A green city skeptic

For years, Mayor Daley has been talking about making Chicago the “greenest city.” Lately, in light of Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid, he’s been talking about a green Olympics.

But he finds an unlikely skeptic in Harold Platt. Platt is a professor of urban and environmental history at Loyola University Chicago, and author of the book Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago. He says that though he’s an optimist, when it comes to the city’s green campaign, he’ll believe it when he sees it.

Platt recently sat down with the Chi-Town Daily News to share his thoughts on Chicago’s environmental past, present and future.  

Your book, Shock Cities, is about the environmental history of Chicago from the 19th century ... What was Chicago like back then? 

At that time there were very large challenges to public health and quality of life issues, very bad air pollution by burning soft coal, very heavily water polluted with organic waste that led to lots of infant mortality from drinking contaminated water. And horrible conditions in people’s homes, in the factories, in the neighborhoods where people lived, with garbage and rats and shelters and tainted food.

Given that history, how do you think the city is doing now?

Well, it’s so much better than it used to be. At the time of the Chicago fire, there were 10,000 backyard outhouses even though they had been outlawed, and it wasn’t like they were hidden ...I think we’re far ahead of the game also because we haven’t had explosive population growth since the era of global restructuring of the economy.

[In] 1970, we and Los Angeles were about the same size—around 8 million. And we’ve kind of grown steadily and sprawled a lot, but in the meantime, LA doubled its population. Obviously that’s created lots of environmental problems like water and sanitation and flood control.

 What do you make of Mayor Daley’s campaign to make Chicago “the greenest city” in America?  

On biodiversity, Daley is doing pretty good, but then take something like transportation ... With the air pollution from cars and congestion, I think it’s a miserable failure. Where has Daley been in terms of promoting public transportation? Even the Olympic committee said that’s been one of the city’s worst failings, public transit. So it’s not just lefty green tree-huggers, even outside, the world committee has been looking at Rio, Madrid, and we don’t measure up.

So you don’t buy into the green city campaign? 

I think it’s like BP. It’s total public relations fraud. Something is better than nothing, but we’re doing nothing like Seattle or Washington. Or even with bikes, if you’ve been to Copenhagen, there is an established infrastructure there to make it a bicycle city.

Then just go to Wells Street, where there are yellow lines on the ground. They’re supposed to be bike lanes, but it basically means double parking for people. We need a real bike infrastructure that provides safe, separated spaces for bicycles, if that is something you want to encourage.  

What do you think should be top priority?  

First priority would be public transit and bus systems, to make it more attractive to people. Here we are, the railroad capital of the world, and we had a shortage of cars to put on Metra trains, so it was standing room only. That’s pitiful isn’t it? If we can persuade people to take public transit, it’s got to be nice.  

In the middle of a recession, with a state and federal budget crisis, is that possible in these times? 

I saw that $240 million of our city’s $1 billion stimulus is for public transportation, so that might be a very good kick starter or a good place to invest. Obviously it has all kinds of benefits in terms of encouraging people back into the city who find public transportation desirable.

What are some of the biggest challenges in Chicago?  

There’s a fragmentation in our politics and among grassroots organization here. In San Francisco, for instance, they networked very effectively. They had the tree people here, the save-the-bay people there, but somehow they were able to draw together more successfully than in Chicago. They formed broader coalitions that had more political clout. I don’t see those from the grassroots in Chicago, and I certainly I would say political fragmentation is part of the political history and culture of Chicago, which doesn’t help the grassroots organizations either. It just has not worked here.

What do you think is the most hopeful sign of Chicago’s environmental progress? 

What makes me hopeful is that ordinary people have become a lot more conscious of environmental concerns, and at least in the grassroots it has become a very common concern of people that radiates out from neighborhoods and workplaces to the larger city.