CHICAGO -- They planted paradise and took out a parking lot.
Earlier this summer, students and corporate executives planted wildflowers and native grasses where asphalt once smothered the soil at Thomas Chalmers Specialty School.
The more than 500 plants packed into the 1,600-square-foot rain garden will help filter runoff and reduce flooding amid what is left of the West Side school's parking lot, the project's coordinators promise. And with a little luck and a lot of public relations, this slice of paradise will help Chicago earn the right to host the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic games.
"There's always room in this world for removing more asphalt and letting in the rain," quipped Steve Wise, a coordinator of the Chalmers project and executive with the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology. "If Chicago is going to host an Olympics, it has to leave a lasting environmental legacy."
Competition is intense among the four finalist cities -- Chicago, Tokyo, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro -- to host the games, which come with the promise of new infrastructure and the specter of cost overruns. The International Olympic Committee -- which considers environmental stewardship the games' third "pillar" alongside sport and culture -- will select the winning bidder Oct. 2.
Chicago, which will get a major boost from President Obama today, promises to host a "blue-green" Olympics by conserving water, slashing greenhouse gas emissions, recycling temporary venues and transforming the concrete jungle into a more natural state. The Chalmers garden is one of 10 "21st Century Green Centers" paired with proposed sporting venues throughout the city (the school's leafy neighbor, Douglas Park, would host cycling). The hometown conservation group Openlands will use a revolving loan fund to buy additional park lands throughout the metropolitan area.
"We're not in it to lose; we're in it to win," vowed Chicago 2016 Chairman and CEO Pat Ryan at a recent "sport and sustainability" summit here. Ryan's nonprofit -- the first to host such a summit -- has pledged roughly $60 million toward environmental initiatives in its bid for the Olympics.
"We want the games, and the seven years of planning leading up to the games, to leave a sustainable legacy for our environment for generations to come," Ryan added.
But for every optimist, there seems to be a cynic in Chicago. It is home of the woeful Cubs, after all, who have not won a World Series in a century. But this lakeside metropolis also pulled off the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition a mere two decades after the Great Chicago Fire.
Most of the 1893 exposition's buildings were burned rather than reused -- not exactly "sustainable" by today's standards -- but a belt of parks and ponds exists today where the wildly expensive "White City" once stood. Chicago 2016 proposes to build the main Olympic Stadium for 80,000 spectators nearby, so some local economists say history could teach today's Olympic boosters a lesson about the "triple" bottom line -- economic, social and environmental sustainability.
"Transportation networks and other infrastructure amenities are capital expenditures for which a city typically makes decisions based on a long-term time frame," said Allen Sanderson, a veteran University of Chicago lecturer and an expert on the economics of sports. "With the Olympics, the tail wags the dog."
"Either you're overbuilding infrastructure or relocating it to accommodate a party that's not going be there after the circus leaves town," he added.
Backers of Chicago's bid promise to take the long view.
Grading the 'green' games
The Olympics' environmental and economic legacy is more gray than black and white.
Last summer, as Beijing prepared to host the Olympics, many of 2004 host Athens' sports facilities sat idle. The world was still watching.
A vast field near the Farilo stadium complex, which was supposed to become an ecological park, was covered with weeds and garbage, The Christian Science Monitor reported. The Independent newspaper of London -- host city of the 2012 games -- reported that maintaining Athens' mostly unused Olympic venues had cost more than $800 million alone.
Hosting the Olympics cost about $13 billion, double the Greek government's initial estimate of $6.4 billion. The green upside: Athens' more than 3 million residents got a new airport, commuter rail and walkways between tourist attractions.
Beijing, population 15 million, faced challenges unique to a megacity in a developing country. China's capital city relocated or shuttered hundreds of polluting factories, banned tens of thousands of private cars temporarily and planted more than 30 million trees (Greenwire, June 11, 2008).
By spending roughly $17 billion on environmental initiatives, Beijing was able to meet or exceed most of its pollution goals, according to a U.N. Environment Programme assessment of data provided by China's government.
The study found that the number of "blue sky" days -- when the city's 500-point Air Pollution Index measures below 100 points -- increased to 274 days last year, up from 100 in 1998. The index is based on 27 stations throughout the city that measure sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter levels.
Environmental mitigation measures before the games -- coupled with rain, wind and other favorable weather conditions during athletic competition -- led to a 38 percent reduction of NO2, 14 percent reduction of SO2 and 20 percent reduction of particulate matter, the report concludes.
An independent assessment by Oregon State University and Peking University contrasts sharply with UNEP's findings.
Beijing's air pollution during the games was roughly a third higher than what the Chinese government reported and exceeded what the World Health Organization considers safe, the American and Chinese researchers found. Indeed, Beijing's particulate matter air pollution was about double the level recorded during the 2004 games in Athens and 3.5 times higher than the level recorded during the 2000 games in Sydney.
"This demonstrates how difficult it is to solve environmental problems on a short-term, local basis," said Staci Simonich, a co-author of the study and OSU associate professor of environmental and molecular toxicology.
Chicago officials are mindful of where past Olympic hosts fell short, but reject direct comparisons.
Sadhu Johnston, Mayor Richard Daley's chief environmental officer, notes that Chicago has a plan in place to slash greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, using 1990 as a baseline, by boosting energy efficiency and conservation in buildings. Chicago has planted 600,000 trees during the past two decades and has more LEED-certified buildings than any other city. Nearly 400,000 square meters of green roofs are completed or under development.
"We won't need to do things as extremely as [Beijing] did -- such as shutting down factories and having mandatory no-driving days -- because we've been working to green Chicago for some time," Johnston added. "We don't have the same kind of challenges to overcome in a short period of time."
Gusto in the Windy City
Chicago 2016's "blue-green" concept is based on five core areas -- climate, water, resources, habitat and legacy.
One concept, dubbed "WheelAid," calls for converting thousands of seats from temporary venues into wheelchairs. Another concept calls for installing raised walkways and bioswales amid the center of boulevards. Yet another plan calls for buying renewable electricity and carbon offsets to shrink the games' projected carbon footprint -- about 800,000 tons of CO2, said Bob Accarino, Chicago 2016's director of environment.
Chicago's bid proposes 31 venues, most of which fall within an 8-kilometer radius. Of the 16 new venues proposed, six would be permanent. The $397.6 million Olympic Stadium, located in Washington Park near the University of Chicago, would be the largest and most expensive of the new and permanent venues.
The Olympic Village, which would be built on a 43-acre site between downtown and the university, would house nearly 17,000 athletes during the games. After the Olympics, a private developer would turn at least 20 percent of the units into affordable housing, primarily for senior citizens and students.
Chicago 2016's sustainability pledges fail to assuage the concerns of Steve Balkin, who teaches economics at Roosevelt University's downtown campus. He worries that a citywide construction boom would usher in high-priced condos and displace low-income residents.
To mitigate this, Balkin suggested, Chicago should use only existing sporting venues within a 300-mile radius. For example, the massive Pontiac Silverdome, near Detroit, could host the opening ceremony. Chicago could build high-speed rail to Detroit and other co-host cities throughout the Midwest.
"It's infrastructure that's already on the books to be built, and it would be used for years," Balkin contended.
He noted that Beijing co-hosted the 2008 games with Shanghai and other cities along China's eastern seaboard.
"Chicago is great on PR, but if they were serious about sustainability, they would want to spread the events so they wouldn't have to build so much," Balkin added.
Johnston disagrees. Clustering the venues and athletes, he said, is more environmentally sustainable.
"A compact games will allow us to reduce the number of cars needed just to get around," Johnston reasoned. "Most of these venues, you would be able to walk or bike from one to the other."
Chicago 2016's Accarino said clustering the venues and village also comes with the cultural benefit of mixing athletes from dozens of countries.
"When you start moving athletes from the village, they feel isolated," he explained. "You're not getting the mix you want."
He contended that it's cheaper to build one athletes' village rather than dorms in several cities.
"We think our plan is as good as any of the other cities'," Accarino underscored. "The IOC has taken notice."
Measuring the competition
IOC officials visited all four of the finalist cities last spring and published a final report this month that assesses the cities' financial, environmental and transportation proposals.
In Chicago, about $9 billion would be invested between 2008 and 2016 to upgrade transportation infrastructure, particularly rail, according to the report. The bid proposes an extensive lane system between Olympic sites as well as a scheme to slash citywide automobile traffic 25 percent during the games.
More than 90,000 temporary park-and-ride facilities would need to be built within a 100-kilometer radius of the metropolitan region's rail system, according to the IOC report.
A poll commissioned by the IOC showed 67 percent of Chicagoans supported hosting the Olympics. Local support for hosting the Olympics was 85 percent in both Madrid and Rio.
But these cities would face hurdles of their own.
To construct an Olympic Park in Rio, hundreds of families who are living in illegal settlements must be relocated, according to the IOC report.
Madrid's bid proposes getting all of the games' electricity from renewable resources and recycling all of its waste. But when it comes to transportation, the bid budget documentation lacked "clarity" and showed "limited understanding" of Olympic requirements, the IOC report noted.
Tokyo, which hosted the 1964 Olympics, proposes to put most of its athletic venues within an 8-kilometer radius and create new green spaces throughout the city. Even so, 55 percent of the city's residents support hosting the 2016 games, according to IOC polling.
Tokyo's bid proposes about $3.1 billion for athletic housing and venues. The Japanese government would cover up to half of the cost.
"The games cost too much money, and they destroy the environment," Tokyo Assemblywoman Yoshiko Fukushi told the Associated Press last summer. "Maybe there was meaning back in 1964, when the economic effects were positive."
A study commissioned by Chicago 2016 and conducted by economists at California State University, Sacramento, projects that if Chicago hosted the Olympic and Paralympic games, the statewide economic impact would be about $22.5 billion. The games would create more than 315,000 job-years -- a figure that aggregates all job hours into the equivalent of full-time jobs.
The private developers and the official Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games -- Chicago 2016's successor -- would spend about $4.7 billion to plan, build and operate athletic venues, housing and other infrastructure, the study projects. Visitor spending during the games would be about $7 billion.
Chicago 2016's Accarino said he is "very confident" in the economic projections.
The University of Chicago's Sanderson is not so sure.
"One of the ways you win an Olympics is by how much money you're willing to spend, but most cities end up taking a bath," Sanderson said.
The Chicago City Council hedged its bet last week by authorizing Mayor Daley to sign a host city contract, which commits taxpayers to absorbing cost overruns. The other three finalist cities have signed such contracts, Accarino said.
Chicago 2016 officials are also calling on friends in high places.
U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson spoke at last week's sport and sustainability summit. Obama's senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and first lady Michelle Obama will travel to Denmark next month for the IOC's selection session.
The Obamas, who still keep a house on Chicago's South Side, will play host to Daley and athletes at the White House later today. The event is aimed at promoting Chicago's bid for the games and the Obama administration's commitment to "service, healthy living and youth support," according to a White House statement.
Despite the powerful political backing, Chicago 2016 Chairman Ryan is airing on the side of political correctness.
He is declining to pick a winner -- at least publicly.
"We're going up against world-class cities, and it's totally impossible to handicap it at this point," Ryan said.
Click here to read the IOC report.
Click here to read the Chicago 2016 study.