More than two decades ago, a new mayor took the reins of this great city, facing an uncertain future, a degraded environment and a declining quality of life for its citizens. Today, Richard M. Daley is still on the fifth Floor of City Hall, finishing out his term as the longest-serving chief executive that we have seen in this town. As a new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, prepares to step into the office, we face a seemingly unfamiliar transition and must, for the first time in memory for some, think about what Chicago's priorities should be under a new administration. And to do that, we need to understand what a huge transformative role Daley played in urban and environmental policy.
There will be no shortage of references to green roofs and bike lanes that stretch to the moon as Daley's departure comes ever-nearer. But frankly, that shortchanges his legacy. Sure, as the mayor's first Commissioner of the Environment, my front-row seat to Daley's emerging leadership on green issues perhaps colors my view, but I think Daley transformed how we think about the American city and re-shaped the national view of the built urban environment.
The Chicago that Daley inherited was very different from the glittering world-class metropolis you see today. The avoidance of rust-belt decline was not so sure when he came to power -- this was a much grittier burgh. The concept of open space was very different. It wasn't for parks, it was for dumping. And the garbage that wasn't dumped was burned in a giant Clean Air Act flaunting incinerator, contributing to a region blanketed in a grey sky mantle. The river flowing through Chicago, while far from clean now, was a cesspool. Today, Chicago has much healthier environment and quality of life. Many square miles of abandoned factories, which seemed like they would be that way for ever, are now productive spaces. This is a powerful part of the legacy Mayor Daley leaves to his successor.
Much is made of how pretty Chicago has become under Daley's leadership. And it could be that focus on aesthetics that eventually turned him into America's green mayor. Through the early years of his administration, Daley's Johnny Appleseed tree-planting fascination helped evolve him from an aesthetic ideologue into a leader who began to look at his dense city though a naturalist's eyes. Just as the towering canopy of the Amazon marks the environment for so many creatures, the trees he was planting was transforming the habitat for city-dwellers. In many places that environment was so degraded little positive could occur. But it became clear that his oaks had an impact, confirming studies that noted a decrease in crime in areas with greenery. That experience helped lead to an all-out attack on the problem of solid waste dumping and, in turn, helped to kick off the brown fields movement to bring back damaged properties rather than simply allow them to degrade.
Chicago's Center for Green Technology is an instructive example of the massive transformation. The site was once home to a massive mountain of construction debris, garbage and discarded tires that created a huge public safety threat and blight on the landscape. When the owners and operators claimed that they could not get rid of the illegal mound, or return it to productive use, we used the fledgling brown field legal tools to seize the property, remediate the mess, and build a monument to smarter, environmentally-friendly solutions that remains valuable to the West Side community today. And as vast tracts of the city were similarly brought back into the mix, parcel-by-parcel, the nation's mayors began to notice. Through his leadership in forums like the National Conference of Mayors, Daley was able to spread his green city gospel around the country and the brown field movement flourished. No more did cities have to sit back and watch as their valuable space moved to ever-more-polluted status, never to be used productively. And perhaps the greatest example of this is Millennium Park -- a former rail right-of-way that blighted the Loop right next to the glorious Art Institute. In what many believe was the feather in his development cap, Daley built what I believe is the single most thrilling public space in America above the rail lines. Few municipal executives have ever had the foresight, power, or energy to shepherd such a complicated and expensive project through. But I suppose that is why few municipal executives will likely ever have the same impact on national culture.
As the new mayor takes over the reins from Richard M. Daley, this is a legacy to honor: receipt of a global city in the heartland of America, where stewardship of the environment is the key to quality of life, jobs, wealth and health.
Image by Marc Monaghan
This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.