Travel News

Chicago: More Green Than Meets the Eye

Locations in this article:  Chicago, IL

Chicago water parkThe Windy City. Chi Town. Second City.

But Chicago the Green? Don’t be so quick to dismiss such a moniker.

While Chicago is perhaps better known, historically at least, for its mob connections and industry, it’s been busily greening up its act. Leslie Garrett, The Virtuous Traveler, investigates the city’s progress toward a more eco-friendly future. 

While the city was slow out of the gate in terms of household recycling – only creating an effective program this year – for the eco-minded tourist, it’s becoming a veritable Emerald City.

Much of the credit goes to the city’s mayor, Richard M. Daley, whose love of trees (he was, after all, born on Arbor Day, 1942) spawned a plan to revitalize the city economically by regenerating it environmentally. And, from all accounts, it has worked, including the booming $9-billion-a-year tourism industry.

Chicago green downtownBut what does Chicago offer the green-leaning tourist? Let’s start by taking a look from the top down.

From the 19th floor window of the Fairmont hotel, a noted leader in eco-hospitality and conveniently situated with views of Lake Michigan and a short walk to the city’s Michigan Avenue, the tourist sees roofs of green. Not the tar or asphalt roofs we’re accustomed to, but true gardens of green.

Starting with City Hall, Mayor Daley has transformed Chicago’s rooftops in something of sustainable beauty. Indeed, Chicago has more than 2 million feet of these sky-high gardens, more than all U.S. cities combined.

For more Chicago travel information, check out our Off the Brochure Travel Guide to Chicago, Illinois.

Along with their aesthetic benefits, green roofs make buildings up to 10 degrees cooler in summer and act like insulation in the winter. While tourists can’t access City Hall’s roof, they can take a gander from the Department of Environment, located nearby at 30 N. Lasalle St.

But the largest green roof, perhaps in the world, belongs to the city’s Millennium Park, a controversial project that ultimately resulted in 24.5 acres of shrubs, trees, groundcover, perennials and more that blanket an underground garage and the old Illinois Central Track. Today, the park attracts close to 4 million visitors annually.

Shedd Aquarium 2While Navy Pier, a Chicago landmark, is more ego than eco, you won’t want to miss the Shedd Aquarium, noted for its dedication to conversation, preservation and undervalued marine species. Touted as one of the largest indoor aquariums in the world, Shedd Aquarium was the first cultural institution in Chicago with a soy-based roof.

Made from the equivalent of 36 acres of soybeans, the roof keeps the building’s heating/cooling in check. And indoors, the aquarium has some truly innovative programs, including its Right Bite Dinners, which offer up sustainable seafood and guest speakers to let us know why we have to fish carefully for what’s on our plates. To find out more, visit

Explore other cultures with America’s Gypsy: Puerto Rico in Chicago.

Speaking of food, Chicago is on its way to becoming a leader in urban organic farming – led by Daley’s Chicago Organic Plan which aims to get local organic food into the hands of Chicagoans. Visitors can visit City Farm, located between Cabrini Green and the Gold Coast.

The farm is bursting with local produce, providing plenty for the city’s best chefs, but offering up a stand where visitors can pick up anyone of the farms 30 varieties of tomatoes, among other prize-winning offerings.

Check out Chicago’s food scene with Three Days, Nine Meals: Chicago.

Chicago has long been a mecca for architecture aficionados and that reputation enters a new phase with the city’s dedication to green building. Home to some of the most eco-friendly municipal buildings in the country, Chicago offers developers the incentive of faster permits if they construct green buildings.

What’s more, while the city’s plan to source 20 percent of its power from renewables by 2006 didn’t pan out, the city does give away packs of compact fluorescents and weather stripping to lower-income residents.

While Chicago may lack the certifiable “green-ness” of such cities as San Francisco or Seattle, it’s well on its way to getting considerable eco-cred for its progressive steps.

Leslie Garrett is author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and one our kids will thank us for!) with a foreword by Peter Greenberg. Visit her at

Want more Chicago travel ideas? Check out President Barack Obama’s Chicago and Beyond.

For more ideas on green travel, visit Eco-Travel.

Previously By Leslie Garrett on


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