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Stranger than Fiction

July 18, 2013 - In so many ways, Chicago really is My Kind of Town. I grew up in its western suburbs, and to this day believe I've enjoyed a lifetime of benefit derived from its can-do qualities.  It’s comforting to know that some things never change.  Today, with Rahm Emanuel at the helm, the Windy City puts to work the best environmental ideas out there, as soon as they become available.  Urban planning has become a lot greener over the years in Chicago, because climate change is causing very intense thunderstorms and extreme temperatures.  These worsening problems have caused the city to take an experimental approach to their solution.

Take smog-eating pavement, for instance.  With an active ingredient called titanium dioxide, the cement pavers set off a chemical reaction with sunlight that cleans all the air as far as eight feet above them.  They were developed by Italian cement giant Italcementi when the Vatican wanted to build a church to celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of Christianity that would remain white, even when confronted with Rome’s severe pollution problem.  Intended only to keep the church itself clean, Italcementi discovered that their product also caused the air surrounding the church to remain clean!

The pavers – which apparently lack a product name – cost more than conventional pavement, so Chicago requested thin, permeable bricks for bicycle and parking lanes along Blue Island Ave. and Cermak Rd.  They are just one part of a mixed approach to decreasing air and water pollution that includes streetlights run on solar and wind power, sidewalks made of recycled concrete, and shrub-filled “bioswales” that keep storm water out of overflowing sewers.  Said another way, the $14 million project to clean up and revitalize a two mile portion of the industrial Pilsen neighborhood uses just about everything city planners could throw at it to cut energy use, fight pollution, reduce waste, manage water use, and – most important of all – help build a sense of community.

The best news of all?  The entire package costs 21 percent less than traditional road resurfacing, and is expected to be cheaper to maintain.  Here’s how: heavy rain washes pollution off roads, roofs, and parking lots.  It then migrates to rivers and lakes that are used as drinking water.  When storm drains flood, raw sewage can also wind up polluting community drinking water.  Planting trees, shrubs and grasses not only helps keep rain out of the sewers, it can capture carbon dioxide, thereby reducing the common urban “heat island” effect.  Adding buses and bicycles reduces congestion and pollution, and that improves quality of life.  More energy efficient street lights not only reduce emissions; they save money.

Did I mention that reducing the storm water impact on sewers by as much as 80 percent means the city will be able to delay multimillion dollar upgrades to the aging sewer system?  Recycling 60 percent of the Pilsen project’s construction waste , and sourcing 23 percent of new materials from recycled content , showed local contractors a new way of building.  Further benefits include sending less waste to local landfills, and building community by installing benches near a pond that captures storm water from a high school roof and courtyard, erecting new shelters at bus stops, and placing signs along the affected roadways explaining the project.  Finally, drought-resistant plants in bioswales ought to be able to withstand the hotter summers climate change will bring.

Do I need to say it?  I will anyway: My Kind of Town.

With thanks to .


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