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Greening the Post-Industrial City

How can we utilize what’s long been neglected?

   Much of environmental consciousness is understanding the interrelationships between seemingly inconsequential actions and global phenomena. We are now all familiar with the power of recycling. Rather than tossing a product into a landfill after using it, consumers initiate the reintroduction of that material by placing it in a specialty bin. Recognizing the significance of such small actions, cities often support these efforts through recycling programs. While Chicago has had problems with municipal recycling, it’s famous for its successes—planting green roofs, developing bicycle lanes and promoting the construction of LEED-certified buildings. Each of these collective efforts works to conserve natural resources, reduce pollutants and create more socially responsible cities.
 These actions must be lauded as Chicago forges an exemplary future for the post-industrial city. Yet as we strive towards sustainability, we must not neglect the hidden environmental value of our heritage: our built resources. Chicagoans have amassed tremendous built resources in the last two centuries. From the steel mills on the Calumet River to the manors on the Gold Coast, a vast array of structures has been constructed at great cost.  Hidden in each of these buildings is embodied energy—the amount of energy required to create a structure, including baking each brick, laying the foundation and even finishing the hardwood floors.
   We squander an important opportunity for environmental and social sustainability by not preserving this architecture. Reusing existing buildings reduces the need for new construction materials, lessens landfill waste and preserves the embodied energy of these structures. From a societal perspective, it also protects against the collapse of impoverished neighborhoods, where buildings are often lost to neglect.
   Particularly in an era of skyrocketing foreclosure evictions, we must take special efforts to protect against buildings sliding into dereliction. Large swaths of the South and West Sides have already been lost to neglectful and even malicious absentee landlords, reducing the  available housing stock and forcing the expensive redevelopment of neighborhoods rather than the relatively meager costs of their maintenance.
   With this physical neglect also comes social neglect, perhaps seen most clearly in the Chicago Housing Authority’s public housing projects. After years of divestment from its large-scale projects, the buildings were left in shambles, leaving residents feeling abandoned. Shying away from this disaster, the CHA is pursuing its Plan for Transformation and decimating the good along with the bad. While CHA projects seem an unlikely opportunity for preservation, the rehabilitation of developments like Archer Courts Apartments, which won praise from the American Institute of Architects, demonstrates that rehabbing even the “worst” buildings into a dignified habitat is possible.
   Of course, sustainability planning should not stop at preservation. Where our homes, corner stores and churches already have been lost, we should invest in environmentally conscious new construction. And that construction should be complemented with what communities are already doing on derelict lots throughout the city—creating green space like urban gardens, nature preserves and playing fields. Following this strategy, we can preserve our heritage while leading the way to a new era of ecological and social sustainability.

Published: April 04, 2009
Issue: 2009 Spring Green Issue


The greenest building...
This article touches on a very important aspect of building green. It is said, "The greenest building is the one that is already built." As an architect working on a LEED registered project in Chicago, I appreciate the city's efforts to incentivize owners to make decisions to build better buildings: permit expediting, zoning incentives, etc. That said, being good stewards of the existing built environment left by past Chicagoans is critical for the city's future. Maintaining and improving these assets sustainably is a necessary compliment to the efforts on the new construction front. Improving within authentic environments is our firm's way of acknowledging the importance of the city's existing fabric, and we find as much joy working on renovations as we do new construction within Chicago. "Improving Within Authentic Environments" http://www.1016architecture.com
Andrew Wilson, May-06-2009