of bread and a can of coffee; and most residents of the outer neighorhoods travel to the suburbs in search of good shopping and recreation, taking vitality and variety, as well as sales tax dollars, out there with them.

The best way to reverse the process by which the outer neighborhoods are drained of vitality and services, and then finally of residents, is to rezone all neighborhoods to foster high populations and a density of retail and services around the tranist nodes formed by rail transfer points. The suggested density is usually residential buildings with retail at grade level, and 4 or 5 stories of condominiums or rental housing above, with parking concealed in the building or behind it. Retail spaces should be small enough to be affordable by the types of businesses needed to fully service a densely populated neighborhood.

To accomplish this, and in conjunction with it, the improvement and expansion of our transit, we need first to overcome the local bias towards low-density neighborhoods and single-family housing, and it is for our elected and appointed leaders to display vision and leadership in this area. However, since they aren't, we will have to hound them to do it, which means that most of us will have to rethink the way we think about the city and the way we arrange our lives in it.

Refitting our utilities and communications networks. Daley has at taken some tiny steps in this area by demanding that 20% of all power purchased by the city be produced by renewable resources. Just how ComEd will do this is not exactly clear. While Chicago has been spared the widespread and prolonged outages experienced by other major cities in the past couple of years, there is no reason to have confidence in the ability of our local utilility do deliver power in the amounts needed , reliably and economically in the future. The national grid is at present extremely frayed, and the utilities have made no significant investment in maintaining and improving it for many years, even though it is now obvious that electricity will not only be our major source of motive power for our vehicles and most other activities, but possibly our only reliable source of power in a near future in which natural gas, currently depleting rapidly, is expensive and difficult to get. Yet we are still dependent upon natural gas for a substantial part of our power generation. Worse, nuclear has been taken off the table and no new nuclear plants have been built or planned since the 1970s. This means that as our aging nuclear fleet produces less power and is decommissioned, the lost capacity is replaced by coal, with ominous implications for our future air quality and health.

Real leadership in this area means reviving the nuclear building program, as renewables such as solar, wind, and biomass are in their infancy and could not, now or in the near future, provide more than 5% of our power. Some experts believe that renewables may never replace the fossil fuels in their ability to generate the amount of power needed for basic comfort and amenity of this country's swollen population. I believe that at some point, renewables will be sufficiently developed to provide for our energy needs, but we badly need nuclear in order to buy time. I know that many environmentalists are vehemently opposed to nuclear for reasons known to us all, notably because of the amounts of indestructible, highly toxic waste they generate. However, those who are concerned with the effects of possible radiation exposure on our health need to consider what the level of health among the general, non-rich population ( that's me and most likely you) will be in the absence of heat, food, potable water, basic hygiene and sanitation, and any form of motorized transportation. The only alternative to reliable and affordable electricity is a regression to a pre-technological life, and if you don't know what that would mean for most of us, start studying history.

Additionally, the city should aggressively encourage property owners to install alternative means of generating electricity , such as solar panels and generators, by means of generous tax incentives, and perhaps even by fostering the formation of neighborhood power co-operatives.

Related to this is the reliabilitly of our essential communications networks. These are not disposable, especially in a future era of chronic fuel shortages, and are completely critical to the operation of the economy and maintenance of civil order. The maintenance of our telecommunications and the internet are necessary for the continued functioning of the economy on any level, and the intelligent utilization of the internet can already greatly reduce our use of essential resources. A wireless network providing complete coverage to all neighborhoods and suburbs is absolutely essential in that wireless infrastructure can be built and maintained for a fraction of the energy and materials necessary for lines and cables. This technology has proved to be a boon for third world nations that totally lack the means for a massive build-out of cable and electrical lines. Yet, at this time, our local wireless service is far from seamless. I have discovered one wireless high-speed internet service that serves Chicago, and is independent of the cellular phone companies, but it does not yet provide coverage to all neighborhoods or to the suburbs. Most wireless internet is linked to cellular phone service, requires the user to be near a 'hot spot' that is usually located at a retail outlet such as Starbucks, and morever is frequently a dial-up. Yet, a seamless and powerful wireless network that would not only be reliable in the event of power outages, but could be made available cheaply to everyone in the city for the price of a cheap dial-up connection is possible. The obstacles are principally political, and it is necessary for our leaders to take the initiative in this area. Yet, after a brief flurry of excitement over the prospects of wireless internet, the issue was abrubtly shelved and there has been no discussion of it since.

These are the major items that need to be dealt with if Chicago is to have a future any of us would want to be a part of, or could even hope to survive. There are many other things we must do in order to be able to deal with future necessities, such as the need to relocalize manufacturing and food production , among other things. However, the above issues are the most urgent, and right now there is nothing in our mayor's utterances or actions that indicates that he is even aware that we might have problems in these areas, or that these are even problems at all.


Rhonda_On_Ashland said...

The posts you have on your blog so far are wonderful. Well written and thought provoking. I am new to Rogers Park and am happy to know that there is a thoughtful neighbor in my community. It is ironic that I found your blog through another neighborhood blog. I decided to check out that blog after seeing a flier for it littering the neighborhood. It was filled with the rantings and ravings of the proverbial obnoxious barroom drunk. If that is all I knew of Rogers Park what a negative perception I would have of the community. Your blog is a breath of fresh air. Keep up the good work. I hope to be reading more from you in the near future.

Julie said...

encouraging recycling and waste reduction, and developing the beautiful Millenium Park, a wonderful civic amenity of the type that people come to live here in order to enjoy.
Laura I must take exception to this. The recycling program was nonsense and unworkable from the very beginning. He could easily have done what the suburbs around here have been doing for years, give everyone containers and fine them if they aren't used. It works. Do the blue bags disintegrate or do tey languish forever in garbage dumps?

As for Millenium Park, he cluttered up a beautiful stretch of the lakefront that used to be wide open and grassy and looked very pastoral with a view of the lake. Now we have aconcert hall we don't need that looks like twisted metal left over from the Lebanon War, he has turned grass in to concrete and uprooted trees to do it. People used to go there at lunch to relax. It is far from relaxing now.

He plans to build another building on Randolph and Michigan which is being fought by the people who now live down there. Whatever happened to the Lakefront Protection Act? Read the Chicago Journal, people down there are pissed.

And don't get me started on what he wants to do to Washington Park. It is an absolutely beautiful park that is enjoyed by everyone in the area. Never a day goes by that there aren't people platying frisbee, jogging sitting on the park benches talking. It has rolling hills and grass as far as the eye can see and further. He is plannning to destrot it. It is a National Landmark, but much as he didn't care about the national landmark that WAS Soldier Field, he doesn't care about Washingtom Park either. I guarantee you if his filthy rich friends went to that park, he wouldn't even consider it. And then he'll leave a big hole in the fround for the people to do what with.....

As for density and public transportation...in theory that may be true, in practice...not. Since they gentified the Lakeview area and the neighborhoods just north and south, there is absolute gridlock on the outer drive from Foster to Fullerton....everyday. These people who moved there don't take public. They don't want to. They can afford to drive apparently because they do. It's as if every neighborhood empties out.

Since the gentrification up here, never have I seen more SUV's on Clark St. Never. Sheridan Rd is undriveable. It was always bad but it is worse, much worse. Since my block went condo, it is wall to wall SUV's. Before I could have a prayer of fnding a parking space. Now, if you're not parked by 7 you can forget it.

I got a news flash, people that rent are less likely to be two car, if any car, families because tey can't afford it. If they could, they'd drve. Go to a disenfranchised neighbrhood. Everyone takes public. Rich neighborhoods, unless they're just walking in their immediate area, they're driving. Don't drink the Kool-Aid.

Better yet, do an informal poll.
Do you rent or own?
Do you drive to work, ride a bike or take public (CTA or Metra)?
How long have you lived in the city?

On Metra, when the weather is really bad (snowing) the train is standing room only.Assoon as the weather clears, it's back to mormal, you can get a seat. What does that tell you?

The North Coast said...

Julie, as I said, I personally like Millenium, but I don't favor Daley's other monument-building projects, especially since the mone for them is diverted from essential services.

Regarding density and public transit, the theory is true. Most Lakeview denizens DO use public transit, because, contrary to popular perception, most of them are not affluent. However, there are enough affluent people there to put a lot of cars on the road.

I'm thinking of the 2,000,000 or so denizens of the outer nabes who range from poor to just short of affluent, who really either can't afford their cars at all, or can't afford them without financing. These people are mostly moderate-income people who not only would benefit greatly from public transit in the present, but will badly need it when we are looking at oil that is permanently priced at $150 a barrel or more.

It's an established fact that you need high density to support transit. The kind of density we have along the lakefront is about what you need to justify a train line, and it is, I notice, Lakeview denizens who use it the most, becuase most of these people are renters in squeezy, overpriced apts. The Belmont and Fullerton stations are so overcrowded and inadequate they are dangerous.

We will have to start thinking much differently about how we live in the future, and I believe we will revert to the city lifestyle that prevailed in the pre-WW2 era out of sheer necessity. Most of us simply will not be able to afford a car in any way, shape, or form. I'd like us to be prepared for that day so that we can at least keep the lights on and the furnaces running, so we don't have to choose between basic technological comforts and being able to get around.