…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Warning to NYC: Don’t Fall for Mayor Daley’s Greenwashing of Chicago
Categories: Commentary, Environment

by Meg White
green is good

This morning, I opened up an e-mail from the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy (DMI) titled, “Will a Greener NYC Look Like Chicago?”

“Good, Lord, I hope not,” I thought. Keep in mind, this grumbling came directly after walking from the bus stop past several overflowing garbage cans and dodging traffic on smoggy Milwaukee Avenue in order to get to BuzzFlash HQ, the windows of which overlook the Kennedy Expressway.

DMI, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to preserving the middle class and generating progressive solutions to social injustice, held an event in New York yesterday looking for a way to turn the “concrete jungle into an urban oasis.” Our very own Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was a featured guest at the conference. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was one participant who sang Daley’s praises, although the clip highlighted by DMI made her look more jealous of Chicago’s City Hall than motivated to save the planet.

“[Daley] is someone who is really, well, in some ways making us look a little bad,” Quinn complained. “It’s upsetting to me that his city hall is A) in that good of shape and B) that he had a better idea more quickly that we did.”

Come on, New York. I thought you were more cynical than that. Can’t you see? Daley stole New York’s “broken window theory” and greenwashed it!

The popular thesis that to clean up a city’s crime problems one must make it look nicer was applied to Chicago by “Da Mare,” especially in blighted downtown areas that also happened to be visible to the city’s many tourists. Daley didn’t just fix windows and hire “graffiti blasters,” he planted flowers. Lots of flowers. And I admit, Chicago looks mighty nice.

It was a natural shift from filled flowerpots to trees to rooftop gardens. When Daley found out that his pretty plants also paid environmental dividends, this aesthetic program became much easier to defend, even with increasing budget shortfalls and rising taxes.

Sure, rooftop gardens are nice. But there’s more to greening a city than a pleasant building toupée.

Not only is Chicago the second most overpriced city in the nation according to a recent article by Forbes magazine, but also it’s one of the most greenwashed.

Perhaps the most obvious proof of Daley’s green lie is the lack of a municipal recycling system. While San Francisco contemplates mandatory composting, Chicago can’t even get the three R’s right. As the Chicago Reader noted, “Recycling in Chicago is an embarrassment.”

When Chicagoans found out that the “Blue Bag” recycling program was a fraud, the city pulled the wool over our eyes with Blue Bins. Meet the new bin, same as the old bag. It may be less obviously corrupt, but the blue bins are scarce and unevenly applied to city wards and businesses. And one need only take a stroll down Michigan Avenue to see the absence of public recycling receptacles.

Instead of making recycling widely available and convenient, Daley has decided to make it eye-catching. We may not recycle, but our high-tech trash compactors run on solar power! Our alleys may be overflowing with garbage, but at least they are fancy green alleys! Ain’t that keen?

Still, Daley routinely gets away with calling Chicago “the greenest city in America.” Why don’t Portland or San Fran speak up? It’s a mystery, much like the manner in which Daley keeps getting re-elected, rather than indicted.

“It’s total public relations fraud,” said Harold Platt, a professor of urban and environmental history at Loyola University Chicago and author of the book Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago. Platt told the Chi-town Daily News he thought Daley’s version of Chicago is much like BP’s greenwashing of gasoline. He says that Chicago has to clean up its act in many environmental arenas, beginning with public transportation.

I mentioned the runaway success of Zipcar and I-GO in Chicago in an article about environmentalism and saving the auto industry just yesterday. But these two car-sharing companies are clearly out there to make money (private Zipcar) or remain solvent (nonprofit I-GO), not green the city. Case in point: They avoid the South Side, where people are more likely to be car-less and prohibitively far away from local grocery stores.

Speaking of environmental discrimination, Chicago’s South Side is also under-served by public transportation. A 2008 report compiled by Developing Government Accountability to the People found that Illinois bases whether a community gets an extra bus or train stop based on how much money residents have to spend, not on whether or not they need transportation (emphasis mine):

The regional transit system of Chicago is being eroded by continuation of a 1983 state funding formula that bases funding levels on geographic boundaries and retail spending, ignoring transit ridership and other criteria related to transit performance and needs.  As a result of this formula, Chicago’s people of color experience substantial service cutbacks and fare increases.

While we might expect the Chicago Transit Authority to be more equitable in servicing the community, private companies have less accountability in the area of both equality and environmental concerns, which brings us to Chicago’s strong leadership in privatization.

In a faltering economy, it’s harder to expect private business and nonprofits to carry out the duties that make city living possible. This has an impact on how green a city is. For example, one Chicago food pantry specializing in fresh and organic charity is faltering because its funding source — recyclable materials — has crashed in value. They warned the recycling service might be shuttered altogether.

Chicago got a lot of credit for intervening to protect Lake Michigan from increased dumping at the BP plant in nearby Indiana. But when it comes to dumping municipal waste in our country’s waterways, Chicago comes out as one of the dirtiest. The U.S. Geological Survey recently released a report that names Chicago as the top culprit contributing to the 8,000-square-mile “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Our city discharges more toxic waste water into the Mississippi River than any other.

There’s currently a study seeking to find out if merely inhaling the water particles from the air above the Chicago River might be enough to make one sick, or if boat-bound revelers must be splashed by the sewage-contaminated water itself to be made ill.

In other words, New Yorkers: Don’t buy it. If you want to aspire to be more like Chicago, try adopting our charming Midwestern habits of modesty and self-deprecating humor. In fact, maybe “da Mare” might try that as well.


Photo courtesy of Flipped Out’s photostream on Flickr. Also, a hat tip to Chi-town Daily News for their continuously awesome reporting on local environmental issues.

Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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