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America's "greenest street" provides a blueprint for sustainable urban development


January 7, 2013

The regeneration of Cermak Road includes new sidewalks with permanent wind/solar powered pedestrian lights (Image: CDOT)

The regeneration of Cermak Road includes new sidewalks with permanent wind/solar powered pedestrian lights (Image: CDOT)

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A streetscape that includes natural landscaping, bicycle lanes, wind powered lighting, storm water diversion for irrigation, drought-resistant native plants and innovative “smog-eating” concrete has earned Cermak road in Chicago the title of “greenest Street in America” according to the Chicago Department of Transport (CDOT).

Opened in October 2012, the first phase two mile stretch is part of the Blue Island/Cermak Sustainable Streetscape project in Pilsen, which was introduced in 2009 with the aim of reducing overall energy usage by 42 percent.

The $US14 million initial project's full range of data and sustainable elements will not be available until the street canopy fills in and cooling technologies are activated in the summer. The project will eventually extend along Cermak and Blue Island all the way to Western in Chicago and is not only green, but is also cheap: the current 14 blocks cost 21 percent less to build than similar projects Chicago City officials considered, and should be cheaper to maintain.

The location runs through an industrial zone which links the state and US highways, and whilst not eligible for LEED certification because it is not a building, the project will record quantifiable results through a set of equally aggressive sustainability goals charting eight performance areas such as storm water management, material reuse, energy reduction, and place making.

The most anticipated data will be collected from the first commercial use of photocatalytic cement for the inside highway lanes. This "smog eating” cement contains nano particles of titanium dioxide and is designed to clean the surface of the road and remove nitrogen oxide (NOx) from the surrounding air through a catalytic reaction driven by UV light. In addition CDOT used 30 percent recycled content in the sidewalk concrete and installed roadways that include reclaimed asphalt pavement, slag, ground tire rubber and reclaimed asphalt shingles.

The project's water management process for phase one sees the use of potable water for any landscape irrigation eliminated and diverts up to 80 percent of annual rainfall from the combined sewer through a combination of the bioswales, rain gardens, permeable pavements, and stormwater features. This includes a pilot of 95 drought tolerant, native plant species in bioswales and infiltration planters to evaluate their effectiveness in roadside conditions.

Along with the photocatalytic cement, the project uses solar reflective or high albedo pavements. This combined with the 131 percent increase in landscape and canopy cover along the two-mile stretch is part of CDOT's drive to reduce the urban heat island (UHI) effect. UHI is considered a contributor to elevated temperatures in urban areas, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that the heat island effect can elevate temperatures as much as 8 percent above those of adjacent suburban and rural areas. Each degree temperature increase can exacerbate smog formation which makes the increased landscape shading a good natural solution, in addition tree canopy cover can also vastly reduce the cost of stormwater storage.

The regeneration of Cermak road means improved pedestrian access, refuge islands for crossing the busy highway, increased permeable paved bike lanes and new sidewalks with permanent wind/solar powered pedestrian lights and the first LED pedestrian light poles in Chicago.

The project is spreading its message via education kiosks, a walking tour brochure, and a guide which discusses the projects virtues. These statistics include: the recycling of 60 percent of construction waste, 23 percent of new materials containing recycled content, 76 percent of materials constructed within 500 miles (805 km) of site and 23 percent of materials within 200 miles (322 km).

Phase one of the Blue Island/Cermak Sustainable Streetscape project should become the talking point for green urban infrastructure if the emerging data proves as positive as predicted. Should the data also demonstrate a positive return on investment it could become the blueprint to make even the most relentless developer take note. If an industrial zone of a major city like Chicago can use streets and walkways to turn around water runoff and reduce energy consumption, then the future is bright for urban centers everywhere.

The City of Chicago video below shows-off Cermak road's green credentials.

Source: City of Chicago

About the Author
Donna Taylor After years of working in software delivery, Donna seized the opportunity to head back to university and this time study a lifelong passion: Architecture. Originally from the U.K. and after living in many countries, Donna and her family are now settled in Western Australia. When not writing Donna can be found at the University of Western Australia's Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts Department. All articles by Donna Taylor

Bikes sandwiched between cars and transit! Not sure this is good design. I would like to see how intersections are handled.

Steven Forth

This is SO COOL!!


It's cool they are getting the kids involved with smart city planning

Jay Lloyd

I like it. Keep up the good work.


Bikes and cars together would only be designed by non bike riders and the bike lane made with blocks instead of smooth pavement would not only make for a bumpy uncomfortable ride, it would be unsafe! This could only be designed by those who never actually use the resulting structure.

Jerry Peavy

Yes, excellent ideas and initiative. Getting the city, the school, young people involved... all good. Too bad then -- as others have already pointed out -- that no urban cycling expertise was integrated into the planning process.

Oddly, Commissioner Klein says, "We thought of everything." Well, no. The bike lanes are definately not well thought out. Move them over nearer the curb, away from the traffic and opening driver-side (the most used) car doors.


I imagine that many business and shopping buildings can be built beneath viaducts, facilitating access between them and reducing traffic on the street on the ground floor. I think an important step for great metropolises would be to specify the transport type for distinct commercial, industrial and housing areas. This could be solved by adopting interchange transport system terminals.

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