Blue in Green

Cermak Road in Chicago is a model for green infrastructure.
Steven Vance

Chicago’s Cermak Road is an industrial artery that links state and U.S. high- ways, passing through several suburbs and working-class neighborhoods of the city’s southwest side. And now it is the “greenest street in America” according to city officials, after transportation commissioner Gabe Klein cut the ribbon on a project whose list of infrastructure improvements reads like a manual for sustainable urban street design.

Natural landscaping, bike lanes, a wind-powered LED streetlight and “smog-eating” concrete are among the street’s more telegenic aspects, but the most interesting part of this pilot project is its price tag. These 14 blocks cost 21 percent less to build than similar projects they considered, city officials said, and will be cheaper to maintain.

At $1 million per block, paid for mostly by TIF and federal highway funds, the soup-to-nuts approach demonstrated on Cermak—which cut the street’s runoff 80 percent and reduced energy use by nearly half—probably isn’t suited for every street in the city. But as more data emerges on the benefits of green infrastructure (the city will gather data on this project’s performance), its potential return on investment should have the ear not just of eco-friendly city planners, but of budget-conscious politicians as well.

Cermak Road cross section showing stormwater-retention features of the street’s redesign.
Courtesy CDOT

A 2012 study by American Rivers, ECONorthwest, and other groups examined 479 green infrastructure projects around the country and compared them to typical projects. More than 44 percent were less expensive, in some cases substantially, while another 31 percent were no more expensive than traditional alternatives.

The Urban Ecosystem Analysis of Washington, D.C., found that tree cover saved nearly $4.7 billion in avoided stormwater storage costs. In Chicago, climate change could intensify rainstorms enough to overwhelm the city’s $3 billion Deep Tunnel system, a vast network of sewer pipes and reservoirs that is still years away from completion. Like many cities in the Midwest, Chicago has a combined sewer system that integrates wastewater, or sewage, and stormwater. When this system overflows it pushes contaminated water into Lake Michigan and local waterways. Rains heavy enough to trigger such events are expected to become 50 percent more frequent over the next 25 years.

Some of this work is already being done. An early participant in the green roof movement, Chicago’s city hall saves $3,600 on energy each year and soaks up 60 percent of rain before it reaches the sewers. The city has 1,900 miles of public alleyways, more than any other city in the world. Since 2006, the city has worked to upgrade that vast network of asphalt with permeable pavement. These investments, along with harvesting rain and planting trees, have been three to six times more cost-effective than traditional methods, according to the nonprofit Center for Clean Air Policy. The Cermak Road project is one of the first examples of a major city street adopting that technology.

The infrastructure improvements fit into a larger scheme to reinvent this somewhat gritty trucking corridor, one that also includes the newly designated Cermak Road Creative Industry District. The neighborhoods near this stretch of Cermak—Pilsen and Lawndale—eagerly await a fresh start for 132 acres formerly home to two coal plants. Chicago’s aging infrastructure needs to be updated. Ramping up investment in green infrastructure could be a cost-effective way to accomplish that goal.

Related Stories