C40 Voices: Jamie Ponce, Chicago City Director and Acting Director of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group's Sustainable Infrastructure Finance Network

Sustainable Chicago: Competitive, Livable, and Leading on Climate

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel reaches his second anniversary leading the City of Chicago, our “city in a garden” reflects on dramatic progress and continuing efforts to make Chicago one of the most competitive, livable, and environmentally sustainable places on the planet.

In two short years, Chicago has accelerated sustainability and environment-related work that is transforming life in the city with wide-reaching, positive impact. Sustainable Chicago 2015 , Mayor Emanuel's 3-year sustainability action agenda, underscores seven themes, 24 goals, and 100 concrete actions that build on Chicago's legacy of environmental stewardship and leadership on behalf of its residents. This road map is rooted in 2008’s Chicago Climate Action Plan , which set ambitious goals on climate change mitigation and adaptation — including a 25 percent reduction in the city's greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction in those emissions by 2050.

According to Mayor Emanuel, "A sustainable Chicago is a city that spends less on energy use with each passing year, creates good-paying jobs in up-and-coming industries, responsibly maintains and upgrades its infrastructure, and ensures every Chicagoan has the opportunities to live a healthy and active lifestyle." To that end, the administration and its partners have undertaken high-impact effort in each of Sustainable Chicago 2015’s seven thematic areas.

The first of Sustainable Chicago’s seven themes focuses on Economic Development and Job Creation (#1), which are at the heart of Mayor Emanuel’s sustainability vision as well as his broader policy agenda. Establishing Chicago as a hub for the growing sustainable economy demands good jobs, such as the 600 new summer roles added to the GreenCorps youth program, along with 120 year-round job opportunities in 2013. The City is driving innovation and seeding ideas for new analysis, applications, and sustainable business models by posting more than 84 sustainability-related datasets to its renowned data portal. These data reinforce private sector efforts — such as World Business Chicago’s ChicagoNEXT Council on Innovation and Technology, a digital startup incubator, and one of the Midwest’s premiere clean energy business competitions — to accelerate Chicago’s economy in ways that reinforce our climate goals.

In light of Chicago’s iconic skyline and rich architectural heritage, Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy (#2) to power our buildings are also central to Sustainable Chicago 2015. In 2012, the City launched Retrofit Chicago as a cross-sector program to drive efficiency across municipal assets, commercial buildings, and the residential real estate sector. The City is assessing efficiency opportunities across city-owned assets and will soon be kicking off deep retrofits and other efforts to save taxpayer money through cutting edge efficiency. In March 2013, Retrofit Chicago’s Commercial Buildings Initiative — a voluntary program by which business leaders commit to at least 20 percent energy use reduction within 5 years — grew to include 32 facilities and 28 million square feet, and Retrofit Chicago’s Residential Partnership is helping owners to retrofit thousands of Chicago homes easily and affordably. Building on the 2012 closure of the last coal-burning power plants in Chicago, Municipal energy aggregation is now providing millions of residents and small businesses with access to less expensive, coal-free energy, coupled with recent efforts to streamline zoning and permitting processes for renewable energy. Chicago continues to lead the way in Energy Star and LEED certified buildings and is actively exploring other ways to enable Chicagoans to save money and energy at home and work.

World-class cities require world-class Transportation Options (#3), and Chicago is taking decisive steps to enable fast, efficient, clean mobility for residents and guests. Within Mayor Emanuel’s first years in office, Chicago’s taxi fleet saw a 416 percent increase in fuel-efficient and alternative fuel vehicles, with 3,500 total hybrids or alternative fuel vehicles. The City’s efforts to green its own fleet and operations, along with innovative incentives to drive private fleet conversions, are also garnering attention. Chicago Transit Authority bus overhauls, an ongoing $1 billion U.S. dollar investment in passenger train infrastructure, 34 miles of new bike lanes constructed in 2012, a new bus rapid transit pilot, and sustainability efforts at both of Chicago’s international airports are ensuring coordinated, multi-modal transportation services to connect Chicagoans with each other and to the places they need to go.

With an eye toward resource stewardship, Chicago’s efforts on Water and Wastewater (#4) and Waste and Recycling (#6) display a practical, action-oriented approach. Water infrastructure investment in 2012 across 70 miles of water mains, 17 miles of sewers, and 14,000 catch basins is helping Chicago preserve fresh water resources and manage water runoff, and we’re also working to maximize access and enjoyment of our scenic lake and riverfront areas. By year-end, managed competition for recycling services will have yielded a 38 percent decrease in costs, which — combined with grid-based waste collection — will enable expanded curbside recycling to all 340,000 Chicago households. Businesses, schools, and construction industry are all taking part in dedicated efforts to divert landfill waste

Chicago’s perspective on sustainability also includes access to Parks, Open Space, and Healthy Food (#5) that shape the way we live. Forward-thinking land use policy and community collaboration enabled the launch of “Farmers for Chicago,” a network that provides training to urban entrepreneurs, makes vacant city lots available for farming, and expands local supply chains for food retailers. From our award-winning green restaurants, to multi-million U.S. dollar investments in playgrounds, school learning gardens, and landmark urban recreational trails, we are making sure that all Chicagoans are able to make the most of our city’s vast offerings.

Whether by creating 21st-century jobs, providing world-class recreational outlets, advancing healthy options for Chicagoans, or working to protect Chicago's abundant natural resources, Mayor Emanuel is focused on improving quality of life, enhancing residents’ economic prospects, and “fostering opportunities for Chicagoans to make sustainability a part of their lives and their experience of the city." In doing all of this, we are addressing Climate Change (#6) today to shape the Chicago of tomorrow.

Achieving these ambitious goals requires deeply seated partnerships with sustainable local business and community organizations, as well as with global leaders and multinational organizations. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group provides a platform for collaboration across regions on many of the issues that matter most to our residents and those of global C40 peers. As chair of C40’s Sustainable Infrastructure Finance Network, and through participation in various networks in C40’s finance and economic development, energy, and transportation initiatives, Chicago looks forward to continued sharing and coordinated action as Mayor Emanuel moves into the second half of his first term in office.

For more information: