Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Great Green Augustus Part 2

Well, it looks like Chicago has managed to make it onto the list of the nation's "greenest" cities (see title link), and I suppose our "Great Green Augustus", Da Mare, is swelling with pride from all the accolades he and the city are receiving from various environmental organizations, for Daley has vowed to make Chicago the Greenest City in the country.

Which, given the condition of the United States, the world's most wasteful country, shouldn't be too difficult. Chicago has made the Top Ten only because most towns and cities in this country were built to waste fuel, water, and land, and guarantee a massive and disproportionate investment in road and pipe infrastructure far into the future. However, making the list by default somehow doesn't count. Sadly, it isn't hard to be "green" compared to most of this country's sprawling, suburbanized, and totally car-dependent towns and cities, inasmuch as at about 90% of the population in this country lives in such places, with almost no access to public transportation, in energy-guzzling houses with an average of 2500 sq ft. of space, eating food that has traveled 2000 miles, and buying and using goods that have traveled 12,000 miles from a distant Asian nation.

After Daley gets finished patting himself on the back for our decrepit and inadequate public transportation and excessive car dependence; our ill-conceived recycling program that most householders aren't compelled to participate in; the relative handful of buildings equipped for alternative energy and that are built with green materials, and our abysmal lack of emergency preparedness, he needs to consider the following:

Our public transportation is inadequate. Most city residents cannot rely upon public transit to even get to work, because they live in low-density outer neighborhoods that are steeply under-served by public transit, or, thanks to the massive exodus of jobs and businesses to the suburbs in the past 25 years, work in remote suburban locations. Two thirds of the area's jobs are now located in the suburbs, often in remote outer suburbs inaccessible by public transit.

Worse, residents of the city's outer neighborhoods are likely to be less well-off than lake front residents, yet are much more dependent upon their cars to access jobs and services. There needs to be comprehensive regional planning that addresses the future needs of an area whose 7.5 million people might, in just a few years, be largely unable to afford to own cars, or at least drive them anything like the distances they commonly do these days, and Daley's administration needs to open the discussion, for at this time a substantial number of impoverished city residents have no access to jobs in remote suburbs, and the larger portion of the middle-class must drive to their jobs.

We need much more thorough rail coverage, with lines that connect the city's radial rail lines, and most of all, crosstown (east to west) lines over congested streets like Belmont Ave, Chicago Ave, Touhy, and Lawrence, which are all currently hellish to travel by bus or auto during peak hours. A more comprehensive rail system that connected the lines and connected with underused bus lines in outer neighborhoods would make life without a car possible for many tens of thousands of city residents who are now completely car-dependent, and vastly enhance the livability of these areas in an era of scarce, expensive fuel.

However, instead of planning comprehensive transit improvements that would make the entire city more accessible, our mayor is concentrating his efforts, and our tax dollars on promoting high-cost express lines for air travelers and extravagant frills like the Block 37 el station, the cost of which has already run far past the $250 million already budgeted.

We have too many overly large buildings. This is not meant as a criticism of high-density housing. The city needs more high-density housing, and more of the outer neighborhoods should be zoned for high-density mixed used buildings with four to seven stories, especially in retail-transit hubs.

However, we may be permitting too many really huge buildings to be built. Really tall buildings of 50 stories or more tend to consume much more energy per square foot than buildings under 10 stories, and are extremely dependent upon a reliable grid to deliver essential services to residents, such as elevators, heating and cooling, and water, which requires pumps to maintain the water at necessary pressures throughout the building. Additionally, really high buildings multiply the problems for first responders in the event of emergencies such as fires and power outages.The Chicago Spire, though it is lovely, and the Trump monstrosity should be the last buildings of their kind, considering the difficulties of, say, evacuating an 85-year-old from the 123rd floor in the event of grid failure, or a fire.

Now is the time to impose a permanent moratorium on residential structures higher than 20 stories, in consideration of our future energy situation, and the probable impact of a permanent energy shortage on the livability and future value of mega-buildings with their massive internal loads and total dependence on really excessive energy usage for minimal livability and access to basic services like running water.

Updating and improvement of electronic communications. The tabling of the city's plan to install wireless communications available to all residents at low cost is a massive setback. As matters stand at the moment, all plans to install wireless transmitters throughout the city have been shelved because the city cannot reach an agreement with a service provider on the cost. Like those other large cities that had planned to install city-wide wireless networks that would offer low-cost wireless internet to all businesses and residents, Chicago's budding plans floundered on the inability or unwillingness of private providers to offer the services at prices competitive with cable and DSL services currently available.

Could we consider wireless internet to be another essential public utility, like potable water, road and sewer infrastructure, and trash collection? Wireless may be crucial to maintaining essential electronic communications for emergency services as well as businesses and residents in the future, and a citywide wireless network would vastly enhance Chicago's disaster preparedness and make the city a better place to do business in the present. Many smaller cities have decided not to rely on private carriers and are installing their own city-wide network connections, in order to retain their competitiveness, and Chicago might benefit enormously from being the first large city to install a city-owned wireless network available to all citizens and businesses at a cost competitive with cable and DSL, as such a utility would make the city more attractive to business. Some cities that have installed a network have realized a ROI in three years.

Urban agriculture and farmer's markets. Can anyone in this city claim to adhere to the "100 mile diet" at this time? Or even a "200 hundred mile" diet? Somehow, I feel sure that most of the food I eat traveled at least 1000 miles, with attendant high fuel costs. Relocalization of our food supply might be one of the most provident and life-saving things we can do by way of greening Chicago.

Chicago currently has 70,000-80,000 vacant lots, many in districts of the city that are hardly inhabited at all. There are thousands of vacant buildings as well, that currently are magnets for crime and vandalism. Could some of these lots be converted to community gardens and even small farms? While many individual citizens and local groups are making heroic efforts to start projects along these lines- kudos to the Rogers Park Garden Group and its sister organizations across the area- there is no official impetus for projects that could provide food and work to poorer citizens while converting weed-choked lots to a higher use.At this point, the issue does not seem urgent, because fuel is still cheap enough for us to be able to depend on highly productive mechanized agriculture for most of our foodstuffs. However, no one will argue that factory farming is ecological or that the food produced by it is the best food we could eat, and there is a burgeoning market for food produced by organic agriculture. While the demand for "organic" foods exists only among the relatively well-educated and affluent, the future might require a wholesale return to traditional, non-mechanized agriculture in order for most of our population to be able to eat on a regular basis, as supplies of natural gas necessary to produce the vast quantities of nitrogen fertilizers are further depleted. In such a context, local agriculture won't be just a Green fad but a life-saving necessity. As it is, food prices are escalating rapidly because of the competition from ethanol, and the rising costs of farming and transportation due to the steeply higher fuel costs of recent years.

Many hundreds of Chicago residents can think of many more ways to make the city more sustainable and improve the quality of life therein, and these people need to be included in the process. Most of all, though, our officials need to take their stated dedication to environmental and sustainability issues beyond lip service and "green" gestures, and start to turn the ship that is Chicago from its current extreme dependence on high energy imputs to real sustainability.

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