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Chicago’s Green Mayor: The Legacy of Richard Daley

An editorial discussing Daley’s tenure as Mayor of Chicago and the impact he will leave on city parks.

Mayor Daley (left) at the grand opening of Millennium Park. Credit: City of Chicago

As Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 21-year reign over the city of Chicago comes to a close, multiple publications are evaluating his impact and legacy – from a comprehensive assessment of a variety of issues in the New York Times to a laundry list of unfinished business in the Chicago Tribune. Many organizations have recognized Daley for his part in greening the city – the Urban Land Institute (ULI) recently awarded him the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. Deeming the Mayor an “Urban Artist,” ULI asserts that Mayor Daley has “transformed this Rustbelt city into a revitalized international metropolis, bringing together the built and natural environments to make the city more sustainable, livable, and lively.” The U.S. Green Building Council recently created the Mayor Richard M. Daley Legacy Award for Global Leadership in Creating Sustainable Cities – and this year’s winner…Richard M. Daley.

On Citiwire.net, Neal Peirce notes the Mayor’s substantive green achievements:

  • 88 Chicago buildings claimed LEED certification (as of late 2009);
  • A 20,300-square-foot green roof was built atop City Hall;
  • More than 600 rooftop gardens and green roofs covering more than seven million square feet that have been constructed or underway on top of public or private buildings around Chicago;
  • 1,300 acres of new open space has been added to the City since 1998; and
  • Chicago has planted more than 600,000 trees and constructed more than 85 miles of landscaped medians.

It is an impressive list of accomplishments for a city that was once an emblem of the Rustbelt’s decay. While city coffers filled with the spoils of the late 90’s economic boom and concomitant real estate speculation, Daley guided Chicago’s green urban renewal. He had a vision for the city – his vision – and public greenspaces were an essential component.

Millennium Park is the crown jewel of Daley’s tenure in office. Opened in 2004, the 24.5-acre park ingeniously covers the old Illinois Central railroad tracks (now a parking garage) and has become the city’s top tourist destination. It is a stunning public space and now a centerpiece of the Chicago experience.

But as Lynn Becker of the Chicago Reader warned at the park’s opening, “Millennium Park needs to be remembered as an object lesson in how not to do such a project.” Millennium Park was 4 years late and $300 million over-budget due to building setbacks, contractor lawsuits, and budget shortfalls. $95 million of the total cost was diverted from a tax increment financing (TIF) district to which Millennium Park did not belong – money which could have been utilized to bolster schools, other parks, and a city budget in the red. (For more on TIFs, the Chicago Way, see Ben Joravsky’s Go On, Smash It). However, the project did succeed at harnessing the generosity of Chicago’s wealthy benefactors. Over $200 million of private contributions made Millennium Park – a public greenspace – a reality.

Other public space projects generated a more mixed public reaction and are representative of Daley’s unilateral style of leadership. Meigs Field, situated on Northerly Island, had served as a small-plane airport since the late 1940s. For years, the Mayor had sought to close the airport for park space – indeed, Northerly Island had been designated park land in the original Burnham Plan. Finally, in the middle of a March night back in 2003, Daley ordered bulldozers to dig up portions of runway, stranding planes on the airfield and preventing landings. Although there were no immediate threats to the city, Daley argued that Chicago was overlooked in national terrorism prevention efforts, and eliminating the airfield was a measure of protection. The City was sued and fined by the FAA, but Daley had his way. Northerly Island is currently home to a concert venue, but plans are in the works to fully develop the island as a nature park.

Daley made other big changes. Prior to his arrival on the scene, the Chicago Park District was heavy on patronage and bureaucracy and light on park maintenance and planning. Years of mismanagement left the district in an untenable financial state and subject to a court order to reduce race-based inequities. In 1993, Daley began the process of overhauling the district. Led by Forrest Claypool, the district hired a private firm to audit the parks and compile a master repairs list. With an objective assessment in hand, the district went to work: parks got a facelift, from newly planted trees to wrought-iron fences; staff was reduced by 33 percent; much-needed repairs were made; and district efforts were refocused on park and recreation activities.

On the other hand, for a mayor who worked to end park inequities, the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid threatened to place significant burdens on parks in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Though the mayor promised that no public funds would be used for the Olympic bid, public lands were offered for the cause. The mayor and the Olympic committee, with the unanimous support of the city council, targeted Washington, Jackson, and Douglas Parks as major stadium venues, which would have deprived residents of park use for two or more years. And while development plans were in the works for the lots surrounding the historic Olmstead-designed parks, there were concerns as to who would benefit the most from those plans. Chicago eventually lost the Olympic bid.

Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic, aptly describes the mayor as ruling with a “green thumb and an iron fist.” That description encapsulates the legacy of the mayor – he has been both a strong advocate for a green city with ample public space and a unilateralist who pushed through large-scale projects with strong-armed tactics. Daley will leave the city with world-class greenspaces. He will also leave it with a $655-million deficit. Only time will tell if the “Urban Artist’s” efforts to realize his green vision are sustainable.

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5 Responses

  1. [...] the area to be one of Chicago’s less-than-beautiful spots. It wasn’t until years later that Mayor Richard Daley transformed the eyesore into something truly [...]

  2. I don’t want to get into the politics of things but we are losing a strong advocate of a greener Chicago. One thing I would like to see more native [prairie grass] plantings in Chicago parks.

  3. [...] as the greenest city in America, pointing to the construction of over 7 million square feet of green roofs on public and private buildings, the addition of 1,300 acres of open and green space in 12 years, [...]

  4. [...] greenest city in America, a title supported by the construction of over 7 million square feet of green roofs on public and private buildings, the addition of 1,300 acres of open and green space in 12 years, [...]

  5. [...] always do well. It reminds me of Mayor Daley’s efforts to create beautiful public spaces (see here and here), such as Millennium Park, which are often hailed as major successes. Hard data might not [...]

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