Interview with Sadhu Johnston, Chicago’s Chief Environment Officer, on the City’s Climate Action Plan

Sadhu Johnston, Chief Environment Officer, Chicago city government, discusses Chicago’s forward-thinking and comprehensive climate action plan at its one-year anniversary. Johnston outlines progress in key areas, including green roof and stormwater management infrastructure, building energy efficiency (including new rules on reflective roofs), renewable energy, and sustainable transportation systems.

Chicago’s many city agencies has spent the past year turning the broader climate action plan into specific implementation plans. While this intra-government process continues, Johnston says the city has already exceeded benchmarks in some key areas. As an example, Johnston contends Chicago has dramatically expanded its rooftop green infrastructure — there is now seven million square feet of green roof. “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.”

To further spur development of the city’s green roofs, Chicago is tying them in with sustainable stormwater management plans. “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.”

On building energy efficiency, the city has made progress in a variety of ways. “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.” Additionally, Chicago recently updated its city-wide building codes, which now includes “unique features” such as cool or reflective roof rules. “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.”

Chicago sees remaining urban brownfields as a key opportunities for expanding renewable energy capacity and is actively partnering with the private sector to find solutions. “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.”

To further improve on the walking and biking transportation networks in the city, Chicago launched the Chicago 2015 bike plan, which fits in with the greater climate action and transit-oriented development (TOD) plans. Johnston says: “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 TOD component, which ensures that new developments tie into existing infrastructure seamlessly and support that infrastructure.” The involvment with community organizations has paid off: “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.” 

Read the full interview

Image credit: The Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois. Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd, Seattle, Washington

One thought on “Interview with Sadhu Johnston, Chicago’s Chief Environment Officer, on the City’s Climate Action Plan

  1. Georgia 11/01/2009 / 1:41 pm

    How has the city met benchmarks and reduced its climate impact? By operationalizing climate change and then developing implementation requirements (versus “encourage” and “support” language in some municipal environmental policy documents).

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