Center for American Progress

It’s Easy Being Green: Chicago’s Alleys Get a Makeover
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It’s Easy Being Green: Chicago’s Alleys Get a Makeover

Chicago is resurfacing its alleys with sustainable, permeable concrete that will provide the city and the environment with great green benefits.

SOURCE: Flickr/Ketalady

A green alley in Chicago.

Chicago may not be on many people’s top 10 lists for environmentally friendly cities. It’s known mainly as a busy Midwest industrial hub with the same problems of mass garbage and pollution as any big city. Yet Mayor Richard Daley is pushing forward several initiatives to transform the city into a cleaner place to live and a green model for others. Once ridiculed as a “tree-hugger,” Daley’s work in Chicago is now being taken seriously by dozens of towns and cities across the country.

One of the city’s most notable and successful efforts has been the Green Alleys project, a plan to resurface the city’s roughly 2,000 miles of alleys with sustainable permeable concrete, or porous asphalt. When it rains, water penetrates the soil through the concrete, is filtered through stone beds under the permeable surface layer, and recharges the underground water table instead of ending up as polluted runoff in rivers and streams.

The new pavement is also light-reflecting, meaning it reflects heat from the sun instead of absorbing it, helping the city stay cooler on hot days and warmer on cold days. The lighting for the alleys is also designed to conserve energy and reduce glare, and is made with recycled materials.

Since pilot projects for Green Alleys began in 2006, Chicago has resurfaced 15 to 20 alleys a year, and it plans to finish 30 this year. The city says the cost of construction for the alleys is offset by what it would have paid for maintenance and sewer improvements for the old ones. The price per cubic yard for permeable concrete is also about $100 less than it was in 2006, when concrete plants were beginning to produce the new material.

Janet Attarian, who oversees the project as sustainability coordinator for the Chicago Department of Transportation, says she has fielded calls from towns and cities all over the country interested in starting their own green-alley programs. “I feel we’ve started a revolution,” she says. Michael David Martin, an associate professor and associate chairman of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Iowa State University who specializes in the study of alleys and neighborhoods, says that in addition to being fully functional, the alleys are “an educational green landscape that is helping a city experiment with design and different ways to handle water.”

Beyond the alleys, the city has also expedited permitting processes for builders who use green techniques. Its garbage and street sweepers use emissions-control devices, and in recent years, it has begun installing rooftop gardens to collect rainwater, planted half a million new trees, and created more than 200 acres of parks and open spaces, which will surely give the residents of the city more room to hold events and celebrate Earth Day with the rest of the country this week.

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