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Your Neighborhood Green Think Tank

Center for Neighborhood Technology tackles real-life environmental problems

The marble tabletop in the meeting room once graced an old school bathroom, but creatively redesigning familiar spaces is the norm at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), where a commitment to live their work permeates the environmental policy group. The renovation four year ago of CNT's Wicker Park headquarters only used materials secured from less than 500 miles away. Part think tank, part incubator for consumer-driven greening strategies, CNT has spent almost three decades dreaming up ideas to cut resource waste and use the assets hidden in urban environments. From the iGo car-sharing program to an upcoming report that will map Chicago's carbon emissions, CNT pushes beyond informing public understanding of environmental problems to real-life trials at tackling them. Chicago Life sat down with Kathryn Tholin, CNT's chief executive officer. (The CTA question was answered by Jacky Grimshaw, CNT's transportation vice president.)

What can a city do to combat climate change? 

There's everything from the immediate behavioral change of getting people to understand the impact of putting in fluorescent light bulbs to ensuring that we have a strong and growing public transit system that keeps us out of our cars. It starts with the city looking at its own energy and transportation use, but then being a leader for all sectors.

In its Chicago carbon-footprint work, how is CNT incorporating new research on carbon emissions, like the recent study from the University of Chicago that says the livestock industry has a larger carbon footprint than cars and that changing a typical U.S. diet to vegetarianism would have more impact than switching a conventional vehicle for a hybrid? 

There are life-cycle environmental impacts from all of our consumption decisions. For our climate analysis in Chicago, we are looking at direct emission activity within cities--burning fuel, releasing refrigerants, etc.--and the indirect emissions of electricity use. We are not looking at the life-cycle climate impacts of product use and eating habits. CNT has not taken a position on meat consumption, but we are strong supporters of sustainable farming practices and the consumption of locally grown food. Having a good technology isn't enough.

How does CNT compare the proposed Circle Line, which would run down gentrifying Ashland Avenue, to the Mid-City Transit Way, a similar proposed "ring" transit line along Cicero Avenue that would serve the transit-poor West and South sides? 

The purpose of such a new line is to reduce travel times and make transfers to other transit lines more convenient. This is a noteworthy goal. The Mid-City Transit Way is much more preferred. The Circle Line is referred to by members of the environmental-justice communities as the "yuppie" line.

When you delve into systems like the housing and energy markets, there's always the risk it will be gamed against you. In our work we're focused on creating opportunity for the more efficient use of resources and finding ways to be enable those to be widespread opportunities. How do we empower consumers and public entities to take action to produce efficient use of resources and make communities more sustainable? 

Whether you take the carbon savings and trade them with the coal plant is less important to us as whether we can come up with tools that make these reductions happen. You can't ignore the market and you can't rely on the market. Giving people market-based electricity prices changed their behavior when prices were high on a hot summer afternoon. It made them more energy conscious, so that they did energy-efficiency things all the time as well. It gives them a framework to think about the real costs. It's the same with car-sharing--a car is an invisible cost of transportation. You don't think about what each trip costs you.

CNT ran a pilot project in 2001 offering financial instruments to natural-gas consumers to hedge against price increases. Is the solution for us all to become futures traders?

Heating costs are volatile. The solution is through markets, policy and information. Policy is critical--mandating building codes and investment in renewables are a complement, absolutely. We need to create public choices.

Published: April 06, 2007
Issue: Spring 2007