Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Environmental Legacy

Now that Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has announced he will retire in May after 22 years in office, this is a good time to take stock of Chicago’s environmental accomplishments and shortcomings during his long tenure.  It has been ambitious and eventful.  Four years ago, Time magazine profiled Mayor Daley as “working to turn Chicago into what he claims will be the most environmentally friendly city in the U.S. — as well as the nation’s center for environmental design and the manufacturing of components for the production of alternative energy.”  Daley led particularly high-profile efforts such as the creation of Millennium Park downtown and oversaw the development of the nation’s largest solar energy farm on the South Side.

He also managed multiple efforts to overhaul the city’s recycling system with little success (as this Chicago Reader feature from July recounts).  The system at present does not provide equal services to all citizens and is rumored to be changing yet again in light of its expense and the city’s budget deficit.  Developing an effective recycling strategy will be part of the legacy of a future mayor, not Richard M. Daley.  If Chicago finally treats its wastewater like every other major city in the country does, that too will come under a future mayor.

That said, evidence that environmental quality ranks among Mayor Daley’s strongest achievements comes from his critics.  Developing Government Accountability to the People, a coalition of community activist groups, gave Chicago’s government harsh grades in its recent evaluation of criminal justice, economic development, education, and ethics.  It gave a mediocre grade for transportation and its best grade for environment.  The summary of environmental accomplishments in the recent past was relatively favorable:

Chicago continues to show remarkable vision on many environmental issues. As a regional leader in committing to green technologies, Chicago has consistently looked toward both existing and emerging technologies to improve the environmental efficiency of its own operations, setting the example for residents and businesses. The city’s foresight in championing sustainable development has driven the growth of a new local industry. Further encouragement has been gleaned from the Department of Environment’s measures to hold private developers legally liable for improper disposal of hazardous materials in residential communities. That said, while the elimination of the Blue Bag program ushered in the more popular Blue Cart program, it has not been implemented across the entire city, with some of Chicago’s most blighted neighborhoods still without recycling services. And while many have looked favorably upon Daley’s Chicago Climate Action Plan, funding for such a plan remains a question in many people’s minds. Furthermore, the plan raises cause for concern, as it in no way provides solutions for the very specific health hazards Chicago’s air poses to residents, particularly those living in the communities of Little Village and Pilsen who are at risk for disease or death as a result of the poisonous gases emitted from neighboring coal-powered plants.

Several environmental challenges will face Chicago’s next mayor.  Can the city emphasize rail transit and reduce use of the clogged road system?  Can the city better manage its use of water in and around the city?  Will the city develop a sustainable waste management program including effective recycling for all wards?  How will the city cope with air pollution and carbon emissions in the future?  Can we eradicate food deserts and provide all residents with safe food, water, air, and housing in the future?

Many challenges remain.  Identifying and addressing them will be important for residents, administrators, the City Council, and the candidates for mayor.  Roosevelt University’s Sustainability Studies program trains students to evaluate existing urban systems and consider ways of optimizing our use of energy, water, wastes, food, and the land, and our students will participate in discussions to make Chicago more sustainable in both the present and future.  For information on our program, visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email

Will any of the candidates for mayor in the 2011 election take up Daley’s ambition to make Chicago the most environmentally friendly city in the nation?  Will citizens demand this when they go to the voting booths?  What Daley’s successor does and does not do may give clarity to his accomplishments in this crucial aspect of city governance.

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