This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Chicago’s chief sustainability officer reaching out to new partners

Karen Weigert has only been the city of Chicago’s Chief Sustainability Officer since June, but she’s already forging partnerships across city departments and reaching out to the business community.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel created the position to push green efforts throughout city government beyond the Department of Environment and focus on creating jobs and boosting the local economy, Ms. Weigert said.

Those kinds of activities were already under way, but the hope is that they’ll accelerate with someone making them a priority. In a recent example, the Department of Streets and Sanitation has, in conjunction with the mayor’s office, launched a managed competition between private businesses and city employees to handle the city’s Blue Cart Recycling program. Two private vendors, Waste Management and Midwest Metal Management, came in with the lowest bids to take over recycling pick-ups in some service areas. The new contracts are expected to cut city costs in half to about $6.6 million a year, compared to the current annual cost of $13.8 million for providing the service to 240,000 homes, according to the Department of Environment.

Karen Weigert

Ms. Weigert aims to seek out economic development opportunities that stimulate the local economy, save money for residents and city government, and are also good for the environment. Energy-efficiency programs are being singled out as a way to achieve those multiple goals, especially since reducing energy consumption of fossil fuels saves dollars and reduces carbon dioxide emissions.

To that end, Ms. Weigert points to a $6-million foundation grant just awarded to the city of Chicago by the Bloomberg Philanthropies (as in New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s private foundation) to create teams of efficiency experts that will streamline how government operates. A portion of that funding will be used to create “energy efficiency target zones” across the city to curb energy consumption, she said. The details are still being fleshed out.

Ms. Weigert has worked in both business and government at various points in her career. She was a senior vice-president at ShoreBank in Chicago and at its later incarnation as Urban Partnership Bank. Ms. Weigert also has worked at consulting firm McKinsey & Co., and investment bank Goldman Sachs. On the government side, she was a political appointee to the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Clinton Administration.

She also got a jumpstart on finding innovative solutions in the sustainability realm via the film industry. Ms. Weigert was a co-producer of Carbon Nation, a documentary released in 2010 that tells stories of businesses and government agencies that found ways to solve particular problems around climate change while injecting much-needed stimulation into their local economies. The documentary had its Chicago debut last summer at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion. She still laments the 250 hours of stories told that never made it into the final cut. 

Crain’s met with Ms. Weigert in her office across the street from City Hall this week to learn more about her game plan in the months ahead.

Crain’s: How is your role as Chief Sustainability Officer for Chicago different from the Chief Environmental Officer position Sadhu Johnston held under Mayor Daley before he moved to Vancouver?

Ms. Weigert: The focus now is really about making our own operations more sustainable, thinking about crosscutting these issues between (city government) departments, and making it easier for residents, businesses, and non-profits to be sustainable as well. This is really an opportunity to work collaboratively and collectively throughout the city to advance sustainability in Chicago.

Some of the things I jumped into right away are things like looking at the Chicago Climate Action Plan. It’s anchored in great, hard science, but we want to make sure we can tell that story in a bigger way, which is how it also aggregates into jobs and economic development opportunities. It can strengthen Chicago in a variety of ways, certainly from our environmental performance, but also in terms of our strategic competitiveness in the businesses and industries that are here, and in the opportunities to save businesses, the city, and individuals money.

Chicago spends about $2.5 billion on energy, so a 10% savings is $250 million and that’s something we can get our arms around. The city has already announced we will increase energy efficiency in our own buildings and double the number of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings in city government. Our new partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies will create energy efficiency zones throughout the city.

Crain’s: What are some new green initiatives that we’re seeing in the city?

Ms. Weigert: We have the managed competition with the Blue Cart Recycling program. There’s some new protected bike lanes on Kinzie Street. And there’s a new partnership with a private company to bring electric vehicle charging stations to Chicago and that will give us a pretty impressive electric charging infrastructure. One of the manufacturers moved up their timetable of releasing electric cars in Chicago because of the work we’re doing.

We’re doing these things with so many different city departments. The recycling is with the Department of Streets and Sanitation, the bike lanes and charging stations are with Department of Transportation.

Crain’s: When can we expect to see more blue recycling carts in other neighborhoods?

Ms. Weigert: The mayor intends to bring recycling citywide, and this managed competition is a first step. We’re looking for more cost-effective ways to deliver the services. We have an opportunity to expand the program when we save money.

Crain’s: That protected bike lane on Kinzie near the Merchandise Mart seemed to pop up overnight. Are there plans for more of those in the near future?

Ms. Weigert: Making it easier to bike and get around the city are absolute priorities. In the mayor’s transition plan we talked about making this a great bike city. We’ve already got tremendous bike lanes, so we’re starting from a position of strength. It was great that we got one protected bike lane up so quickly.

Crain’s: Are you inviting the business community to talk to you about some green partnership ideas they might have?

Ms. Weigert: We’re early on some of that, but we’re trying to get out and make some connections. I gave some introductory remarks at an energy efficiency conference this week and said let’s talk about solutions in a collaborative way. There’s a tremendous amount of interest in energy and green businesses in Chicago.

Crain’s: Do you feel Mayor Emanuel genuinely supports sustainability issues?

Ms. Weigert: Yes, thinking sustainably is really about thinking about things from a good business perspective. It’s about good long-term answers that save money, create opportunities and protect the environment. When I think broadly about some of the programs just coming out and some we’re about to announce, there are many that support an incredible opportunity for Chicago to be more sustainable.

You’ve seen some announcements about encouraging urban agriculture, which is tremendously creative from a city’s perspective. Those are great examples of trying to solve the problems of food deserts and giving people access to local foods. This enhances neighborhoods and makes Chicago a more sustainable place to live.

Crain’s: What’s on your wish list for things you’d like to accomplish during your tenure?

Ms. Weigert: I want sustainability to be part of all the decisions that are made in the city, part of our day-to-day living. I think we’re getting there.

I love walkable neighborhoods. I like it when I can walk to get food and see beautiful trees. We already have a lot of neighborhoods like that. I’d like to see more areas where people can live, work and play. I’d also like to see more permeable sidewalks and green alleys. I like finding what we’re already doing and growing it.

We also like to share ideas with people in other cities too in a very collaborative way. In fact, we saw the managed competition approach (for the Blue Cart Recycling) work in other cities so we decided to bring it here.

We looked at other cities including Boston and Seattle for our recent urban agriculture work. Mayor Emanuel talked to Boston’s Mayor Thomas Menino about this topic.

Crain’s: Some people like to say Chicago’s one of the greenest cities in the U.S. Do you think so and what gives us those bragging rights?

Ms. Weigert: Chicago absolutely ranks up there because this is a city built around fantastic public infrastructure and public transit. When you try to get around in Chicago, you have a lot of ways to do that. It’s also a city that has identified and showcased green innovations, like the green roofs that are here. We have the most LEED city buildings with more than 40, and we want to double that number. In the built environment here there’s real leadership and real intent to do that.

We also have miles and miles of access to green space, biking up the lakefront. Of course with a city of our history, we have a really good anchor and a lot to build on.

Crain’s: What are some of the biggest challenges of your job?

Ms. Weigert: There aren’t enough hours in the day. One challenge is framing and finding solutions that are good for the environment and good for creating jobs. Everyone’s busy, but we’ve got to make sure we can find them.

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