At the intersection of the environment and local government, language matters. Until recently, most municipalities used the words “environmental protection” and “department of the environment.” These terms implied regulatory restrictions and a separation of green concerns from how cities operate. The new word is “sustainability,” and the title of the person in charge is “chief sustainability officer.” Such terms encompass more than their predecessors. Jobs, economic growth, and livability are now part of the equation. In many cities, the function is integrated into virtually everything the city does. Karen Weigert is the City of Chicago’s first chief sustainability officer (CSO), appointed by mayor Rahm Emanuel when he took the helm of the nation’s third largest city in 2011.

After three years, Weigert proves this role goes beyond mere words. Chicago was ranked ninth globally in “Hot Spots 2025: Benchmarking the Future Competitiveness of Cities,” a report released in 2013 by the Economist Intelligence Unit (New York was the only other American city in the top ten). The city’s financial sector, projected growth rate, government effectiveness, quality of healthcare, attraction to immigrants, and flight connectivity all won it points, but the Windy City ranked number one in the US for environmental governance and an ability to deal with environmental challenges, which heavily factored for public transportation and water quality.

The Economist report also gave Chicago credit for its social and cultural character, which includes diversity and “cultural vibrancy.” Celebrated in song, poetry, and movies, it is “a toddlin’ town” after all, where Ferris Buehler joined a parade on his day off.

Weigert—whose past work includes investment banking and writing and directing the documentary film Carbon Nation—says all of these things factor into sustainability. “It’s a part of when a CEO determines to bring a company here,” she says. “They know there are great neighborhoods where their employees can live. They know there are great options for getting to work: walking, biking, public transport. All play a part in [building] the talent pool and overall economy.”

Which brings us back to the question of why a business community is integral to a city’s sustainability. Particularly with strong manufacturing and transportation sectors, Chicago companies might be considered a threat to climate, water quality, and habitat (the city’s lakefront, rivers, nature preserves, and neighborhoods count deer, coyote, scores of bird species, and hundreds of plants as natives, all within city limits), but some major accomplishments in just the past few years provide reasons to be hopeful.


Motorola Mobility moved into Chicago in 2014, moving 2,000 jobs from the suburbs to the city. Photo: Caleb Fox


This art installation in Motorola’s new downtown office is an interpretation of Chicago’s transit system. Photo: Caleb Fox

Within a year of Weigert and Emanuel’s arrival, for instance, the city instituted a comprehensive plan called Sustainable Chicago 2015, and its first progress report in 2013 cited the creation of more than 10,000 jobs in 2012 from companies investing $2.5 billion in infrastructure programs, with another $3 billion spent in 2013. The Brookings Institution ranked the city third in the nation for its 139,800 green jobs, while Solar Power International and the Green Meetings Industry Council have chosen the city for conferences, in part because of its more than 5.5 million square feet of green roof space and 282 LEED-certified buildings. Motorola Mobility moved into the city’s iconic (and LEED-EB Gold-certified) Merchandise Mart in 2014, a decision that brought 2,000 jobs into the city from a former suburban location.

Weigert lacks a “department of environment.” Instead, she works from the Office of the Mayor with team members distributed across the various city departments: streets and sanitation, public housing, public schools, fleet and facility management, buildings, innovation and technology, planning and development, parks, transportation, and many others. “I think this is a great way to deliver the vision broadly,” she says. “We have a monthly meeting with people from across the city departments and sister agencies. We follow a plan [Sustainable Chicago 2015], so that’s the backdrop. It helps us to deliver something that’s complicated by having clarity, ownership, and expertise.”

The plan is all-encompassing, focusing on seven broad components—job creation, clean energy, transportation, water, healthy food, and climate change. Every resident and business is touched, if not transformed.

Amy headshot

Amy Francetic,
Clean Energy Trust

Why Chicago? Chicago has been the financial center of the Midwest for generations, as well as a transportation hub for the entire US and home to leading research institutions, which include Argonne National Laboratory, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, University of Illinois, and Illinois Institute of Technology. A combination of government leadership and Chicago’s progressive culture make this work.

Why does the region need cleaner, renewable, price-stable energy? Most of the bigger companies are committed to sustainability. They all are affected by energy.

What are some exciting things on the horizon? Watch for the Lakeside development. It’s 600 acres on the former U.S. Steelworks site, planned to be a very sustainable community using microgrids and renewables to connect 50,000 residents and commercial and industrial companies. We are consultants to the developer.

As an example, Weigert touts the city’s bike-share program, Divvy, as a completely new transportation program that was introduced in a single year. More than 10,000 members have bought daily or yearly memberships using 2,600 bikes from 300 stations situated downtown, near transportation hubs, and in neighborhoods closest to downtown. (The program is expanding in 2014.) The portion of Chicagoans who commute by bike has nearly tripled since 2000 to 1.3 percent (the national figure is a measly 0.6 percent), aided to great extent by 70 miles of protected lanes on major corridors that treat the bike commuter as a legitimate part of urban traffic.

Already, 26 percent of Chicagoans use public transportation to get to work while six percent walk. The long-established city and regional public transportation system is frequently cited as a key asset, even as politicians wrangle for funding to update, upgrade, and innovate the network. With traffic congestion a pressing issue, innovations such as bus rapid transit (BRT) programs are being proposed and tested and, naturally, met with resistance from some motorists and retailers.

To Weigert, such challenges are problems to be worked out. “Our built environment is an asset,” she says. “Transportation and carbon footprints are about density, access to transit, multifamily housing, and walkable neighborhoods.” To that end, the city council recently passed a zoning ordinance that encourages development around transit stations, allowing commercial and residential construction that does not include parking, which incidentally reduces the streetscape challenges of parking garages and discourages driving.

The energy efficiency of buildings is another tenet of the 2015 plan. With six of America’s 15 tallest buildings located in Chicago, its skyline serves as a familiar image of the city. But those structures, particularly the older ones, are energy hogs. The city itself owns approximately 600 buildings, which annually consume $170 million worth of energy, while 2.7 million residents spend many times that through cold winters and hot summers.

Two major programs address buildings in all three sectors: commercial, municipal, and residential. One is the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, which brings private investors to the city to make municipal buildings more energy efficient. The Trust’s first project, approved in late 2013, involves a $25 million loan to upgrade 75 structures, with the payback coming from energy cost savings. “The Infrastructure Trust is an entirely new entity,” says Weigert, who acknowledges that the development of the framework took some effort. “This is off the balance sheet, working with energy services agreements.”


The Ashland Bus Rapid Transit project is just one part of a long-term plan to improve Chicago’s already robust public transportation system. This “subway on the street” will have a dedicated lane on a major arterial, load passengers from center media stations, and connect with seven existing rail lines, a major hospital, and three educational institutions.

The second program, Retrofit Chicago, provides tools to owners of commercial and residential buildings. This initiative sprang from a brainstorm involving energy companies, architects, climate and environmental advocacy organizations, urban planners, environmental engineers, and the city. It’s about sharing best practices and access to financing, and expediting city permits for owners of buildings large and small.

Launched in 2012, more than 30 buildings representing 28 million square feet in the city have already reduced energy consumption by 20 percent. “We publicly celebrate the leadership of these companies,” says Weigert, noting that no financial assistance from the city was required. Participants in the program include several major hotels, the Wrigley Building, 224 South Michigan (formerly known as the Santa Fe Building), and NBC Tower.

Among multiple tactical assists for residents, the city created the “Solar Express,” which enables homeowners to get the necessary permitting for solar panel installation in a single day. Energy audits, insulation upgrades, efficient lighting, water use restrictors, and programmable thermostats are either free or available with low-cost financing for homeowners and landlords. Weigert adds that with so many global architecture and engineering firms in Chicago, what is tested here gets rolled out elsewhere. Indeed, more than 2,400 LEED-accredited professionals call Chicago home, and firms based here routinely work on major projects across the globe.

Sustainable Chicago 2015 also addresses the city’s stormwater problems. On the heels of four weather events over six years that qualified as 10-, 25- and 100-year storms, green methodologies such as permeable pavement, rain gardens, bioswales, infiltration planters, and tree planting programs are being put to work. These strategies got a huge boost in 2013 when $50 million in the city budget was allocated to its Green Stormwater Infrastructure Strategy—a clear commitment to mitigating the effects of climate change.

Other programs under the plan: urban community gardens that are staffed by hundreds of students employed in summer green-jobs program, a city-wide recycling program made coherent by a grid-based method of collection (it was formerly done by aldermanic district, a remnant of old machine politics), and climate change mitigation measures that include neighborhood cooling centers.

Chicago-style sustainability happens on a massive scale, even if it lacks a marquee program. “It’s many things,” says Weigert. “It’s jobs. It’s an integration of transportation and easy downtown access. People want to wake up in a home that is comfortable, with clean air and clean water, with transportation options and access to parks. Fundamental embedding of the function touches all corners of the city.”

The words we use may not matter. In this city of big shoulders, sustainability happens one building, one street, and one bike ride at a time.