In many large cities nationwide, the American Dream has been tinged with green—not the type that connotes envy of the richest one percent; but the variety that is characterized by landscaping, park, and road upgrades, which reduce smog and make it more inviting for residents to live, work, and play in the urban environment.
Last week, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) cut the ribbon on what it calls the “greenest street in America”— the first phase of a two-mile stretch of Blue Island Avenue and Cermak Road in the inner city Pilsen neighborhood. The gritty industrial corridor has been transformed into a leafy thoroughfare, with bike lanes, a pedestrian island, educational kiosks—and pavement that actually absorbs greenhouse gases and does not reflect the summer heat.
Ninety-five species of drought-tolerant, native grasses, shrubs and trees have transformed the sidewalks, medians, and lots.—for a documented 131 percent increase in landscaping and canopy cover. Potable water is no longer used for landscape irrigation. Instead, the Cermak/Blue Island Sustainable Streetscape project has diverted up to 80 percent of the typical average annual rainfall from the combined sewer through a variety of bioswales, rain gardens, permeable pavements, and stormwater features.
At roughly one-quarter of the city’s land area, the sidewalks, streets and alleys now have the potential to save energy, harvest water and even, perhaps, be carbon-neutral. Microthin, high-reflection sidewalk overlays decrease the urban heat island effect, representing 40 percent of the total public right of way.
And in its first commercial roadway application, ever, photocatalytic cement–imported from an Italian firm called Italcementi—cleans the surface of the roadway and removes nitrogen oxide (NOx) gases from the surrounding air. The active ingredient in the cement is titanium dioxide, a compound commonly included in toothpaste. The titanium dioxide on the cement surface absorbs UV light and uses this energy to react with water vapor in the surrounding air.
Solar panels and wind turbines power overhanging high-efficiency LED streetlights—which stream from dark-sky friendly light fixtures— reducing energy use on the street by 42 percent.
“This project demonstrates a full range of sustainable design techniques that improve the urban ecosystem, promote economic development, increase the safety and usability of streets for all users, and build healthy communities,” said CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein. “It provides both mitigation and adaptation strategies by reducing its carbon footprint and integrating technologies that allow the infrastructure to address and adapt to climate change.”
The $14 million Cermak/Blue Island Sustainable Streetscape project has been funded largely through public tax increment financing (TIF), as well as $800,000 worth of grants from the Federal Highway Administration, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency; and Midwest Generation, a Chicago-based subsidiary of energy generator and distributor Edison International.
“This incredible project has improved the infrastructure and quality of life of the Pilsen Community by creating the greenest street in the country,” said Alderman Daniel Solis (25th Ward). “Sustainability projects like this advance change in the public and private sectors and demonstrate the city’s ability to lead by example.”
What’s more, CDOT plans to expand upon these efforts. The department has embarked on creating Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Guidelines and Policies that will embrace and spread the environmental benefits of “Complete Streets.” These guidelines, expected to be formalized next year, will help improve approaches to managing stormwater, reducing the heat island effect, adapting infrastructure to changing climate conditions, improving neighborhood quality of life, increasing economic development, and minimizing the use of scarce resources.
“We are committed to improving how we address water, air quality, sustainable materials and energy consumption in our city’s infrastructure, while creating places people enjoy living and working,” said Chicago Chief Sustainability Officer Karen Weigert. “Projects like these show that the transportation right-of-way is an essential component for improving environmental conditions, as well as mobility and accessibility in Chicago.”
Edited by Brooke Neuman