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The New Green

Americans typically define green by its presence, the expanse of green lawns that extends from coast to coast.

By JOE VALERIO

As the Blue Line "L" train from O'Hare travels under Milwaukee Avenue, the otherworldly fluorescent light strains the eyes, while the shriek of steel wheels on steel rails punishes the ears. The air has the odor of ozone. In this relentless environment, it would seem the color green could be defined by its absence. Americans typically define green by its presence, the expanse of green lawns that extends from coast to coast. Yet which green is more sustainable in the long run?

For architects, the answer has meant embracing LEED. Not so long ago few people knew what this acronym stood for--Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program, introduced in 1998, rates how sustainable a building is based on a point system awarded in six categories: selecting and designing sustainable sites; increasing water efficiency; protecting the atmosphere and reducing energy use; conserving materials and resources; improving indoor environmental quality; and encouraging innovation in the design process. The total number of points determines a project's rating of bronze, silver, gold or platinum. It has become common to find an architect who is a LEED Certified Professional--a standard that will soon become expected.

But like any new program, LEED has a flaw that is rarely acknowledged. It focuses only on the buildings and does not consider the larger context. To illustrate this issue, consider two different buildings. One is located in downtown Chicago, and the other is in suburban Barrington. Each has a highly efficient air-conditioning system, but LEED doesn't recognize that some people might consume more gas to reach the Barrington. The energy saved by the air-conditioning system might be wiped out by the energy used to travel there.

For this reason sustainable or green buildings are only part of the solution. The real issue is the development of sustainable cities, of which Chicago is a noteworthy example.

With good sustainable "bones," Chicago's dense urban fabric interlaces great places to live with great places to work, all connected with a rich network of public transportation. The Chicago Metropolis 2020 Plan, the master plan for the region, recognizes the destructive trend in locating housing construction far from where jobs are located. The plan calls for growth that coordinates the location of housing with the location of jobs and the network of public transportation.

Other cities can match these qualities, but what really differentiates Chicago is the city government. No other city has invested in supporting sustainable design to the same extent. The city's energy code and zoning code have been rewritten with sustainable principles. Any building in a Planned Development, required for all major projects, must have a green roof--a roof covered with vegetation. Such a roof conserves energy with its layers of earth and vegetation while reducing the heat pollution that results from dark roof surfaces.

The shift to green began with Mayor Daley's interest in making the city more beautiful by planting a million trees. To do this, the Daley administration developed the Green Core program to train landscapers. Working with the local chapter of the AIA, a plan was developed for a training center and activities focused on sustainability. This became the Chicago Center for Green Technology, a platinum-rated building designed by Doug Farr, a Chicagoan who is a national leader in the sustainable movement. Along the way, the mayor moved from a simple definition of green to a more complex one that embraces both beauty and sustainability.

Taken as a whole--and with the leadership of the mayor--it can be argued no other American city is more sustainable than Chicago. The complex definition of green allows you to see the color all around you as you hurtle down that dark tunnel on the Blue Line. The train is driven by electrical power, which can be generated by clean technologies. It's efficient, encouraging density and suggesting community.

Up above, the grass continues to grow--as long as it's pampered with lots of fresh water, fertilized with chemicals and cut with a lawn mower, contributing to the hydrocarbons in the atmosphere. Herbert Muschamp observed in The New York Times that the lawn is "a space dedicated to harmony and independence [that] can easily become a battleground. Is an overgrown lawn a protected form of speech? How about Christmas ornaments on the lawn? Or a cross-burning?" Instead of being harmonious, the lawn is becoming controversial. It's anti-density, anti-community and green only in color.

Joseph Valerio is a founding partner of Valerio Dewalt Train Associates in Chicago.

Published: December 01, 2005
Issue: Holiday 2005