What do we mean by green?

Much of the green in the 'Greenest Street in America' is found underground

October 10, 2012

Caroline O'Donovan

From now on, when Chicagoans drive down Cermak Road, they won’t just be driving through a historical industrial corridor, or one of the city’s heavy truck routes. They’ll be driving on the Greenest Street in America. According to the Chicago Department of Transportation, that is.

Starting in 2004, Janet Attarian and a team of engineers began developing conceptual plans for a sustainable urban streetscape. They settled on this stretch of east Pilsen because of how badly it needed the infrastructure upgrade. It’s also a transitioning community, says Attarian. Formerly a major industrial corridor, this part of Cermak between Ashland and Halsted has become increasingly residential and commercial as the days of major urban industry come to a close.

Attarian also said that after working on green alleys and other smaller projects throughout her career, she was ready for a challenge. “We wanted to not try it on a little side street. We had done a lot of that,” she said, “I think part of proofing the system was also to show that this could be done on a street like this, on a truck route. It could be done on a major arterial.”

One of the wind-powered, LED lights in east Pilsen on Cermak Road. (WBEZ/Caroline O'Donovan)

What Attarian has accomplished is considerable. The asphalt along a mile and a half of Cermak Road as well as Blue Island Avenue is now made of recyclable materials and is also more permeable, allowing for an eighty percent increase in the amount of storm runoff that is recycled into the natural ecosystem rather than pushed into the city’s already clogged drainage system. Attarian says that, despite appearances, the project has actually increased natural landscaping along the street by 131%. Most noticeable of all are the blue, wind-powered lights that illuminate sidewalks and bus stops.

But is it really the Greenest Street in America? Some frequenters of the area were surprised to hear that. “I’m kind of shocked,” said Cary Hollett, who has owned commercial property at Cermak and Halsted for twenty-nine years, “I’ve been here for quite a while, and visually it’s been pretty ugly. As far as green goes, it might be running green, efficiently, like that. But as far as the garbage, there’s still quite a bit here.”

Attarian says that from her experience, the Pilsen Sustainable Streetscape brings together more aspects of sustainability than other comparable projects she’s seen across the country. She also said that, unlike green buildings, urban infrastructure often doesn’t look flashy. “Much of what is green and sexy is underground,“ she said.

One of the most complex elements of the plan is hardly noticeable at all. Attarian had to go all the way to Italy to get the photocatalytic cement she used for sidewalk pavers. She first heard about the product in a seminar, and when she went to buy it, was amused at its origins. “The Vatican wanted a church that would stay forever white,” she said, “but one of the problems, of course, why all the buildings, you know in Italy and other places and the United States get all dirty, is because of all the pollution we have in our air, the organic pollutants.”

So, a company called Italcementi created a product that would break down those organic pollutants into water and nitrogen, leaving the building clean. What they only realized later was that in still conditions, the catalyst is able to break down emissions as far as eight feet away from it.To save money, Attarian put a thin layer of the photocatalytic cement over the paving stones. She is awaiting the results of further tests to see how much pollution it’s breaking down. As Attarian says, “It doesn’t need to scream green, it just needs to function.”

Some nearby business owners have noticed the changes. Manuel Diaz is the manager at David’s Grill. He says, “It looks beautiful. It really makes the neighborhood better and for the business it’s great, too...I heard they are gonna expand it all the way to Western Avenue.”

Diaz is right, the plan currently is to extend the project to the intersection of Blue Island and Western Avenues, where a stormwater plaza is already in place. Attarian says the city will monitor the streetscape over the coming months in the hopes of preparing a template for similar projects throughout the rest of the city.

The Department of Transportation received considerable support from the community, including the office of Alderman Danny Solis and the nearby Benito Juarez Community Academy. The students there, who make up the largest group of pedestrians in the area by far, are already benefiting from the infrastructural improvements, according to Community Programs Coordinator Felipe Mejia. The city says the total cost of the project is estimated to be around $14 million, with much of the funding coming from TIF districts and nearly $1 million in state and federal grants