A Green City Guide to Chicago

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City: Chicago
Population: 2,896,016
Green Cred: A 20,300-square-foot green roof built on top of City Hall accompanied by several city-wide environmental initiatives: green roof and green alley programs, 1,300 acres of new open space, minimum tree requirements, Greencorps Chicago, Green Bungalows, green permitting and minimum LEED certification requirements; a vast network of city and suburban public transit; Chicago Center for Green Technology (one of the first LEED Platinum-certified buildings in the country); and lastly over 18 miles of Lake Michigan waterfront.

greenbadge1.png While Chicago is best known for its cold snowy winters, sports teams and beautiful architecture, it's quickly rising as one of the best green cities in the US. If it was up to its mayor, Richard M. Daley, it would be known as the greenest city — since becoming mayor Daley has made greening the city his mission, and as the last several years has shown, it's been quite the success.

In 2001, Daley led the green movement by example and built a green roof on top of City Hall — the country's first municipal green roof. Since then the city has planted or designed over 2 million square feet of rooftop gardens and planted over 400,000 trees. More than just 'green', Chicago is a diverse city, rich with great food, athletics, arts, entertainment, and overall great culture. Below are some of the best things to do to have a great eco-friendly Windy City visit.

Places You Must Go

  • Millennium Park: If you could only visit one area in Chicago, it'd be the award-winning Millennium Park — it's in the heart of downtown, has art and big-name architecture, green space, music, food and fountains all in one place. From concerts in the summer, to ice skating in the winter, no matter the season, the 24.5-acre park is always bustling with activity and interest.
  • Any of the big museums: The Art Institute of Chicago (don't miss the new Modern Wing), The Field Museum, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, The Museum of Science and Industry (don't miss the Smart Home exhibit), Museum of Contemporary Art, Adler Planetarium, and the Shedd Aquarium.
  • Lake Michigan Waterfront: You must go to the 18 1/2 mile long park along Lake Michigan's lakefront. Whether you are at the northern or southern tip of the city, there's something to do here. A walking path stretches most of the length, which is great for walking, biking and running. During warmer months you can lay out on one of the many beaches, play volleyball, tennis, golf, baseball, soccer and swim in the lake.

Things You Must Do

  • Critical Mass Bike Ride: If you enjoy a group bike ride then you can't miss this traffic stopping event. Bike rides start from Daley Plaza, Dearborn & Washington at 5:30 pm on the last Friday of each month, regardless of season or weather. They are free and fun — all you have to do is show up with your bike and helmet.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright walking tour: While many guided tours of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings are available, one of the best (and FREE!) is a walking tour through the historic and gorgeous Chicago suburb, Oak Park. Oak Park is full of FLW gems, and the Oak Park Tourist website has kindly designed a self-guided walking tour to see a majority of the homes in the area (exteriors only of course).
  • The Skydeck at Willis Tower: The Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) is one of the tallest buildings in the world, and provides one of the best views of the city. The Ledge is the towers most recent addition — glass cubes that extend 4.3-feet from the face of the building on the 103rd floor.
  • Chicago Architecture Foundation boat tour: The best way to tour the city and learn about it's architectural history all while taking a boat ride along the Chicago River.
  • See a sports event: Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs or White Sox
  • See a play or performance: The Second City, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
  • Attend a Summertime Neighborhood Festival: Ask any resident about their favorite summertime activity and attending a summer neighborhood festival is sure to be on the shortlist. The festivals are a great showcase of local food, drinks, music, art and of course socializing with the locals.

Where To Sleep

While there are hotels and accommodations located throughout the city and near the airports, our suggestion would be to stay downtown, within walking distance to many activities, restaurants, shops and the train lines.

Where To Eat

Chicago is a huge foodie city! You can't come here without eating way too much food, and if you're looking for something other than pizza and hotdogs, you're in luck because there's tons of great sustainable, local, seasonal, vegetarian and vegan-friendly foods. Here are some of the best!

Organic/Sustainable/Seasonal/Local

Vegetarian & Vegan

Shops To Visit If You're There For A Day

If you may think a trip down Michigan Avenue is the best way to shop in Chicago, you're mistaken! The best stores are scattered through the city, and they give you a great opportunity to explore wonderful neighborhoods you might not otherwise see — highlights include Wicker Park/Bucktown, Pilsen, Lincoln Square and Lincoln Park neighborhoods. The following shops and boutiques are all eco-friendly and beautiful and sell some of the best florals, antiques, art, housewares, clothes, etc. in the city.

Shops To Frequent If You're There For a Year

Green Spaces

  • Chicago Botanic Garden: Located in the Northshore area of Chicago, The Chicago Botanic Garden is one of the best summertime destinations for garden lovers. The 385-acre garden features 24 display gardens and four natural areas, uniquely situated on nine islands surrounded by lakes. Getting to the garden via the Metra Rail is easy, and once you're there you can enjoy strolling through the park, or even ride your bike down one of the trails that ends at the gardens.
  • Garfield Park Conservatory: Known as "one of the city's best kept secrets," Chicago Park District-run Garfield Park Conservatory is a 10,000+ square foot garden center featuring seasonal bedding plants, perennials, shrubs, planting materials, hanging pots, along with seasonal shows, events, workshops and demonstrations. Admission and parking is free.
  • Lincoln Park: Located on Chicago's near-north side, Lincoln Park is well-known neighborhood featuring two green gems: The Lincoln Park Zoo and Lincoln Park Conservatory. Both are dedicated to conservation and science, and both feature free admission year-round.
  • Green City Market: While Chicago's neighborhoods have some great summertime farmer's markets, the Green City Market is the only year-round market. The mission of Green City Market is to provide a marketplace for purchasing sustainably grown food that educates, promotes and connects farmers and local producers directly to chefs, restaurateurs and the greater Chicago community.
  • City Farm: City Farm is a sustainable vegetable farm bordering the Cabrini-Green and Gold Coast neighborhoods. All produce is grown in composted soil generated from various sources, and is sold through it's on-site market stand and to local restaurants. One of the more significant goals for City Farm is the creation of a permanent demonstration and training facility.
  • Eden Place Nature Center: A formal illegal dumpsite, this greenspace is now a cleaned-up 3-acre urban oasis in the Fuller Park neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. There are ongoing programs and seasonal activities designed for visitors to participate in the learning process with their children through play and exploration.
  • Humbolt Park: Over a century-old, Humbolt Park is another city park gem. It features a lagoon, meandering waterways, rose garden, a music court, boat house, paths, tennis courts, and more indoor and outdoor activity facilities.

Great Independent Artisans

The Best Flea Markets, Antique Fairs, and Thrift Stores

Related: Marketplace Green City Guide: Chicago

(Images: Diane Cook and Len Jenshel/National Geographic; Mark Tomaras/Millenium Park Metromix Chicago; Hotel Monaco; Heather Blaha/Apartment Therapy; Flickr member Linda N. licensed for use under Creative Commons; Christina Noel/Salvage One)

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Rachel is an Chicago-based architect and LEED Accredited Professional. When she's not designing homes, she enjoys spending her free time traveling, gardening, and playing with her french bulldog.

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