Interview with Sadhu Johnston, Chief Environment Officer, City of Chicago

johnston interview pageSadhu Johnston  

It's been a year since Chicago created its comprehensive climate action plan.  How has progress been in the key areas: building energy efficiency, alternative transportation systems, reducing waste pollution, and renewable energy?  Where has Chicago exceeded your expectations and fallen short in implementing the plan? 

I'm pleased with the progress we've made on implementing plans across all of our city departments and agencies. Our first year was really about planning and developing implementation plans for each of the sections in the action plan. We've just completed the transportation one and soon wrap up the renewable energy one. We now have road maps in each of those areas for things that we want to prioritize and proceed with in the near term and the longer term. It's just a lot of work -- hundreds of people across the city are helping us to put together the actual implementation plans for the broader strategy. 

In certain areas, we've already exceeded our goals. Green roofs are a great example. We already have over seven million square feet of green roofs underway in the city of Chicago. That's way ahead of where we thought we would be at this point. We've exceeded the number of residential retrofits that we expected to retrofit this year. Through the Green Office Challenge, we had more people, more high-rise buildings, join us than we expected. In many, many areas, we've seen greater progress than we had expected. Some of it was just luck, and some of it was just really good implementation from city staff and agencies. 

We worked with Exelon to develop the world's largest municipal solar installation. It's a 40-acre brownfield site that's been vacant for 30 years. We're using the opportunity to put a ten-megawatt solar installation on the site, and bring it back to productive use without having to spend the 30 million dollars to clean it up. This allows us to park that site for about 25 years with solar installation while, hopefully, the rest of the area redevelops, allowing us to then clean up that site. There's an example of something that just fell out of the sky. We were just at the right place, the right time, the right partnership.

In terms of challenges, there's not an area that I can point to that I would say we haven't met our goals at this point. We launched a Chicago trees initiative in partnership with about 30 organizations, non-profits in town here that are involved with trees. We are getting them to move forward our tree components of the plan and develop an urban forest agenda. 

Many cities are updating their building code, including New York City.  What is unique about Chicago's update to its building codes?  Have the codes changed so they can both stop limiting innovations and energy efficiency or local energy production and also enable sustainable design practices?

One of the accomplishments we achieved early on in the plan was passing a new energy code. We passed the IECC 2006 code, which was the newest code at the time. There were a couple of unique elements. The first was a new reflective roofing component. We were one of the first to amend the code to require a higher reflectivity on roofing surfaces to address the urban heat island effect.

At the national level, Congressman Blumenauer of Oregon has been promoting increased walking and biking as a key tool for bringing down CO2 emissions from cars.  Part of this involves investing in city and community infrastructure -- complete streets -- to ensure greater access for pedestrians and bikers.  I've read about the Chicago 2015 Bike Plan.  How has Chicago progressed on making its city more pedestrian and biker friendly?

We've added a lot of additional bike lanes and now have over 12,000 bike racks in the city. We're working on a second bike commuter station because the first one has been just so successful.

johnson bicycle stationMcDonald's Cycle Center (formerly Millennium Park Bike Station) in Chicago / Wikipedia  

I've been Chair of the Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Council, which involves working with 40-50 different non-profits and for-profits in town to ensure that we're implementing the plan effectively. There's a lot happening on biking. The part that really complements the climate action plan is the transit-oriented development (TOD) component, which ensures that new developments tie into existing infrastructure seamlessly and support that infrastructure.

A recent study from CEO for Cities found that walkable, bikable communities also have higher property  values. So conversely, car dependent communities have lower property values. When you calculate the financial return on sustainability investments, do you consider gains from higher property values (and property taxes)?

Millennium Park is a great example. There has been a lot of reinvestment in those properties. One question we ask is: "Are people reinvesting in the properties adjacent to additional new facilities?" Generally, the answer is "yes."

Mayor Daley has also promoted planting trees and shrubs around houses to reduce temperatures and energy usage.  Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Sacramento Municipal Utility found that trees placed around houses to shade windows yielded between 7 and 47 percent energy savings, depending on where the tree was placed.  How has Chicago incentivized greater use of this relatively simple, yet highly effective, green technology?

Years ago, we passed a landscape ordinance, which requires tree planting every time you do a new development. This was one of the first strategies the Mayor pursued to ensure that if you're doing a new home, parking lot, or new building you're utilizing green infrastructure. We've just completed a process called Green Urban Design. This was passed a few months ago by our City Council on Development (CDC). 

The CDC approved the Green Urban Design plan, which helps us to ensure that the green infrastructure that we're installing is playing an ecological role in addition to a beautification role. This is really what our original landscape ordinance was based on. What we call the GUD process was the first attempt on our part to ensure that green infrastructure has an ecological purpose as well. 

Chicago is now famous for installing millions of square feet of green roof across the city. How critical are these green roofs to the city's program for a sustainable stormwater management?

They play an important role. However, we couldn't give credit to a new development for installing a green roof until we passed our storm water ordinance a couple of years ago. Now, every new development is required to calculate stormwater runoff and figure out how they can keep at least a half-inch of that first rain onsite for utilization and bioswales, green roofs, or other green infrastructure, like permeable pavements. Green roofs can play a significant role in stormwater plans for each site.

johnson green roof 2016 
     Chicago City Hall Green Roof / Windows  

What other cities does Chicago look to as a model of sustainability?  Are there other cities in the US?  How far ahead are major cities, like Tokyo, Stockholm, other green innovators?

Mayor Daley travels a lot and hears great ideas all over the world. He then takes those ideas and embeds them here. We borrow heavily from all sorts of places. There are cities all over the world that are clearly examples in different ways for strategies we can implement.

Sadhu Johnston was Chief Environment Officer, Chicago city government until October 2009. Johnston accepted a new position with the Vancouver city government.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.  


Media inquiries

Landscape Architecture Magazine

Jennifer Reut 

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Jared Green

The Field
Ali Hay