The City of Green Shoulders

"Let's go. The bus arrives in seven minutes."

Wouh. What? Seven minutes? How do you know? Sure it's not eight, or I don't know, five? "I checked the app, dad. That's how I move around."

My daughter and I raced out of Wormhole Coffee Shop and made it to the six corners of North, Damen and Milwaukee right on time. Spot on. Seven minutes.

I was captivated. It was the second day of a two-week visit my wife, son and I made to Chicago to attend Maydi's graduation (shout out to Columbia College Chicago), but for me it became as much a family trip as a fact-finding and relationship-building trip around the sustainability built into this amazing city just in the last seven years.

The ambitious process began in earnest with the 2008 announcement by then Mayor Richard Daley of the city's Climate Action Plan, reported in this +Scientific American story at the time: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/chicagos-plans-to-go-green/

Chicago had some catching up to do, as other U.S. cities were already underway with their own initiatives. But the Windy City's aggressive push made heads turn nonetheless, given its size and rust-belt reputation.

Three years later, Daley successor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel entered City Hall and broadened the program with Sustainable Chicago 2015, a 24-goal agenda in line to be extended past this year's expiration. See the latest status report here: http://www.cityofchicago.org/content/dam/city/progs/env/SCYear2Report.pdf

The 24 goals are divided into seven categories covering the city's most significant climate and environmental impacts and opportunities: the economy, energy, transportation, water, parks & food, waste, and climate change.

The results are mind-blowing by any account. Chicago now ranks first in the nation in LEED building certifications per-capita, and the Retrofit Chicago initiative has attracted dozens of high-rises downtown and slashed their energy bills by 7% since 2012.

"LEED is now a default mode," Brian Imus, +USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) Illinois director, told me in his office -- so much so, in fact, that "we're now evaluating our role going forward." Imagine that.

Neighborhoods have been integrated big time. Data is now public on energy use at every neighborhood in this city of neighborhoods. The Retrofit Chicago Residential Partnership, Solar Chicago, and the Chicago Neighborhood Energy Challenge drew thousands more homes than anticipated.

The Challenge has thus far reduced energy costs by 20% across Logan Square and Humboldt Park, the area where I lived for much of the 70s and 80s.

Density, central to any sustainable urbanism design, had accelerated prior to Daley's 2008 climate-action launch, thanks to the redevelopment of numerous communities. Wicker Park, down Division and North avenues from Humboldt, was no-man's land when I biked and rode the bus to Holy Trinity High School and later DePaul University. Today, it is chic-ville, home to the Wormhole, Filter Coffee Lounge (pictured) and dozens of the coolest spots you will find in any city. The DePaul district around Fullerton, Lincoln and Clark, and many others, have undergone a similar transformation.

The green thing is taking them all to new heights. Transportation is a major driver. Apps, like that used by Maydi, are featured on the Transit Chicago website: http://www.transitchicago.com/apps/ -- a major reason for the double-digit hike in mass-transit ridership under Sustainable Chicago 2015.

When you're not moving around in trains and buses, you're likely doing it on a bike -- weather permitting -- thanks to Divvy, a ride-sharing service of the city that in just the last two years has placed 300 stations and 3,000 bikes in neighborhoods throughout Chicagoland.

To drive you even further into biking, the city has created more than 65 miles of new bike lanes, part of a goal to reach 100 by year-end. If you must still use a car, Zip Car and other vehicle-sharing firms have added hundreds of cars to their fleets, and charging stations are being installed everywhere to encourage the purchase of EVs and plug-in hybrids.

So successful have these neighborhood and retrofit wins been -- along with the city's other green initiatives -- that companies expanding in and relocating to Chicago are increasingly opting to set up at or near downtown and the inner city, according to Tom Bartkoski of World Business Chicago, the public-private partnership in charge of promoting the city for business development. I paid him a visit to discover what Chicago is doing right on that front.

"That's where the talent is at and wants to live. It's part of the funky culture that has emerged in these neighborhoods, so the companies are following along," he said.

Speaking of WBC's efforts to attract firms, cleantech is one of the priority target industries. My trip coincided with this year's Clean Innovation Bridge, a city and WBC initiative run by Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust (CET) to matchmake cleantech entrepreneurs and start-ups with capital and corporate partners.

The Bridge is part of a broader push to make Chicago a global leader in cleantech innovation, a mission that also includes initiatives by the University of Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Energy Foundry and other organizations.

"Cleantech is a priority for us," WBC President & CEO Jeff Malehorn told the audience, a point he made clear when he was introduced to me a few minutes prior by the CET's energetic CEO, Amy Francetic.

"Our goal is for these entrepreneurs to come in search of capital and partners and set up their global hubs right here in Chicago," Deputy Mayor Steve Koch also told the audience.

Yes, along with companies from every other industry moving to the city. It's hard to pinpoint the precise weight Chicago's neighborhood and green improvements represent in these corporate relocation decisions -- the main appeal is the talent itself, plus location and industry ecosystems -- but the correlation is at the very least intriguing: Chicago has now ranked two years straight as the #1 corporate relocation city in America by Site Selection magazine, comfortably ahead of second-place Houston. See the coverage here http://www.siteselection.com/issues/2015/mar/top-metros.cfm and here http://www.siteselection.com/issues/2014/mar/metros.cfm 

The vibrancy of those neighborhoods, the transportation options, the lower energy bills -- I don't know about you, but it seems to me like a clear no-brainer. If you're looking for talent, relocate to a city giving that talent the lifestyle choices they want, and the convenience and lower cost offered by sustainability are proving decisive in keeping those knowledge workers happy. Certainly in Chicago.

It's one of the reasons I was so looking forward to our May 13-25 trip, because back home in Puerto Rico, where I've lived since 1988, I'm leading a neighborhood-based initiative called Footprint Zero -- under the auspices of the local USGBC Chapter http://www.usgbc-uscaribbean.org/ -- to get the Caribbean island and U.S. territory on the climate warpath so many other visionary cities, states and countries have already joined.

We're in the planning and design stage, which is why I visited Karen Weigert at City Hall and was thrilled when she agreed to become a sort of mentor. She's the city's Chief Sustainability Officer, and her 2015-and-beyond plan is already textbook for us.

So are Living Cities and Sustainable Urbanism, the first co-authored and the second fully authored by the dean of the field in America, pioneer of the USGBC's LEED for Neighborhoods standard we're using as the centerpiece of Footprint Zero, and a demigod at the +Congress for the New Urbanism. I met Doug Farr at his downtown office, not far from CNU's, and received some kind words and key advice on the initiative. We're honored to have him on board.

We're also honored to have partnered with Aleen Bayard, CEO of Footprint Partners http://www.footprintpartners.net/ -- the name similarity is purely coincidental. I reached out prior to the trip, and she bent over backwards to offer priceless advice and arrange meetings, including Weigert's, with the help of JLL's Robert Best.

We're doing this in Puerto Rico, as is Chicago and every other urban area, because cities matter. They matter to the climate struggle perhaps more than any other single source of emissions and resource depletion, since about 80% of all carbon hails from the world's cities.

The critical contribution Chicago is making, and we hope Puerto Rico will make, is speed. Raw speed. Radical urgency. Big ambition. At the +WeMeanBusiness Coalition, they're calling it the Breakthrough Challenge, a phrase coined by sustainability extraordinaire +John Elkington in his co-authored book by the same name: http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118539699.html 

The thinking is simple: despite everything done on sustainability to date, all the renewables and corporate platforms, all the transit apps and neighborhood redevelopments, emissions are still rising. So given the little time we have left before the worst of climate change becomes irreversible and reversing course becomes impossible, we must abandon green-business-as-usual and adopt bold, breakthrough climate action.

That means accelerating solutions, including everything being done now and then some, at unprecedented speed and scale in cities everywhere. In my own book-in-progress, I call it hypergreeninghttp://www.slideshare.net/alexfdiaz/the-hypergreen-neighborhood 

It is precisely why we wish to set up what Aleen calls an EcoSister City relationship with my former home town -- because if we can inspire others to move at the utmost speed and scale, just like Chicago is inspiring us, we may give ourselves a fighting chance at saving the planet from climate catastrophe, and in the process, reward ourselves and future generations with urban spaces and choices far more livable and uplifting than today's.

Indeed, it is the ONLY chance we have as a human race. We HAVE to get cities right, and that means getting neighborhoods right, since the former is merely a collection of the latter. Where people want to live. Where we want companies to set up shop.

What about you and your city? Are you engaged? How is your neighborhood doing?

#climatechange   #carbon   #sustainability   #globalwarming   #Chicago   #PuertoRico   #sustainablecities  
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