Chicago LEED city

[Photo: Pixabay]

Chicago is one of the first cities across the globe to be LEED-certified.

For years, the third largest city in the U.S. has topped best architecture lists by everyone from The Travel Channel to Travel+Leisure. Most recently, though, Chicago was recognized not just for its beautiful buildings, but for its commitment to building green.

Earlier this year, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the city achieved the LEED for Cities Platinum Certification, the USGBC’s highest level of certification. “This award is evidence that our efforts are making an impact,” Emanuel says. The LEED for Cities program launched in 2016, inviting cities to benchmark and communicate performance from ongoing sustainability initiatives. Chicago is the seventh city in the world to achieve the certification.

The award is a testament to ongoing initiatives and partnerships across city government, nonprofits, the real estate community, and more. “LEED for Cities is yet another example of how Chicago is delivering on the sustainability commitments it makes,” says Brian Imus, executive director of the Illinois Green Alliance.

The Greenest City

In August 2018, the Green Building Adoption Index ranked Chicago as the country’s greenest city for the second year in a row, with 70% of its space green-certified. The city’s Energy Benchmarking Ordinance, which requires large buildings across Chicago to measure and report energy use, is associated with a savings of more than $39 million over three years. Next year, the city will implement the Chicago Energy Rating System, the first in the U.S., which will assign a zero to four-star energy rating to all large properties subject to the benchmarking reporting requirements.

This year, Chicago is also hosting the prestigious Greenbuild Conference and Expo, with speakers like human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz in addition to a massive expo. Last year’s event took place in Boston and drew nearly 25,000 attendees.

Promoting Green Infrastructure

Nonprofit Illinois Green Alliance aims to promote green buildings and sustainable communities all over Chicago and beyond. “We are driven by the belief that green infrastructure is key to strengthening communities and improving quality of life for everyone,” Imus says. As part of its five-year strategic plan, Illinois Green Alliance is leveraging the green building community to reach every neighborhood—that’s 77 neighborhoods—in Chicago.

A few years ago, the nonprofit board met to talk next steps, especially considering the city’s successes and the already widespread acceptance of certifications like LEED. They began to focus on carbon drawdown strategies, emphasizing that what we need to fight global climate change already exists; we just need to take it to the neighborhoods. And who wouldn’t want to, Imus asks, saying these strategies create jobs, improve the resiliency of neighborhoods, and ultimately save money. “We’ve gone a long way in really educating green building professionals, but how do we get to more people and more buildings?”

Greener Goals

The nonprofit’s plan has three main goals—engage 3,500 buildings in adopting one or more carbon drawdown strategies, partner with allies in all Chicago communities to implement these solutions, and train 30,000 people to socialize and advance carbon drawdown strategies throughout the state. New initiatives, diverse education for industry professionals, and community engagement are key to moving forward, Imus says. The nonprofit is partnering with everyone from churches to affordable housing to connect green building professionals with building owners who want to make positive change.

Imus says Chicago is known for its architects, including those who’ve gone on to create inspiring work around the globe. Just look at firms like Studio Gang and SOM. “There’s a really robust network based in Illinois,” he says, adding that many local companies also manufacture and distribute green building products in the state. It’s exciting to think of sustainability as a Chicago export, he says.

Imus says that while it may be easy to point to political leadership as driving the sustainability movement, the efforts are bigger than city politics. “I also think it’s a reflection of corporations that are headquartered in Chicago that have made sustainability a big part of their business model,” he says. “They think about how to use their global footprint and make an impact all over the world. McDonald’s is a good example of that.”


Transformations are happening all over the city, at buildings new and old. The Field Museum, which opened its current building to the public in 1921, is one visible example of a Chicago institution whose commitment to a greener facility is clear from the moment you step on its campus.

Now a LEED Gold-certified facility, the Field Museum maintains a staff-run community garden and restaurants with sustainably sourced food, a 74% waste diversion rate, and composting bins. Perhaps its clearest example of “going green,” though, is its ongoing landscaping work in recent years, with 53,000 square feet of native landscaping installed in 2018.

Delta Institute works closely with the Field Museum as its sustainability consultant, advising on facility improvements, exhibits, operations, leadership, and communications. In the last five years, Delta has worked with leadership at the museum on a number of improvements that led to a 15% increase in energy efficiency, 67% decrease in overall waste to landfill, 10% reduction in water use, 100% renewable energy, and LEED Gold certification, according to Mike Stopka, principal at MIST Environment.

In December 2017, the museum hosted the first Chicago Community Climate Forum, bringing nearly 1,500 people and 70 organizations together under one roof to fight global warming. “We knew we had to walk the walk—host an event that wouldn’t send additional waste into our environment—so we decided the Climate Forum would be a Zero Waste Event,” says Carter O’Brien, sustainability officer at the Field Museum, in his blog post about the event. “What does that mean? A full 90% of all waste—any paper flyers, unfinished food items, and really anything deposited in a receptacle—had to be diverted from landfill. By working with local specialists Bright Beat, we were able to achieve that at the climate forum.” The event was a success, with a 95.3% waste diversion rate. “In other words, 1/50th of one pound of waste per attendee went to a landfill, while the remainder was reused, recycled, or composted.”

“A full 90% of all waste—any paper flyers, unfinished food items, and really anything deposited in a receptacle—had to be diverted from landfill.”


Own an existing but low-performing building? You can still make positive change. Visit to set up goals to reduce energy, waste, and water use and be part of a peer network.