Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Chicagoism, Part 2: Starting the Transition to Sustainability by Robert Munson

You can also read part one of this series by Robert Munson.

Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, the Chicago Center for Green Technology (CCGT pictured above) symbolizes how Mayor Daley positioned Chicago as a national model for green design and experimentation. But because it only advanced environmental sustainability, CCGT also shows the limits of progress when only focusing on one of what has now emerged as the three main categories of sustainability (environmental balance, stable economic growth and fiscal sustainability).

As a clearinghouse for green ideas and practices, CCGT’s challenge today is to encourage economic growth that supports environmental balance. CCGT’s weakness here is easy to see. It sits within a square mile of mostly abandoned industrial buildings served by two rail lines. Along with many vacant lots, these sites are ideal for an economic evolution. But…..where are the business incubators for alternative energy, water management and all the other new industries required to “green” the metropolis?

On the simplest level, where are the companies that employ the nearby low-skilled youth to manufacture rain barrels and hook them up so Chicago’s one million households can live-up to our ordinance — ignored for two decades — to disconnect downspouts so they don’t overflow aged sewers? And for a related synergy… wouldn’t free stormwater make it easy to sell to the public as an alternative to the water/sewer bills that must double in the next five years so we can pay for the system’s update?

Possibly responding to Daley’s boosterism of Chicago being the “greenest”, many cities are actively experimenting in this arena. Consider how this abstract bubble diagram below might guide your city to learn from Chicago’s early efforts. The concept is this: each category of sustainability needs to build synergy with the other two. Therefore, environmental progress needs to grow the nexus of where economic growth generates revenue to pay city services (or cuts their costs.) In that triple nexus, infrastructure serves the public best. As you can see below, CCGT’s first decade — while an achievement — had minimal impact on the synergy sustainability needs to grow. CCGT needs to get into the green intersect that matters more.

While these questions and bubbles are simplistic, they reveal today’s key challenge for cities: current policies are too inflexible and misaligned to create economic synergies for green technology to thrive and, possibly, solve social problems. If its public policies created more synergy, Chicago’s leadership role in transitioning into the sustainable economy would be stronger.

Environmental sustainability is developing a core consensus. But today, we see progress is restrained by persisting slow economic growth and fiscal crises. (Rahm’s more comprehensive strategy emerges in the fourth post.) While Daley’s three innovations are listed below, they got only partially done; distracted mostly by budget deficits.

1. “Being green” was a first step in finding synergy between Chicago’s transportation dominance and entrepreneurial zeal. Beautifying the urban core, protecting our public lakefront as key assets, cleaning up the River. and other quality of life improvements flowed consistently from Daley’s leadership. This took on a critical mass as Chicagoans started reshaping public spaces and streetscapes, particularly in neighborhoods. But while “green” created fine visuals for residents and tourists alike, Daley did not “green” Chicagoans’ pocketbooks. While energy retrofits, bike paths and improved transit ridership create household savings, green economic benefits are less apparent.

Relative to other metro areas, Chicago’s slow economic growth has been a theme of the recent series in “The Urbanophile” where you can read his analysis on how much Chicago’s new job creation and economic growth lagged most American top ten cities. Built around 2010 Census data, this analysis shows Chicago and Chicagoland losing economic advantage relative to other metro areas. The Urbanophile post on the lack of a calling card industry offers strategic insight into the Daley-era limits and Rahm’s fixes.

While Daley tried ways to encourage enterprise and supported it by initiating infrastructure improvements in freight handling and the CTA, Rahm has to do the heavy lifting to achieve economic synergy.

2) Transforming Chicago into a global center tightened the metropolis, making the realignment of authority politically more likely. City-suburb tension has been reversed. There are now significant areas of collaboration. Daley’s leadership here should be heralded. Chicago’s renaissance strengthened it as a global center and this increased business opportunities in the suburbs. As in the first half of the 20th Century, the city started the 21st Century, seemingly, as leading metropolitan growth.

The most obvious example of Chicago’s new leverage and suburban political collaboration manifested itself in the unanimous acceptance by CMAP’s Board of Chicagoland’s new 2040 regional plan. Two-thirds of CMAP’s Board represents suburbs. The “Go To 2040” Plan (released in late 2010) emphasized, in CMAP’s words, “a sustained prosperity.” A hopeful mind can read this as the underpinnings of metropolitan economic collaboration. But the unspoken deal in the CMAP plan was that land use would remain firmly under municipal control. Thus, provincial politics vastly limits the profitable synergy offered by regional economic collaboration.

3) Reinventing services emerged as pre-requisite to fiscal balance. 2007 saw the peak of public service costs. Since the public sector bubble burst, politicians’ scenarios for stability are not believable; especially when you recognize our chronic fiscal crunches are caused by the unhappy confluence of these three factors:

* greater demand for public services in a low-growth economy;

* bureaucracies and labor contracts that restrict efficiency improvements; and,

* fed-up taxpayers.

Daley further distinguishes himself as an early Democrat to break the traditional mold and say, in effect, “taxpayers won’t pay more.” If we combine this with his attempts to make many services consumer-friendly and efficient, we see another part of how Daley’s genius started changing government’s role. While many departments underwent some changes from 1989 to 2008, results still were middling. When cutbacks in 2009 followed, perception started ebbing back that we were getting less value and less service.

Today’s perpetual fiscal crises need a comprehensive strategy

Regrettably, the two hangovers from the 20th Century worsened.

1. Illinois’ corruption morphed into insolvency and breached the social contract. Politicians didn’t tell the truth in the 2010 election: that our fiscal pit requires both service cuts and tax increases. Not squaring with voters results in having to trick them into higher taxes, such as nearly doubling Illinois’ income tax in January 2011. (A similar tax increase scenario awaits us in 2013; coupled dangerously with an inability to tackle costs.)

Compounding these lies, local politicians also don’t seem to understand that the resistance is really derived from taxpayers being fed up with their money being wasted by inefficient programs and bureaucracies that, by their frequently monopolistic practices, run against the grain of basic American values.

Local services can’t shrink enough to repay their debts and can’t get new capital; making government definitionally bankrupt. As we treat the private sector, government must restructure its business and relations with customers…in this case, citizens and taxpayers. This actually is a unique opportunity to create the social contract for the sustainable century which, this series argues, should be regionally based. This requires realignment.

2. Misaligned authority restricts service improvements. While Chicago is hamstrung by Illinois, service improvements are also difficult in the 240+ separate suburbs; many lacking the economies of scale to be efficient. Illinois’ power restricts alternative service delivery methods. Daley’s last decade explored new models such as contracting-out services, public-private partnerships and sub-regional collaboration. But given that most infrastructure updates have a two-decade backlog, new models first should be tried to compensate for lost time.

Sustainable public services are necessary for growth. We can’t get those because Illinois’ debts and inefficiencies are an unaffordable weight around the neck of every taxpayer, household and corporation treading water in a low-growth, debt-burdened economy.

In the next posting, we explore our transition from just “being green” to the Emanuel strategies for a more comprehensive sustainability, including economic and fiscal sustainability. These new dimensions offer promise in Chicago; so there should be lessons for your city as well.

Chicagoism Series Index
Part 1: Lessons from the 20th Century
Part 2: Starting the Transition to Sustainability (this post)
Part 3: Reinventing Services, Starting Accountability Reforms
Part 4: How Chicagoism Works Again
Part 5: Where Do We Go From Here?

Robert Munson sharpened his interest in regional planning while serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the metropolitan plan released in 2010. Out of that experience, he started the website CCC or Chicagoland Citizens Central where you can find his profile. Readers can contact him directly at robertmunson@earthlink.net.

Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Sustainability
Cities: Chicago

5 Responses to “Chicagoism, Part 2: Starting the Transition to Sustainability by Robert Munson”

  1. Rod Stevens says:

    I laugh whenever I see another city trying to make itself a “green” leader, when the DNA just isn’t there. There is a big difference between the City Beautiful movement and the environmental ethos that characterizes places like Portland. In the first, the movement towards sustainability is a top-down effort at command-and-control economic development, a labeling done for external consumption. In the second, it is a bottom-up value, something the people adopt first and the politicians pick up when they realize it will get them votes.

    Chicago, and other cities like New York have made great strides in their consumption patterns, but until they get the basics, things like widespread curbside recycling, a bottle bill, connecting those downspouts, cleaning up waste lands, etc., the top down efforts will simply look foolish.

    In the South Bronx there was an element of environmental justice, but the driver was waste recovery as a source of business. Maybe that should be the approach here as well, gleaning, not greening.

  2. Robert Munson says:

    Rod Stevens–

    Thanks for your comment about The City Beautiful. As the movement whose influence ebbed and flowed over the 20th Century, I should have made this point to distinguish the break between Daley’s first and second decade.

    Your point describing bottom-up efforts also is well taken. Cities show this differently in the Rust Belt than in newer, more sprawling metropolises.

    As points that I develop in the 3rd and 4th articles, the bottom-up sustainability in Chicago will come mostly from two sources: entrepreneurs and consultants making the new economy; citizens using transit more economically because older cities have tighter land use patterns.

    A manufacturing cesspool at birth, Chicago and other Rust Belt cities have DNAs that leading them into the economy doing more gleaning than greening… (a memorable phrase I’d like to borrow in the future.)

    Thanks again. And keep those pithy phrases coming!

  3. CityBeautiful21 says:

    Genuine question- in many places, the three core elements of sustainability are considered:

    Economic Health
    Environmental Health
    Social Justice

    Is it different in the midwest, or Chicago?

  4. Robert Munson says:

    You’ve opened up the can of worms!
    So, I’ll try to address it quickly… although I address this nettlesome problem somewhat in the 4th post; now being edited by Aaron and due on 2/6.

    To keep the 3 categories of Sustainability from growing into a dozen, I’d put Social Justice as a subset of the Social Contract and that is the end-product of what I describe as the tripod:
    environmental and economic balance; fiscal sustainability; and accountability.

    My reasoning being that if government can’t pay its bills and is endlessly corrupted (as today), then government becomes dysfunctional and not an agent of change; and often a source of imbalance.

    But, don’t let me get ahead of myself.

  5. CityBeautiful21 says:


    Thanks for the reply. I’ll wait for the fourth piece to see what it says!

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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