Seeing green in Chicago's future - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Seeing green in Chicago's future

Flickr user Jason Eppink (CC)

Water is a beautiful and powerful natural asset we care about today and can creatively use for a greener tomorrow.

My business card used to say World Bank. For the past few years I worked with a coalition of developing countries on low-carbon and climate-resilient development actions. The context was international, but the actors and achievements were local. With my history of approaching sustainability from this perspective, I’m excited to join Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) and position my home town as a leading sustainable city.

One of the initiatives I’ve been getting my feet wet with so far is Great Rivers Chicago, which MPC is leading in partnership with the City of Chicago and Friends of the Chicago River. Great Rivers Chicago will create a long-term vision and action agenda for Chicago’s rivers—the Des Plaines, Chicago and Calumet—through extensive outreach with residents, businesses owners and community leaders.  

Chatting with residents, I was most struck by their respect for the river system as a regional jewel, and the multitude of distinct priorities that people cited as important: addressing flooding and water quality; riverfront development and better jobs; natural habitat conservation; and access and recreation.

What better way to start a new job than to dive right into a challenging, multi-faceted and forward-thinking project! And, what better time than now for Chicago to strategize how to define our rivers’ roles in the city’s roadmap for sustainable growth?

In keeping an eye open for examples of how other places worldwide are wrestling with sustainable development, I came across a timely story about our friends down under in Australia. With an agriculturally intensive, industry-heavy and climate-conscious society, Australia is also grappling with what ingredients are needed for an optimal recipe in sustainable growth.

A recent modeling study published in this Nature article simulated the Australia of 2050 using a unique framework. Researchers accounted for the interconnectedness of energy, water, food, transportation and land use interactions—as well as potential policy and technology changes—as pieces that would alter different levels of economic or environmental progress. No such framework to date has integrated this range of issues and indicators in modeling future outcomes.

Encouragingly, the study found that, under certain policy scenarios, Australia could maintain and even bolster industries heavily reliant on energy and raw materials, attain economic growth and reach environmental sustainability goals, simultaneously.

Pretty cool!

One interesting policy scenario focused on the creative use of natural assets like water. For example, by stipulating that heavy industries use recycled water, the future Australia of 2050 could meet up to 50 percent of its water demand, allowing for a thriving industrial sector that reduces environmental pressures on a valuable natural resource.

Back in Chicago, this water reuse approach is already on the minds of the region’s wastewater and stormwater management pros, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. While attending the Third Annual Sustainability Summit, I heard first-hand from district engineers on their progress working with industrial customers to distribute effluent as reusable water instead of depleting lake, river or aquifer water supplies. Right now, the district treats and discharges 1 billion gallons of water per day. That’s a lot.

Another key takeaway from the Australia study was the need to account for the connection between “individual choices” citizens make as well as the proactive, “collective choices” set forth by government in achieving a sustainable future.

The study found that collective choices matter a lot. This is not surprising, as back in Chicago, we have seen a significant uptick in public transit ridership and biking to work thanks to the City’s efforts in building and maintaining the infrastructure to enable such options.

Yet, individual choice can also play a strong role in achieving sustainability. The Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit, launched in October at The Field Museum, is testament to the demand community members have for taking a personal stance to protect the environment. The revised Toolkit arms individuals with climate science data and practical solutions like designing self-guided bike tours, mixing homemade green cleaning products and establishing “green ambassador” youth programs in their neighborhoods.

These Australia and Chicago examples show that sustainability takes strong policy and citizen commitments to striking a balance between economic and environmental progress.

As for the Great Rivers Chicago project, I am once again reminded that it is feasible to reconcile all of our social, economic and environmental goals if that is the future we want. From the Mayor’s Office partnering with us on this river visioning effort to the thousands of residents calling for healthy and active rivers, I believe we’ve got what it takes and I’m excited to be a part of the process.


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For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

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