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Chicago's Vision of Sustainability

The Chief Sustainability Officer in Chicago builds on the city’s very strong heritage of thinking about sustainability and environmental issues.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Karen Weigert, Chicago’s Chief Sustainability Officer, will be addressing the landmark Empowering Customers & Cities conference in Chicago November 4-6. She recently talked with The Energy Times about her job. This is the first part of a two-part series.

ENERGY TIMES: What is the job of the Chief Sustainability Officer of Chicago?

WEIGERT: The Chief Sustainability Officer in Chicago is a role that Mayor Emmanuel created. It has existed for almost 4½ years, and I was lucky enough to be invited to be the first one.  It was created as part of the mayor’s vision of how you create a livable, competitive, and sustainable city. It builds on Chicago’s very strong heritage of thinking about sustainability and environmental issues. We are able to deliver through the mayor’s office a lot of expertise throughout the city with our residents and external partners.

ENERGY TIMES: There are now sustainability officers in other cities now, right?

WEIGERT: There are in many cities. I was able to reach out and learn from other cities and also to share what we do.  They are structured differently.

ENERGY TIMES: What is being done to reduce Chicago’s carbon footprint and make the city more energy efficient?

WEIGERT: The mayor came out with a pretty comprehensive and integrated approach to delivering that.  71 percent of the carbon emissions coming out of Chicago comes from heating, cooling, and operating buildings.  All of us in Chicago – residents, businesses, government, non-profits - spend about $3 billion a year to heat, cool, and operate our buildings. It creates a huge opportunity for environmental and economic benefits.  We’ve been able to look at our own infrastructure. We are focused on retrofitting city buildings. We were able to do about 60 buildings recently, funded at no risk to our taxpayers.  We’ve built a Retrofit Chicago program where we collaborate with partners and make it easier for residents to become more energy efficient.  We have a single phone number for residents to access energy efficiency programs. We actually know which neighborhoods are more or less energy efficient and who’s really going to benefit from efficiency. The commercial buildings initiative of Retrofit Chicago, involves more than 50 buildings that have committed to at least a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency within five years.

ENERGY TIMES:What is a typical day for you?

WEIGERT: A typical day for me, in some ways it’s like a typical day for many Chicagoans.  I ride transit, I walk in great neighborhoods and I don’t have enough time to do everything I want to do.  But in terms of content, it’s a lot of meetings – both inside the city and with external partners. It’s a lot of trying to think about the next spaces that Chicago should be in, while insuring that we’re delivering well in the spaces that we’ve already committed to.  I spend a lot of my time on energy, a lot of my time on resilience questions and a lot of my time thinking about and trying to deliver opportunities for our young people. Three years ago we created the Green Core Chicago Youth Program, a sustainability focused summer job program for Chicago Public School students. This past summer, we served 800 students throughout neighborhoods in Chicago.  That’s another specific example of the kind of thing I’m lucky enough to get to work on.

ENERGY TIMES: How hard has it been for you to change the culture in Chicago when it comes to energy and sustainability? 

WEIGERT: We build on the core heritage of Chicago and just continue to bring it forward for the challenges and opportunities that we face each day.  When the city was founded 178 years ago the motto from our beginning was City in a Garden.  From the first days people thought about the environment and the uniqueness of this place.  We now bring it forward. We’re now the second most friendly bike city in the United States, in part by adding a bike sharing program.  The mayor has been able to deliver over 100 miles of protected bike lanes and just committed to 50 more. Biking is great for your health and pocketbook, and it’s phenomenal from a carbon standpoint.  

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