Environmentalists salute Daley, challenge next mayor to do more

Posted: 1/19/2011

From Chicago Tribune:

Twenty years ago, access to Chicago's riverfront was often blocked by fences, Lake Shore Drive separated the Field Museum from its neighbor cultural institutions, and unsightly parking lots and train tracks sprawled across the land north of Grant Park.

Today, the Chicago Riverwalk beckons residents and tourists with trendy restaurants and sightseeing tours, pedestrians explore the Museum Campus far from zooming cars, and visitors flock to Millennium Park for a year-long cycle of events.

The visionary behind these changes, outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley, has been praised as the "green mayor." But when it comes to spearheading significant changes in environmental policy and city planning, environmental leaders say in some areas — such as recycling and the cleanup of polluting coal plants — Chicago is still woefully lagging.

Those issues are among a list of 20 they want the next mayor to address. Others deal with water, transportation, and increasing and preserving public spaces.

"(Daley leaves) a huge list of accomplishments and an extraordinary legacy," said Gerald Adelmann, president and CEO of Openlands, a regional land conservation group. "The question is: In these difficult economic times, how will the new mayor incorporate these and be more creative about how to get them done? It's going to be more difficult."

Openlands is part of a coalition of 17 environmental groups that recently presented its "Green Growth Platform" to the mayoral candidates. The coalition also includes Friends of the Chicago River, whose executive director, Margaret Frisbie, also acknowledged Daley's environmental improvement measures. They include planting 600,000 trees, adding more than 1,500 acres of open space, creating the Chicago Climate Action Plan and equipping hundreds of city buildings with green roofs.

"We've made great strides, but it's really just the beginning and we don't ever want to step back," said Frisbie. "We really want to keep the momentum going on all these great programs and initiatives, but then raise the bar."

"The green city that Mayor Daley helped to grow is a shared goal for most Chicagoans and an important fact of life for city politics," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Chicagoans also share a desire to resolve long-gridlocked issues, advocates say.

At the Fisk and Crawford coal plants in Pilsen and Little Village, reporting and investigation have revealed outdated technology that releases streams of toxic pollutants into the air. A 2001 study from the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that 41 people were killed because of the pollution.

"They're the sore thumb sticking out of the city in the garden," said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. "Deaths are only the tip of the pyramid. You have respiratory hospitalizations, emergency room visits, you have asthma attacks that don't necessarily send people to the hospital. But they keep kids home from school, they keep parents home from work."

According to Urbaszewski, Daley "has been silent on what to do about the power plants." The next mayor can strongly endorse the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance and resolve the issue once and for all, he said.

"It would force a decision point on what to do with those power plants on the West Side," he said, "and the end result would be they would have to shut them down or clean them up."

The inability to create a functional recycling program hurts the city, according to some advocates. The failure of the blue-bag program and the suspended rollout of blue carts mean many Chicagoans recycle sporadically, if at all.

"It's one place where (Daley) really fumbled the ball," said Mike Nowak, president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition.

Residents' not knowing about or not using the city's recycling programs is only part of the problem, Nowak said. The root of the issue is improper use of materials.

"Recycling is the tail wagging the dog," he said. "We should not be making so much garbage and packaging out of materials that we can't recycle in the first place. We haven't been teaching our citizens the lesson of going to the source."

It falls to the next leader, Nowak said, to push for a easy-to-use system and to lead by example.

"The only way they know it's important is if their leaders tell them it's important," he said.

Less daunting for the new mayor, advocates say, would be to build on projects already in the works, including:

-- Lakefront development. While it has been active on the North Side during Daley's tenure, a stretch on the South Side remains incomplete and unavailable for public use. The section from 71st Street to the Indiana border was long written off as an industrial region, but last fall City Council approved up to $98 million in infrastructure funding to redevelop the site of the old U.S. Steel plant between 79th and 91st streets.

"Now that most of the heavy industry has left, there are opportunities to reclaim it and to use that reclaimed area as a catalyst for reinvestment," said Adelmann.

-- The Chicago Riverwalk. Recent renovations can be a blueprint for further river edge development, particularly outside of downtown, according to Frisbie. She said that the comeback of wildlife in some areas provides opportunities to create alternating pockets of natural habitat, residential, recreational and commercial areas along the waterway.

"You could actually create an entire urban system on that, connecting all this open space and using the river as a corridor," she said.

-- Public parks. Even with more than 1,500 acres of new public space, Chicago ranks 12th among high-density cities in the acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, offering 4.2 acres, according to a 2010 survey by the Trust for Public Land. The top two cities are Oakland, Calif., and Washington, with nearly 13 acres. Of Chicago's 77 community areas, 55 have less than 2 acres of public park space per 1,000 residents, according to Adelmann.

In the 20-point questionnaire sent to mayoral candidates this month, the coalition asked them to establish their positions on each issue. As for how the new mayor will find resources to fund these initiatives in the face of budget deficits, the advocates' message is simple: innovate.

"You've got to think about it in very creative and non-traditional ways," said Adelmann. "We know there's not going to be a huge amount of public dollars. So then, how do you engage the private sector, the business community, the not-for-profit world, the developers? The leadership has to come from the mayor."

Original here.