Sustainability in Chicago

The City of Chicago has designed a plan to increase sustainability.

As urban areas continue to grow, the question of sustainability becomes a concern. Are our cities sustainable? Currently, urban areas are centers for pollution, however they do have the potential to improve their environment impact and become more sustainable.

The City of Chicago believes that they have the potential to increase their sustainability by making gradual changes. Their Urban Design plan was developed in 2007 to improve all exterior surfaces of the city through a series of policies and ordinance recommendations.

The committee that developed the Urban Design plan recognized that the city had 60% impervious surfaces.  High percentages of impervious surfaces over an area creates a variety of problems, including increased stormwater runoff during rainfall events. The sewers pipelines of Chicago are a combined system that contains both stormwater and other waste water from the city; the pipes direct this water to the waste water treatment plant. During periods of intense rainfall, the system becomes overwhelmed and large amounts of untreated water are forced into the Chicago River, greatly increasing pollution. To address this problem, one of the city’s goals is to reduce the amount of stormwater entering the sewer systems. To do this, some surfaces were re-paved with permeable pavement that allows water to filter through the material into the ground instead of running off. Rooftops covered in gardens also allows water to seep into the soil instead of running off the roof. Both of these designs decrease the amount of stormwater in the sewer system, and help to either recharge groundwater or water plants.

Chicago’s permeable pavement allows water to drain through the material and into the soil beneath.

Green rooftops also serve to decrease the temperatures of the roof to save on energy for cooling. The high levels of heat generated by the plentiful asphalt rooftops lead to prolonged heat waves during the summer months and an increase in air pollution. Planting trees and other vegetation on rooftops throughout the city decrees the amount of heat generated, provides some shade for the building, and remove carbon dioxide from the air to improve air quality. The nutrients needed for adequate plant growth can be provided by composted landscape material that would normally be disposed of in a landfill.

Above is the green rooftop of Chicago’s City Hall.

Chicago is also trying to increase the number of public spaces to improve the city’s aesthetics and the lives of those who live in the city. The riverwalk project beautified the Chicago River, and provides a safe walking path through the city. To improve these outdoor spaces, Chicago also aspired to reduce light pollution. Cities contribute tremendous amounts of light pollution, not only is this unappealing, but it uses large amounts of energy to power all of the lights. Chicago has attempted to reduce this pollution by replacing old street lamps with energy efficient halide lamps that are brighter while producing less light pollution.

Chicago’s Riverwalk adds beauty and function to the Chicago River.

These are just a few of the ways that the City of Chicago has strived to reduce its impact on the environment. The Urban Design plan is a great way to outline some of the key issues for the city and offer real and practical solutions.


Smart Grids

As our need for electricity increases, the condition of the existing power grid infrastructure continues to decline. The aging power lines may not be equipped to handle the increased demand, and can therefore lead to mass power outages.

The power grid system transmits electricity.

One solution to prevent grid failure is to replace the existing lines with newer lines capable of transmitting more power, but this would be very costly to implement on a national scale. In addition to cost, the new wires would not increase the reliability of the grid, or reduce emissions from burning coal and gas.  An alternative to replacement is the installation of a smart grid.

Smart grids are an overhaul of the established grid system that, over time, would install a combination of new lines, monitoring stations, computers, and automated response programs. These new systems would allow the monitoring of electricity transmission from one station to the next. Digital information about the operating status of the grid would be monitored to locate downed lines and quickly fix outages. These smart technologies can be applied to the existing lines to extend their life while increasing their efficiency.

New power grid standards are being developed by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology that would apply to any smart grid technology. Smart meters are the first of the standards to be imposed. Smart meters are designed to allow a user to monitor their energy consumption and adjust their usage in real time to help lower costs.

Smart meters increase communication between energy suppliers and consumers, and also help to reduce cost.

Smart sensors installed in transformers along the grind would help to reduce the number of power outages. Outages occur when transformers fail unexpectedly, so to reduce the impact of a failure, the sensors monitor the transformer and signal an alarm if it is not working properly. The digital information provided by the sensor allows for real time monitoring and an increased response time to problems.

Outages are often caused by failing transformers.

The automated demand response system the smart grid would supply allows for reduction of energy production during peak hours. Instead of requiring power plants to increase their energy production to meet demand during peak hours, the grid would send out a signal through the internet to the consumer that would turn off appliances. The appliances would be turned off according to an energy management strategy created by the consumer. This automatic reduction in energy use during peak hours reduces energy bills and decreases emissions from the extra coal and gas that would be needed during those hours.

The smart grid technology provides the much needed improvement of the grid system without the cost of replacing all of the current power lines. The smart grid system has the potential to greatly increase the reliability of the grid, increases the efficiency of electricity transmission, and lower environmental impact than replacing the old infrastructure. The smart grid also allows more energy to be generated by renewable sources, which help to reduce the environmental impacts of coal and natural gas.

Energy Efficiency in Homes

As fossil fuels become scarcer and more costly, it has become apparent that the future of energy is uncertain. To help transition away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable energies, changes in energy consumption need to start now. The least dramatic action we can take to begin the shift would be to simply increase efficiency.

One of the simplest ways to increase the country’s overall energy efficiency would be to improve efficiency of homes.

Home efficiency can be improved by purchasing Energy Star rated products. To achieve an Energy Star Rating, products must be significantly more energy effect than traditional products,  the increased product cost must to be displaced by the amount of energy it saves, and it must have the same level of productivity of other products.

All Energy Star rated products must prominently display this symbol to make it recognizable as an energy efficient product.

There are a wide variety of Energy Star products available for every room in the house. By purchasing several Energy Star products, the overall efficiency of the household will increase.

Heating and cooling systems account for nearly half of energy usage in homes. To reduce this, several measures can be taken. Programmable thermostats allow temperature to be adjusted automatically. This allows higher/lower temperatures when the house is unoccupied or when the residents are sleeping to reduce overall energy usage. Dehumidifiers can decrease energy used for cooling during the summer months. Dehumidifiers condense the water vapor in the air and remove some of the humidity. Reducing humidity makes the air feel cooler, and therefore reducing the amount of energy used by air conditioners to cool the home.

Programable thermostats and dehumidifiers can both reduce the cost of heating and cooling homes

To further reduce heating and cooling costs, insulating walls and installing insulating windows can make a major difference in a home’s energy use. Insulation can decrease heat loss by 40% during the winter. To add to the green properties of insulation, eco-friendly materials are widely available and highly effective. Insulation for homes can be made from cotton, wool, and recycled denim and a variety of other recycled and renewable sources.

Above is an image of recycled denim insulation

Living Buildings

In 2006, the International Living Future Institute created a challenge titled “The Living Building Challenge.” The challenge was deigned to inspire long-term thinking and make room for sustainability in the modern world. There are 20 criteria that must be met  for a building to be certified as a Living Building. The broad categories that these criteria fall under are site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. Some of the specific requirements of these buildings include a net zero energy and water consumption,  support a car free lifestyle,  constructed in a sustainable location, and integrate agriculture, even in urban settings.  Because these requirements are performance based, simply constructing a building that meets these standards does not automatically mean it has met the challenge. A year-long occupancy period is also part of the challenge, where the building must show that it can continue to meet the challenge’s standards for at least one year.

The Living Building Challenge

The high standards of sustainability required to attain certification makes a Living Building even more challenging to achieve then the current sustainability standards of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED certification. LEED was created in 2000 by the U.S. Green Building Council as a way of calling attention to the green potential of buildings and inspiring green construction. To become LEED certified, the building must receive a certain minimum number of points on a 100 point scale in areas of “sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.” Living Building certification is endorsed by the U.S. Green Building Council as a way to take the idea of LEED a step further.

Currently, there are only three Living Building certified sites, however many more are under construction or entering the one year occupation period. There is currently  a building  under construction in Seattle, Washington that hopes to achieve Living Building certification.

Above is a rendering of what the new building will look like.

A variety of innovative ideas will be employed to allow the six story building to meet the Living Building requirements. The building  will achieve net zero energy by utilizing solar panels on the roof. The solar panels will contribute energy to the grid during the summer when the panels produce more electricity than needed. In the winter the building will have to draw energy from the grid to make up for the lack of sunlight, however the energy the building draws will be no more than it had contributed during the sunny summer months. Water equilibrium will be achieved by collecting rainwater and purifying it in an on-site facility. Water will also be circulated throughout the building as a means of temperature control to reduce the amounts of heating and cooling required.

Though the building may cost almost one third more than a conventional building, the savings in energy and water bills will more than make up for the additional cost. In addition, with the building designed to last 250 years, the savings over that time will be substantial.

The 10,000 Year Clock

A common theme throughout everything I have read so far regarding energy, sustainability, and the future is that the world is suffering from short-term thinking. Oil is being extracted at rapid rates and new unconventional oils are being developed to supply our growing demand. This type of short-term thinking will soon result in exhaustion of all oil reserves and leave society unprepared to live life without oil. It takes long-term thinking to realize the supply of oil is finite. It takes long-term thinking to conserve current supplies of oil. And it takes long-term thinking to start preparing for a world without oil by investing in renewable resources before the last drop of oil is pumped out of the ground. But how do we start to thinking long-term when short-term thinking creates jobs now, money now, and is easier to comprehend?

In 01996 Daniel Hillis, a computer scientist, decided to inspire long-term thinking in a dramatic way. He founded The Long Now Foundation with the intention of inspiring long-term thinking.  The foundation was established with the belief that humans do not realize the true meaning of “future.” We think of the future in a personal context of a week or a year, but few realize that the future goes beyond that and could mean 1000 years. The foundation even strives to inspire this type of long-term thinking by placing a zero in front of the year (02012) to increase demonstrate that 2012 isn’t such a large number and that there is still a long future ahead. To call attention to the need for long-term thinking Hillis conceived the 10,000 year clock as a symbol that will stand the test of time.

“I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of an ever-shortening future. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.”  — Daniel Hillis

 Above is a picture of the prototype clock that resides in the London Science Museum.

 Construction of the first non-prototype clock began recently in West Texas with the excavation of a mountain. That’s correct, the clock will be housed inside a 500 foot shaft excavated into the mountain, and the clock itself will stand 200 feet tall. To reach the clock once it is completed will require a two hour drive from the nearest airport and a 2,000 foot vertical climb up the mountain. Any visitor will know they have reached the location of the clock when they discover a jade door hidden behind a rock face that opens into the clock chamber.

Image of a model of the clock design used in development of the large clock.

The parts of the clock will be mainly stainless steel to prevent corrosion, and the bearings will be made of ceramic. According to a  2011 Discovery News article, “The clock will be powered by a thermoelectric generator, drawing electricity from the temperature difference between the hot exterior and the cool interior of the cave. A self-adjusting “solar synchronizer” will help the clock keep accurate time.” The synchronizer will work by tracking solar noon and adjusting the time of the clock accordingly. The clock will also include a star chart that accurately tracks the position of the stars above the clock, and a unique sequence of chimes will ring every day so that in 3.5 million days the same chime is never heard twice.

The idea behind the design of the clock is to create a mechanical clock that not only keeps time on a very long scale, but does not require electricity or extensive human maintenance. Because the clock is self-correcting it can be accurate within one day after 20,000 of operation. Even if humans do not maintain the clock by winding it, it will still function on its own and will regain accuracy once it is wound again.

The Long Now Foundation is an unfortunately rare example of forward thinking. Not only have they designed a monument to the future Earth, but they have ensured that it will operate even if our energy resources run out. The mere fact that a group of people were able to construct a clock that would be working and accurate in 10,00 years’ time is astounding and will hopefully inspire others to create sustainable technology. The clock is the perfect symbol of possibilities for the future and could inspire the long-term thinking we so desperately need.

“The Clock of the Long Now”

The clock allows us to imagine people in 10,000 years discovering the jade door in a mountain long after the clock was forgotten, climbing up the clock tower and hearing a chime that has never been heard before nor will it be heard again for centuries to come. It provides a much needed connection from the people of today to the people of tomorrow.

Cradle to Cradle

The current economic system is built on constant growth, and growth has come to be synonymous with ever increasing the amount of material goods produced. This model of growth is highly unsustainable and environmentally destructive. Even if the energy used in manufacturing is eventually generated by only renewable means, the products would still consist of nonrenewable materials obtained through mining.

To reduce the amount of resources required for the ever increasing production of material goods, cradle to cradle product development needs to become the standard. Cradle to cradle refers to products that have a life beyond their initial purpose. Products are designed to either be biodegradable or completely recyclable so that their impact on the environment is minimal. This form of production is not necessarily sustainable but it is a large step in the direction of wisely using resources and reducing the human impact on the environment. By manufacturing products in a way that prevents them from simply becoming trash, the amount of waste entering landfills would be drastically reduced.

Though widespread development of cradle to cradle products may not exist currently, there are a number of companies that are producing cradle to cradle certified products.  Below are just a few examples of the cradle to cradle certified products available today.



                                              House with Bark House® siding

Highland Craftsmen Inc. has produced Bark House® shingle siding. These exterior shingles are certified as cradle to cradle because they are made from reclaimed poplar bark from a sustainably designed forest. The bark is harvested within 100 miles of the manufacturing site to reduce transport of materials. The process of preparing the bark for siding does not require water, harsh chemicals, or large amounts of energy. The product is durable and has been proven to last 80 years maintenance free. The product is also completely biodegradable, creating no waste once the siding is removed.


gDiapers are the only cradle to cradle certified diaper currently available. These diapers are unique because they are a diaper cover with a non-plastic, flushable, and 100% biodegradable insert. The product creates no landfill waste and is also compostable and breakdown completely in 50 to 150 days.

gDiapers are an environmentally conscious alternative to disposable diapers.

In addition to the product itself being environmentally friendly, gDiaper also participates in GreenShipping. GreenShipping allows for the carbon generated from the shipping process to be calculated and offset by other conservation methods to make shipping carbon neutral.


                                                  Herman Miller’s SAYL chair

The Herman Miller SAYL Chair is designed to use fewer materials than conventional work chairs. The backing is made of a mesh that uses less plastic to produce. The entire chair is 93% recyclable and manufactured using 100% renewable energy. The company of Herman Miller has established sustainability goals to be attained by 2020 that includes a carbon footprint of zero, no landfill waste, and no hazardous waste creation.


Playworld Systems creates playground equipment. All of the playground equipment in their 2010 catalog was cradle to cradle certified.

This is one of many cradle to cradle certified playgrounds produced by              Playworld Systems.

The company has been consistently dedicated to green development and has recently taken action to reduce their carbon footprint during. Most building materials for their play sets are made from recycled metals, the product’s packaging is recyclable, manufacturers are located within 150 miles of the facility to reduce transportation, and 90% of waste generated by the company is recycled. In addition to reducing carbon, their products have been made more environmentally friendly by no longer contain PVC.

Potential for electric cars

Many solutions have been put forth to reduce the national dependency on oil. Some solutions suggested in the book Energy: Science, Policy and the Pursuit of Sustainability by Robert Bent, Lloyd Orr and Randall Baker are severe increases in oil taxes or removing oil subsidies efforts to increase the cost of gas and evoke a reduction in oil consumption.

Instead of implementing these drastic and expensive measures, perhaps by providing viable transportation alternatives, the reliance on oil will begin to decrease.  One new area of technology that has the potential to facilitate this is the electric car.

Above is an image of a 2012 electric car.

Turning to electric cars instead of traditional cars can bring the fuel source to America and reduce our dependency on foreign sources of energy. The electricity generated and used by electric cars comes from power plants that utilize coal and natural gas. Though coal can be very detrimental to the environment, natural gas is a relatively clean source of energy that has been recently discovered to be in great supply throughout the United States. Hydraulic fracturing is a new technology that is allowing vast amounts of natural gas to be extracted from previously unproductive shale.

Though currently the electric car can only travel about 100 miles on a single charge, new battery technologies are being developed to increase this distance dramatically. Improving batteries would make electric cars a cost-effective and energy conscious alternative to traditional vehicles.  Increasing the number of electric car charging stations throughout the country and advances in technology have the potential to awaken the public to the possibilities of reliable gas-free transportation.  In the near future, electric cars could become a serious alternative to traditional cars and allow the nation to shift away from foreign oil and toward domestic sources of energy.