Who would believe that grass and flowers grow on the roof of Chicago's City Hall? Who would believe Chicagoans are seeing more birds and more butterflies and grasshoppers? Who would believe that a beautiful garden installation also cuts the cost of energy?
Mayor Daley is a believer. Ever since city hall became the first public building in Chicago to install a green roof, he has seen that it's a matter of aesthetics as well as economics to bring the natural environment into to urban areas. When city dwellers become more aware of the benefits of trees, flowers, and grass, they become more willing to help protect the environment for their families, for their communities, for their block club, and for the world.
"Most people believe urban communities are steel, dirt, and concrete, and they don't look at the environment, so what I'm trying to do is bring greening and green technology to our great city," Mayor Daley says.
Daley has become a vocal advocate of recycling, encouraging individuals and businesses to save expensive landfill space by sending their paper, plastic, glass, and metal back into production. He'd like to see rainwater recycled, too: collected in rainbarrels to water gardens and lawns rather than running into the streets, dumping into storm drains, and rushing directly to lakes and rivers with the load of untreated runoff pollutants it picked up on the way.
"Look at the material you're using to repair your home," Daley says, encouraging people to choose eco-friendly products.
To accomplish his goals for "finding Eden" in the biggest U.S. city between the coasts, Daley realizes he can't simply have issues dictated from the mayor's office and expect people to listen.
"We try to bring people together and listen to their ideas on how we can implement green technology or sustainability of the environment in an urban area like ours. Ecological systems obviously don't respect political boundaries. We are an area that is very fragmented, over 1,300 units of local government in the 6-county area alone, almost 300 in municipalities. So rivers and streams cut through this complicated political landscape. We have to think regionally, we have to act regionally and that's the beauty of some of the initiatives that are underway here."
Daley works to bring together public and private players who can transcend the narrow geography of one jurisdiction and look at the big picture.
"It requires recycling, greening projects, greening on roofs. We cut the cost down, we talk about a water agenda, use fresh rainwater for the environment, not just put it in a river," he says.
"It requires us to look at our transportation, our buses, our cars, requires us to look at businesses, and how they need to do more landscaping, putting more trees in to clean up the air. The air has to be clean when you have a nation so dependent on oil, so then you have to look at solar energy, you have to look at windmills.
"We've done a lot nationally to improve water quality," Daley says, "and consequently the water quality in our rivers and streams has improved dramatically. We enjoy them recreationally for canoeing or kayaking, but we've done little to think of them as systems, as watersheds, as connections between communities. Now we've got open-lands projects partnered with the Paddling Council and with the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission to see how we could really capitalize on this remarkable network and see it as a system of over 500 miles of water trails.
"When we get people reconnected with the waterways, they get to understand that they're citizens of a regional watershed, and that land use decisions collectively in that watershed must be coordinated. But in lieu of regional government we really want to create a sense of regional citizenship. We feel this creates a wonderful opportunity for individuals to think of themselves as citizens of the region. When people begin to act regionally it will lead to long term policy change. Shortterm it creates a wonderful resource and educational opportunity that we didn't have before.
"We've got to understand the interactions between one region and another," Daley says. "We're talking three states: southeastern Wisconsin, northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana at a minimum, that share this crescent of biodiversity along the shore of Lake Michigan. We have to participate in international committees dealing with the environment while understanding that land use decisions are made at the local level.
"We've done a lot to destroy our natural environment in northeast Illinois," he says. "Less than one tenth of 1% of the original prairie still exists in Illinois, the Prairie State."
Daley believes that citizens have a responsibility as stewards of the land to understand the ramifications of their land use policies and decisions. He is very aware of the deep long-term cost of land use planning that created urban sprawl.
"I tell people, look at Chicago. Thank God we've got skyscrapers. We would have destroyed more farmland if we'd taken all the people in these skyscrapers and set them down on the land. We'd be all the way to Iowa by now."
Reprinted with permission of Harry Wiland, Media & Policy Center Foundation, producers of the PBS Series EDENS LOST AND FOUND. Click on the link for info on their wonderful work.