Dear Conscious Choice (2002)

Dear Conscious Choice,

Thank you for your kind and thoughtful welcome to Chicago. It is indeed a great town. I’ve enjoyed the look and feel and lively pulse of the city for years and, as you’ve gathered from “the word on the street,” your hometown has been much on my mind lately as I’ve begun to help Mayor Daley fulfill his pledge to make Chicago the greenest city in America.

As the detailed strategies in your letter suggest, many in Chicago already have a strong sense of what a “green city” should be. And that’s good; Chicagoans will decide how Chicago becomes the national leader in sustainable urban design. My role in this exciting endeavor, with strong support from the community design team at William McDonough + Partners, is to work with the City of Chicago to develop an effective set of design principles. These principles will be neither directives nor specific strategies. Rather, they will be a set of design guidelines that will serve as a reference point as the City and its citizens develop a holistic, integrated plan for the greening of Chicago. So rather than respond point by point to the ideas you’ve put forth, I’d like to flesh out some of the principles I hope will influence the creative process the City is now entering and then apply them generally to the challenges you’ve described.

Our design team brings to the table an unconventional perspective on urban environmental problems. Most responses to today’s environmental woes aim to limit the impact of human activity by minimizing pollution and waste. But that’s not always a good thing. Consider energy efficient buildings. Tightly sealed, tinted windows might cut an office building’s energy use, but they also deprive the building’s occupants of adequate fresh air and natural light—an unnecessary trade-off. We’d rather create delightful, healthy places designed to generate energy, like the solar and geo-thermal powered facility we built for Oberlin College. There, students and teachers not only reap the benefits of clean renewable energy, they enjoy daylight, fresh air and comfortable surroundings. The building even teaches how nature works. One can observe, for example, how botanical gardens filter the building’s wastewater, which ultimately flows safely into the watershed.

In Chicago, our goals are the same. We will be encouraging planners to pursue designs that create positive effects, not fewer negative ones. This goes for everything from transportation systems to factories to commercial products to neighborhood plans, all of which can be designed to enhance the city’s economic, environmental and social health. How? By following principles derived from nature’s laws. In the city, as in the countryside, sustainable design is grounded in the rules of the natural world.


Design and Nature’s Laws

This positive vision for sustainability has its roots in the desire to discover fitting ways for humans to inhabit the landscape. As designers, we study the landscape of a particular place by assessing its natural systems: its landforms, hydrology, vegetation, and climate. We tap into natural and cultural history; investigate local energy sources; explore the cycles of sunlight, shade and water; and observe the lives of local fauna, flowers and grasses. Out of these investigations comes an “essay of clues,” a map for developing healthy and creatively interactive relationships between human designs and the natural world.

This emphasis on the way nature works results in architectural and community designs that sustain and enhance the qualities of the local landscape. The “living roof” we designed for a corporate office building in San Bruno, California, for example, creates acres of habitat for local birds and grasses. Chicago City Hall’s green roof is planted with mostly native vegetation—plants that mediate the extremes of the local climate and are home to the butterflies and birds of the region.

In every landscape, nature is our guide. Natural forces express themselves differently from place to place, but as we have worked on projects worldwide, we’ve identified three key principles that allow us to apply our knowledge of natural systems to human designs. We imagine these principles may have a role in shaping Chicago’s future.

Waste=Food. The life cycle of every organism contributes to the health of the whole. A fruit tree’s blossoms fall to the ground and decompose into food for other living things. Bacteria and fungi feed on the organic waste of both the tree and the animals that eat its fruit, depositing nutrients in the soil in a form ready for the tree to take up and convert into growth. In these perpetual cycles—which we call cradle-to-cradle cycles—one organism’s waste becomes food for another.

Designs modeled on these cradle-to-cradle cycles eliminate the very concept of waste. A textile we designed, which is woven from wool and ramie and processed with completely safe chemicals, can be tossed on the ground to nourish the soil when it wears out. At the Swiss mill where the fabric is produced, the trimmings serve as garden mulch and the water leaving the factory is as clean as the water flowing in. Synthetics like plastics and metals can flow in cradle-to-cradle cycles too. They can be designed for continual reuse as high-quality materials for industry. A new recycling process, for instance, allows carpet manufacturers to reuse nylon fiber perpetually. Materials and processes such as these are making manufacturing a restorative act.

Use current solar income. Living things thrive on the energy of the sun. Trees and plants manufacture food from sunlight, an elegant, effective system that uses the earth’s only perpetual source of energy income. Buildings can tap into solar income using direct solar energy collection or passive solar processes such as daylighting, which make effective use of natural light. The City can also encourage the large-scale development of wind power—thermal flows fueled by sunlight—by tapping the driving winds of the Great Lakes and the Plains. Integrating solar and wind power into Chicago’s energy infrastructure would make the City a world leader in the renewable energy industry, creating thousands of great jobs.

Celebrate diversity. Healthy ecosystems are complex communities of living things that have developed diverse responses to their surroundings. They provide many models for design. Architects and planners, applying a diversity of design solutions, can create and restore buildings, industries, landscapes and neighborhoods that they fit elegantly and effectively into a variety of niches. Why not a diversity of healthy landscapes in Chicago? Imagine restored industrial sites that generate economic prosperity while creating habitat alongside river corridors. This is the vision behind the restoration of Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. There, a stormwater management system comprised of a ten-acre living roof and constructed wetlands and swales is creating habitat, revitalizing the landscape, and filtering water for $35 million less than conventional technical controls. When industry tunes in to biodiversity, it can be a cost-effective regenerative force.


Shaping the Urban Landscape

While nature’s laws shape our sense of cities, they don’t force us into a static view. We see each city, and we see Chicago, as part of a dynamic ecosystem, a singular evolutionary matrix. And we see the future of the City as an ever more harmonious and creative participation in the surrounding landscape. Claude Levi-Strauss put it well when he described the city as the place where “nature and artifice meet.”

A city is a congestion of animals whose biological history is enclosed within boundaries, and yet every conscious and rational act on the part of these creatures helps to shape the city’s eventual character. By its form as by the manner of its birth, the city has elements at once of biological procreation, organic evolution, and esthetic creation. It is both a natural object and a thing to be cultivated; individual and group; something lived and something dreamed.

Cities are made. One can look at a metropolis like Chicago and get the sense that it has always been there. Yet in 1830s Chicago, as William Cronon has written, “one did not have to walk more than a few minutes to be out on the prairie.” Just 60 years later booming, urbane Chicago hosted the famous Columbian Exposition.

Cities are designed. The tree-lined boulevards and elegant storefronts of Paris are not the result of lucky happenstance but of an ambitious 19th century renovation that remade the city from the sewers to the rooftops. It is no coincidence that Paris has remained a cultural capital in spite of the mercurial fortunes of France.

What might Chicago be in 2020?


City and Region: A New Kind of Hub

One thing seems clear about the future of Chicago: it will be, as it has always been, a regional hub. But what kind of hub? Cronon explains in his history of Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis, how the city’s grain, meat, and timber markets transformed the landscape of the West. Railroads, grain elevators, stockyards, and wheat farms stretching from Illinois to the Rocky Mountains all emerged in relation to Chicago’s markets. All of these “landscapes of production” created a “gritty web of material connections” that fed, clothed, and sheltered the people of Chicago and its hinterland. But not without cost. The harvest of commodities from the woods and prairies, and their processing in the city, created degraded landscapes on both ends of the rails that carried nature to market.

As your letter suggests, there are other ways in which Chicago might be a hub. What if Chicago became a different sort of “Nature’s Metropolis,” a city bound to its region by healthy, reciprocal relationships? Supporting a regional organic food system is one of the important places to start. In this new model, Chicago’s markets could support the rebirth of the American prairie. Organic farming works with natural cycles of water and natural flows of nutrients. It heals the soil and the watershed, a dire need in a region in which conventional farming has exhausted the earth. As Chicago’s markets for organic food grow, the city would become an ever-stronger catalyst for the restoration of economic, social and environmental health in the rural Midwest—not to mention the health of Chicago’s citizens.

In a similar way, Chicago’s status as a hub city could make it the Midwest capital of green manufacturing and transit, energy effectiveness, and cradle-to-cradle recycling. Again, your points are on target. Following principles derived from nature’s laws could provide the framework for developing these new systems.

Consider again Waste=Food. When industrial and architectural systems are modeled on the earth’s perpetual flows of energy and nutrients, human productivity can be positive and vital. The biodegradable and infinitely recyclable textiles I’ve mentioned are just the beginning. We are working with industrial designers to develop materials, products, supply chains and manufacturing processes that replace industry’s cradle-to-grave manufacturing model—the one-way trip to the landfill—with cradle-to-cradle systems. In cradle-to-cradle systems, products are conceived with safe, healthy materials, which are managed within closed-loop cycles. The materials go back to soils safely, or they go back to industry. No waste. No pollution. If Chicago’s industrial sector re-invents itself using a cradle-to-cradle model, the nation’s hub of green manufacturing and resource recovery may well turn out to be on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Using energy effectively will also influence the greening of Chicago. As with manufacturing, the framework is simple: use current solar income. The City has made a strong commitment to solar and wind power, and the expansion of the program to mandate LEED standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a good idea. The use of renewable energy sources may also stimulate a host of new industries, such as the manufacture of wind turbines. Chicago could jumpstart the wind business and become known as “the city that makes wind turbines for the world.” This could eventually make traditional coal generated power uneconomical and simultaneously begin to power Chicago’s transit system. Going to work? Ride the Wind. It’s not so far fetched; in Calgary the subway is partially powered by prairie winds. As your letter points out, that’s not all that’s needed to create a world-class transit system, but it is certainly a good place to start.


Creating Community Wealth

There’s probably nothing more important than supporting Chicago’s neighborhoods. Clean, vital industry; energy effectiveness; safe, affordable housing; and good mass transit provide the infrastructure and the wherewithal for strong community life. They are the basics that no one should be without.

Why not go beyond the basics? The neighborhood, with the street as its lifeblood, is perhaps where economic, social and environmental concerns mix it up most strongly. For us, that signals opportunity. Areas in urban communities where commerce, patterns of travel, and opportunities for sociability bring people together respond eagerly to attention. They are ripe for “community seeds.”

A community seed might be as simple as a laundromat, which can be much more than a place to wash one’s clothes. Imagine, for example, a laundromat on a busy neighborhood street that shares a public courtyard with a daycare center. The laundry is run by a small group of retirees and it serves an older clientele too. The machines are powered cost-effectively by the sun and the wind. The wash water is purified in a botanical garden in the courtyard, where mothers and children mingle with elderly people as they wait for their clothes to dry. The garden’s flowering plants brighten what turns out to be a local transit hub. It’s not a flashy place, but it’s a viable business that provides needed services while bringing the generations together in pleasant surroundings. Places such as these can be important centers of neighborhood life.

Other areas call for different kinds of attention. Community greening, as you say, develops strong community ties and natural spaces that provide a respite from the busy street. The City seems to support that notion. Greencorps Chicago crews have worked on nearly 500 sites, receiving on-the-job training in skills such as landscaping and community outreach. Even in these relatively small parks, the experience of getting ones hands in the dirt and planting a living thing provides a meaningful connection to nature.

On a larger scale, the lakefront, the river and its banks, and the city’s bigger parks are also key areas of Chicago’s commons. They are the city’s lungs, its habitat for other creatures, its vital threads of landscape, the home of the trees and earth that absorb and filter water while providing pleasure for all. They are also the baseline of the city’s health. Here we watch how the water flows. Is storm water absorbed where it falls? Is its passage into the river slowed? What kinds of toxins does it pick up on the way? Ideally, the city would release water at the same rate it would be released if the landscape were in its native vegetated state, the water flowing slowly to the river, clean and ready for reuse. The flow of water, the most basic element of life, will be the measure of our progress. When we can say with confidence that the Chicago River runs clean, we will be well on our way to creating the greenest city in America.

So let’s make Chicago the pacesetter. The topics you addressed in your letter, from preserving green space to providing reliable, convenient mobility, are exactly the kinds of challenges we are preparing to address. As we bring specific ideas and visions forward, they will no doubt be enhanced by our collaboration with the City and Chicago’s citizens. It is our hope that together we will create strategies that provide everyone in Chicago with good health care, clean energy, safe water, hugely effective business models, and daily opportunities to engage the natural world. We are thrilled to be working with you to bring these changes about and make Chicago an evermore safe, delightful and productive place.



William McDonough and the WM + P Community Design Team





From Hannover to Chicago

Ten years ago, William McDonough and his colleague Michael Braungart were commissioned to develop a series of design principles for Expo 2000, the World’s Fair held in Hannover, Germany. The Hannover Principles were presented by the city at the Earth Summit in Brazil in June 1992. They offer a look at the values that are likely to influence McDonough’s work with the City of Chicago.


The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability

  1. Insist on the rights of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse and sustainable condition.
  1. Recognize interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend upon the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognize even distant effects.
  1. Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Consider all aspects of human settlement including community, dwelling, industry and trade in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness.
  1. Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems and their right to coexist.
  1. Create safe objects of long-term value. Do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance or vigilant administration of potential danger due to the careless creation of products, processes or standards.
  1. Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full life-cycle of products and processes, to approach the state of natural systems, in which there is no waste.
  1. Rely on natural energy flows. Human designs should, like the living world, derive their creative forces from perpetual solar income. Incorporate this energy efficiently and safely for responsible use.
  1. Understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever and design does not solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Treat nature as a model and mentor, not as an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled.
  1. Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge. Encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers and users to link long-term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.


Dear Conscious Choice © 2002 William McDonough

Conscious Choice