Alternative Futures for Chicago

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Complex environmental processes like global climate change pose intricate and challenging adaptation, mitigation, and regional planning issues. Like all cities and regions, Chicago is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and faces its own specific risks and challenges. It must engage in appropriate planning now to be prepared for the changes that lie ahead.

The development of various planning scenarios is one tool of preparedness, public engagement, and community response to these challenges. The following analysis has been developed as a proposed foundation for the Chicago Regional Planning Agency’s Go to 2040 Plan.

A Future with Appropriate Planning

Trajectory One. Three decades of coordinated trajectories[1] of action generate a vibrant region poised for serious challenges and new opportunities.[2] In 2040, the Chicago Region is busy responding to the coincident challenges of global warming and the end of oil. The region has been thoughtfully positioned for meeting these challenges by a succession of regional plans during the preceding decades.

In 2008, while preparing their Go To 2040 Plan, the regional planning agency took the implications of climate change seriously for food supply and land use. They also recognized the inevitability of a dramatically different energy mix in response to global warming. The need for this change would only be accentuated by the diminution of oil supplies and resulting increases in costs.

The regional planning authority in 2008 concluded that, even though they could not achieve full regional sustainability overnight, they must set in place policies now that would lead to carbon neutrality and sustainability in food, water, and energy by 2040. They also concluded that this would provide a broader range of support for regional biodiversity and ecosystems (including endangered species and globally important biological communities) than a very aggressive land acquisition campaign. (Although they also concluded that some acquisition should continue for other reasons.) Human health for all ages and cultural vibrancy would be protected and indeed enhanced by pursuing decisive trajectories toward sustainability beginning with the implementation of the Go to 2040 Plan. Finally, this plan recognized the need to convince officials at the local, state, and national levels of the need to begin a march toward sustainability through decisive, proactive leadership now.

Food and Water Trajectories

The regional planning authority realized in 2008 that food supply, for the first time, would have to be considered when thinking about the future of the region. This was because transportation of foods over long distances will be prohibitively expensive except by rail. Even local distribution would produce considerable quantities of carbon dioxide unless provided by hybrid fuel cell vehicles.

Consequently, the agency determined to secure food supply in the same way that many metro regions must secure their water supply, that is, locally. The planning agency determined that unbuilt land between fifty to one hundred miles from the center of Chicago would be recognized as the region’s food and water production zone. Preservation of farm land for food production would be done in a variety of ways: by outright purchase, by purchasing conservation or development easements, and/or by securing an option to buy. This land would be used for food crops including garden crops, grains, orchards, dairy, poultry, and some food processing operations.[3] Spaces for food production would also be preserved in some of the interstices of the built-up areas closer to the center of the region as well. The food lands would provide vast spaces in which rain water might slowly infiltrate into the ground.

The farms and gardens would be owned or managed by small farmers and community gardeners with an intimate knowledge of the nuances of the capacities of the land they husbanded. Continuous but rotating and mixed cropping will dramatically diminish the need for pesticides. Much of the farming will be done in perennial polycultures. Herbicides are banned entirely. Since most of the ground is covered most of the time with a variety of no-till procedures, the need for irrigation would be dramatically reduced. Any irrigation practiced will be carefully monitored and controlled. Highly efficient drip irrigation is the only kind allowed. Fertilizer from animal and human waste as well as from the separated waste streams of the built areas would build the fertility of the farmable land. Proper composting and frequent testing would assure that all harmful bacteria, parasites, and pharmaceuticals had been destroyed before application of the natural fertilizer to the land. Factory farms were not part of the picture because of their energy costs and the other threats they pose to environmental and human health.

Because of the warmer climate, a longer growing season permits multiple crops on the same field often grown at the same time. Peas and beans of many varieties are widely dispersed because of their ability to add nitrogen to the soil. Collapsible greenhouse structures are installed so that in the fall they could quickly be extended, permitting some fresh vegetables to be grown year round. The greenhouses would be heated by the sun during the day and be kept at fifty-five degrees (at least) at night by geothermal circulation. In the spring the green house structures would be collapsed again.

The non-food uses of the land would also be remunerated to farmers. The regional agency recognized that the same land used for growing food crops or grazing would be available for wind generators. The same acres would also be a protected site for water infiltration into the aquifers of the region. Farmers would be paid for these benefits to the community and to nature itself. Indeed, drained wetlands would be restored and hillsides would be retired from some inappropriate uses, such as row cropping. These sites could be managed to benefit wildlife and might (or might not) be formally added to the protected green infrastructure.

Energy Trajectories

In addition, the regional planning agency initiated programs to encourage carbon-free or carbon-neutral energy resources. They identified the need for a massive solar, wind, and geothermal power program along with efforts to incentivize conservation by all energy users.

Working actively with the city of Chicago, counties, and municipalities, the regional planning authority successfully adopts policies that provide energy equity. For example, carbon credits equal to travel to and from work are issued. These credits could purchase fuel for cars tax-free. Additional credits are given to everyone for a reasonable number of trips for personal use, and these credits can be sold or traded. At the same time, a policy determination was made to make public transportation free by the time of the Olympic Games. These costs would be covered by a tax on any gasoline use that was over and above the individual allotment. This would raise the cost of non-allotment gasoline to the neighborhood of $12 per gallon well before 2040.

In order to achieve air quality compliance, the municipal and county jurisdictions are mandated to become first adapters of hybrid fuel-cell vehicles to spur the drop in prices of these vehicles and encourage next generation development. Sales taxes and registration fees on hybrid fuel-cell cars were dropped to zero and taxes and fees on standard engines were closely correlated to mileage ratings, also dropping to zero when they reached the emission levels of hybrid fuel-cell vehicles.

All new building construction is constrained to incorporate solar and geothermal power. The solar panels generate both electricity and heat. The geothermal power dramatically reduces the costs of air conditioning. These costs are further reduced by having windows that opened and once again constructing atrium buildings for air exchange. All new buildings are required to meet LEEDS certification and adopt the full range of Architecture 2030 standards. All new building is required to have a minimum one-hundred-year life span. Older buildings are to be placed on a retrofitting schedule for installation of solar panels, and geothermal capability was also installed during any major remodeling. New or retrofit, the construction must be century-rated.

A massive program is initiated to get local power companies to install and maintain solar panels. The square miles of flat roofs in the region quickly become major sources of energy. The utilities harvest the energy and charge for the electrical power at a level required to recoup the costs of installation and maintenance over the lifetime of the installation. Alternatively, buildings could install and maintain and sell any excess to the power utility.

Multiple uses of steam used to generate electricity are also mandated. Steam from power plants is circulated through adjacent neighborhoods on the model used by Manhattan for decades. No generated calorie is to be wasted. The plan calls for a total phase-out of carbon for heating and electricity generation by 2040. Trains, designated lane vehicles, and bus service would be greatly expanded. Buses would be required to be clean burning, use fuel cells, and be upgraded at each new round of replacements.

Major Industry

Some major heavy industry continues to be located in the heartland, near Chicago. The raw materials, energy, and transport needs of such industry would have been recognized and planned for. While minimizing the environmental effects of such industry, attention is also given to making the sites readily accessible to public transportation of the workforce.

Cultural and Economic Trajectories

The towns and villages within the Chicago Food Belt would be the sites of food processing and many of the workers would have their homes in those towns. These towns could be expected to grow slightly and they would become the models of the neighborhoods that are now, in 2040, re-established throughout the region. People can walk to shops that provide all the basic daily needs including primary medical care, food, dry cleaning, barbers, and hairdressers. Many shopping, service, and recreational functions would be available on a twenty-four-hour basis. Children walk to schools. The walkability criteria would also be used for infill building in the jurisdictions. Height restrictions would be reconsidered, especially within a thirty-minute walking distance of commuter train hubs. These areas would also be the point of concentration of many of the shopping facilities and services of the area that did not need to be more localized. No further conversions of farmland would be permitted for uses such as built space, golf courses, country clubs, or hunt clubs. No further farmland, forested land, wetlands, flood plains, or water infiltration areas would be converted to housing. Only in rare instances would it be necessary to engage in building outside of already built-up perimeters, because decrepit building stock would be replaced with higher density housing and services.

Throughout the thirty-year period, shopping malls become town centers and vibrant communities with transportation hubs. Housing of several stories is required over much of the parking space; the remaining parking needs are constrained to multi-story parking ramps; and significant outdoor spaces are retained for active and passive recreational activities. No additional malls are permitted except by referendum.

Forested areas are purchased or established to assure that replacement lumber would be available for the continuing rounds of renewal. These areas also contribute to recreational, biodiversity, and water infiltration functions. Some forested areas also contain windmills.

Infrastructure Trajectories

The Go To 2040 regional plan also recognized the extensive amount of very aged infrastructure in the region and the limitations of many portions of the infrastructure systems. Looking into the increasing costs of energy to produce machinery, steel, and other hard goods for infrastructure, the regional planners and jurisdictions determined to make all new and replacement installations of the quality to serve for at least a one-hundred-year life expectancy.

All sewers are separated and the whole system was redesigned so that by 2040 human waste treatment resulted in a high-quality fertilizer that is devoid of any harmful bacteria or pharmaceuticals. This fertilizer, returned to the land from which most of the human food had originated, requires only minor adjustments for special field or crop needs.

Road work is largely limited to repair of existing roadways but installations, whether new or refurbished, are required to meet one-hundred-year design criteria. Asphalt is available only from recycled materials and that on a diminishing basis except for roads that were being abandoned. These roads would be reduced in size as suburban scatter housing became unaffordable due to fuel costs and the lots were sold to municipalities for conversion to park land or farms. Some of the abandoned roadways could add to the increasing network of bike trails.

Integration of Trajectories into Fabrics

Since all of these measures are set in motion by 2010 (because citizens and leadership agreed that it was prudent and led to exciting, secure neighborhoods, vibrant cultural opportunities, and sustainable economic trajectories), these necessary modifications are in place well ahead of the end of oil and are ready to face the accelerating need to respond to the exigencies of global climate change. This becomes ever more apparent as each year storms in the southeast, droughts in the southwest, and sea level rise around the world begins to generate climate refugees. The displaced persons seek places to settle that had a vibrant culture and ample water and food.

One of those places is the Chicago region. The regional planning authority in 2010 determined that a straight line projection of population growth of 2.8 million more people by 2040 is not adequate. Indeed, they think that this could rather easily be as much as three times that number based on studies of possible flight from areas no longer habitable. Thus, both emergency and long-term housing plans are developed. Many of those arriving in the early years after the Go To 2040 Plan are employed to create new housing in already urbanized areas. Many others are employed in the food industry. Schools, medical care, and senior housing are also planned to absorb the ingress.

Together the foregoing trajectories of actions would serve to safeguard all protected landscapes and keep much of the adjacent landscape open through food or woodlot production. Groundwater recharge areas would thus be fully protected. Run-off storm water would be captured for drinking water through infiltration. Natural open space would be available within easy walking distance or by public transportation. Additional purchase of public lands would secure the opportunities of access for all and for the adaptation or migration of wild species in the face of climate change. Youth and senior corps could be established to work at the preservation and restoration of protected lands. The Chicago metropolitan region is prepared for the challenges and opportunities of 2040.

A Future without Appropriate Planning

Trajectory Two. Three decades of reaction to conditions that can no longer be ignored generates a region with haphazard and conflicting policies, shortages of basic needs, and few reserves to meet intensifying challenges.[4] In 2040, the Chicago region is struggling with the accumulating effects of the challenges of global warming and the end of oil. The region has taken a wait-and-see approach to these coincident challenges, responding to conditions after they become acute and sometimes massive. Regional planning has, in fact, taken rather little notice of the growing effects and has tended to see worsening economic and ecological conditions as unpleasant but perhaps temporary challenges to business as usual, though by now, no activity resembles what it was in 2010.

In 2008 while preparing their Go To 2040 Plan the regional planning agency began to sense that climate change might have an impact sometime in the future on food supply and land use. They saw that other regions of the country were actively creating new mixes of energy supply in response to the need to reduce carbon emissions and stabilize global warming, but they chose not to view these challenges as requiring a clear and compelling response in regional planning. The rapid rise in the price of oil in 2008 did not challenge them to examine closely the implications of continually higher petroleum costs for the future of the region. While successive plans made imperative adjustments, the region fell further and further below its repeatedly stated goal of sustainability.

Food and Water Trajectories

The regional planning authority failed to realize in 2008 that food supply and water supply were central to a serious vision of the future of the region. They did not recognize that increasing transportation and refrigeration costs would make the cost of food prohibitive, unless it came by bulk on rails. Even the potential for local food production would, however, continue to be diminished as hands-off policies permitted sprawl to continue. Local distribution of food to retailers added substantially to air pollution levels because there was no move toward incentives for hybrid fuel-cell vehicles. Fundamentally, the Go To 2040 Plan failed to recognize the need to actively confront laissez-faire development on the part of municipalities and developers who sought only short-term windfalls that created huge debts for the future inhabitants of the region.

Consequently, the region continues to depend on distant sources of food while ignoring its diminishing potential for local production. No food production zone is outlined in the periphery of the region nor are any provisions made for securing the status of lands that might grow food for the region. Some municipalities permit small-scale gardening in their vacant interstices. If anything, farms in the region grow in size and are used for factory farming until they collapse because of energy costs, epidemic disease within, or threats to environmental or human health without. Eventually farmers are forced to sell family farmland for yet more dispersed developments and more astronomical infrastructure costs. No land or easements are acquired as potential CMAP authority went unused. Opportunities for food security and sustainability dwindle over the intervening thirty years to almost zero.

With no production scenarios other than maximizing short-term returns just to stay out of bankruptcy, farmers emphasize the use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, creating additional challenges for local streams and ground water. As weather becomes hotter, even low-till with standard crops increased the need for irrigation. While regional planning optimizes water resources for humans and for power generation, farmers continue to be empowered to pump down the aquifers underlying their lands, sometimes challenging the water supplies of adjacent municipalities. Since there is no concerted water or waste policy or planning for the region, neither human nor animal waste is separated and used as a fertilizer stream for fields. Fertility decreases and soil erodes continually. Empty store shelves are common by 2040; indeed, a significant number of people are malnourished.

None of the potential advantages of the warmer climate and longer growing season were foreseen and thus neither utilized nor incentivized. By 2040, the farmland is nearly all gone “for higher and better uses.” Legume crops are abandoned. No one recognized the potential of greenhouses with passive solar and active geothermal heating for food production in the winter. As a consequence, food costs began to rise in 2008 and have continued on a steep upward trend demanding more than 50 percent of average family income in 2040. Non-food uses of the landscape such as wind power installations, water infiltration zones, and open spaces for wildlife and the psychological well-being of humans have been largely ignored. Thus for humans the mental landscape became more homogenous and for wild creatures the physical landscape became more and more limited; wild animals became nuisances. Green infrastructure grew little and became more impoverished in terms of diversity; it was ever more in need of restoration that seemed ever more futile. Indeed, the pressure of a growing population has led to the conversion of forest preserves into land for food production, and squatter settlements have sprung up within the preserves.

Energy Trajectories

The regional planning authority and most jurisdictions ignore programs that actively sought to establish carbon-free and carbon-neutral energy sources. It is easy to leave energy policy to market forces because powerful stakeholder groups support that approach. Planners have not sought opportunities to collaborate with the jurisdictions to identify needs or to mandate and incentivize solar, wind, and geothermal programs. These installations have become ever more costly and distant as land is converted into housing developments. Conservation efforts are largely delegated by default to energy suppliers and the influence of ever increasing costs of energy from coal, natural gas, and petroleum. No effort is made to make the distribution of energy resources equitable across income groups. Since sprawl remains the order of the day, transportation becomes ever more costly. The cost of transportation rises rapidly to the equivalent of $12 per gallon by 2020 and continues rising thereafter. The public transit system can operate efficiently only when rider density is at some breakeven level; when that is not the case, even more massive subsidies are necessary. Fixed-income people cannot always afford to leave their homes, and wage earners can hardly afford to go to work. (This problem was already on the horizon in 2008.) Congestion on the roads exacerbates the energy, climate, and air quality problems of the region.

Because locally the jurisdictions have not become first adapters of hybrid fuel-cell vehicles, these still remain outside the price range of many. No incentives could encourage driving fewer miles because land-use patterns actually demanded driving more miles. For want of concerted pressure by urban regions like this one, mileage for standard engines hardly reaches forty miles per gallon.

Because of high energy costs, new construction is now very expensive: building operational costs are high and rising because there is little installation of solar or geothermal even as supplemental sources of energy. Air conditioning cannot be afforded by most, even as the summers become longer and hotter (with many days over ninety degrees and often clumped together). No incentives mandated climate upgrades for renovation projects. None of the Architecture 2030 proposals have been demanded as BPMs. Indeed, BPMs had the status of suggestions to be considered.

Only after several decades have serious efforts been initiated to require local power utilities to install and manage solar panel installations. By this time utilities are operating on such a low margin that they could only agree to do this very gradually. There are no incentives in place for individual building owners to install solar panels and sell electricity to local utilities, which in any case are only beginning to learn how to make use of a diverse and widely distributed electrical supply system. Thus, power brown outs and black outs are becoming more frequent and longer, especially during summer heat waves. Deaths from heat and associated violence are rising.

Only halfway through the thirty-year span under discussion had a move been established to require up-to-date LEEDS certification on all new construction. Very few officials had even heard of the Architecture 2030 proposals for energy savings. Additional decades of wasted energy and unnecessary emissions ensue. Multiple uses of steam have begun but are widely scattered with little integration.

While it is obvious that further electrical power is needed, very little wind power is available. It would be necessary to condemn large tracts of housing in the suburbs in order to install wind power generators. With acquisition of land, condemnation and litigation costs are increasing and adding to the cost of the wind power. Sabotage of wind systems has occurred, and lives have been lost in these incidents. The region is nowhere near phasing out carbon for heating, electricity, or transportation. This situation, multiplied many times around the nation, is still driving an increase in carbon in the atmosphere, temperature on the ground, and rising sea levels globally. The Arctic ice cap is gone, and all oil and natural gas from the accessible fields in Alaska and Siberia have been used up by 2040.

By 2030 some buses and trains have been converted to electrical power. There is some progress in upgrading emissions standards with each replacement vehicle. Some areas have designated lane vehicles, but these have minimal effects because settlement patterns are far too dispersed.

Major Industry

As with other areas of activity, there was no planning for industry, especially major industry: which industry should best be located here, under what stipulations, and what were its needs in water, fuel, raw materials. When occasionally some new plant determined to move into the region, it was so welcome that some slight mitigation of environmental damage was the only recourse.

Cultural and Economic Trajectories

The towns at the periphery of the region have grown but have almost no source of income locally. There is no field or processing work in the agriculture of a Chicago food belt. Houses are being abandoned as people move in search of jobs accessible without heavy transportation costs. The towns themselves provide most basic needs but in a haphazard fashion. Energy prices restrict the hours of service.

The quick private profits of sprawl rapidly lead to deep cultural and civic deficits. Schools burst at the seams. A largely sedentary student body moves toward adulthood overweight, uneducated, and unskilled. It is unclear how they would be able to move the region forward.

Infill is as haphazard as peripheral development but sometimes has the advantage of nearby transportation and business infrastructure. Conversions of farmland continue usually for benefits that are available only for the very wealthy. High-density housing is only beginning to be generally recognized as a positive force, especially in the vicinity of transit hubs—this despite the availability of highly successful examples in full operation in 2008.

Flooding is still a danger because building has continued in flood plains. Ground water and wetlands are jeopardized everywhere because development interferes with infiltration. Native landscapes that slowed run-off have been largely destroyed outside of protected areas. Commercial and housing stock in the centers of cities and towns have become decrepit and there is no concerted plan to replace them with more sustainable structures in denser patterns of building.

Most shopping malls were shuttered and abandoned. They were the centers of illegal activity and gangs. No new malls have even been proposed for some time. Most strip malls are also in derelict condition. No one knew how to care for these abandoned properties that could not even be sold for taxes. Forested areas outside of forest preserves and some private lots have disappeared almost entirely. There is no local replacement lumber or firewood. Local forests for relaxation, recreation, biodiversity preservation, or water infiltration are largely a thing of the past. Indeed, few people remember a leisurely walk in a woodland.

Infrastructure Trajectories

The region was faced with decrepit infrastructure in 2010. Though successive regional plans acknowledged this fact, no plan has come to grips with this massive and ongoing problem. Replacements and repairs are not constrained by the one-hundred-year lifetime rule and sometimes fail more rapidly than the structures they had patched. Common sewers remain common in many parts of the area. Human waste is not seen as something that should go back onto the fields as fertilizer.

Transportation infrastructure is constantly in need of repair. It is one of the few expanding industries. However, the absence of asphalt supplies make repair slow and expensive and often ineffective. New roads are still being planned and constructed at great cost into the distant suburbs, which results in intense traffic congestion on all major roadways. Bicyclists are much more numerous and accidents have become frequent.

Integration of Trajectories into Fabrics

Since the plan promulgated in 2010 won awards for its process of development but had avoided any significant departures from business as usual, by 2040 nearly all neighborhoods are gated and patrolled, cultural opportunities are limited and often very expensive, and the region is mired in an economic malaise tied to severe shortages of energy and food and tight rationing of water. Failure to recognize the implications of the end of the extraordinary flexibility provided in the oil era, and the concomitant challenges of a warming planet, have left Chicago on the periphery of nearly everything except an influx of climate-change refugees. Many of these are senior citizens, poor families, and/or people with special needs.

Each year has brought an increased number of intense storms in the southeastern part of the United States (Hilton Head was no longer rebuilding), prolonged severe droughts in the southwest (Phoenix and Tucson had returned to being mainly college towns), and sea level rise (Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, Miami, Charleston, Boston, and Lower Manhattan are flooded nearly every year). Consequently, the Chicago region (and others) is receiving tens of thousands of climate refugees a year for which it is unprepared, since it had made simplistic, straight-line projections of population growth in each of its successive regional plans. Indeed, because inadequate planning for the influx of refugees (note that at this point we are only talking about people coming from catastrophically affected areas of this country) has been done, most of them are crammed into a few neighborhoods or now-permanent emergency shelters (two of the three McCormick exhibition centers were converted to such shelters). The population has risen to double or triple the projected 2040 increase. The unplanned-for refugees create an intense burden on all public and private services, further depressing the economy. Schools and hospitals are continually swamped. In the absence of planning for food, water, food lands, and solar and wind power, and concentrated land use, Chicago began to look like Cleveland or Pittsburgh in the 1970s and 1980s, but flooded with elderly and poor refugees.

In the absence of serious proposals (and necessary lobbying for legislation, funding, and implementation) the region has little resilience for the challenges of 2030 and 2040. Chicago has failed to protect public and private open spaces. Storm water, much needed for drinking water, has been allowed to sluice away. Natural open spaces have become less and less accessible to public transportation and diminished on an area per capita basis, especially in poorer parts of the region. Youth and senior corps might have provided very useful public service achieving agreed public aims, but have not. Deteriorating public lands no longer support the much-needed corridors of range adjustment for wildlife facing changing habitats from global warming. In 2040, the region is in chaos with only draconian exit scenarios.

[1]. A trajectory is defined as several interwoven courses of action seen as integral parts of a long-term scenario or series of scenarios. These interwoven action agendas create a regional fabric prepared strong enough to be vibrant in the present and to be promising even in the face of a future full of unprecedented challenges.

[2]. This might be called the Stern trajectory after the British analysis of global climate change that recognized the impending (all but inevitable) human and environmental calamity. The Stern Report urged that national governments do everything in their power to avoid these calamities or minimize their disruptive impacts by acting decisively and immediately with a commitment to economic equity and, in so doing, to sustainability. To this might be added a call to applying energy and will to take advantage of emerging opportunities in a much altered world.

[3]. This secure food land would provide the rich mix of over forty kinds of grown foods available from the region as recently as the 1940s.

[4]. This might be designated the Nordhaus trajectory after the economist who believed that Stern’s pre-emptive approach to global climate change was contrary to good economic theory. Nordhaus advocated that both theory and humankind was much better served by mounting mitigative responses only after the threat had become undeniable or after catastrophe had occurred.

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