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Global climate coalition selects Loop site for ambitious carbon-neutral redevelopment

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Architects will pitch sustainable development projects as part of the global design competition

A view of a small pocket park and a grey parking garage.
The collection of city-owned parcels that architects must transform in the Loop.
Courtesy of C40 Cities

C40’s Reinventing Cities is more than a design competition. The climate coalition challenges cities to generate sustainable project ideas—and then actually build them. It requires city leaders, architects, developers, and investors to work together on ambitious redevelopments.

Sustainability in development is incredibly important, especially for places like Chicago with quite a lot of construction. Buildings are huge contributors of carbon dioxide emissions, which accelerate climate change.

Chicago has the fastest growing downtown population of any city in the country—it’s increased by 50 percent since 2000, according to the competition’s proposal. About half the city’s jobs are located downtown too, and corporate relocations in the past few years have spurred even more construction.

So, it makes sense that the site selected for Chicago is a collection of city-owned lots right in the middle of downtown. The highly-visible site, tucked in the city’s busiest area for development, is the perfect place to model a sustainable, community-focused project.

The site on South Plymouth contains a parking structure and sits next to a small greenspace, Pritzker Park. The lots are just across the way from the Harold Washington Library, several transit stations, and the John Marshall Law School.

The next step in the competition will be the proposal process. Urban designers and architects must submit project ideas that fit a rigorous set of guidelines. Requirements dictate that the proposals must go above and beyond traditional energy standards. It must have a low-carbon footprint, which means teams must source local materials or use solar energy. Demolishing old buildings or building brand new structures is discouraged. Instead, the competition encourages retrofits and salvaged materials.

Chicago’s site has one major design challenge: the existing parking garage. In an area with a ton of public transit, guidelines indicate that the structure will likely have to be transformed so the project encourages low-carbon transportation like walking or biking.

“It’s not just a design competition, it’s not just an idea. We ask for the team to include not just an architect, but a developer, investor, and future users,” said Hélène Chartier, Head of Zero Carbon Development for C40 Cities.

The competition serves as a way to get cities considering better environmental policies and new ways of building. So far, the competition has jump started 21 projects around the world. Outside of Chicago, there are two other projects in the United States. San Francisco’s winning design was The Kelsey Civic Center, which focuses on affordable and coliving housing for people with disabilities. In Houston, architects took a methane-leaking landfill and turned it into one of the largest solar farms in Texas.

“We know buildings are responsible for a lot of the global emissions,” Chartier says, “So, a new way of designing is the most important objective in the fight against climate change.”

In the last competition, Chicago’s winning project Garfield Green was pitched by architecture firm Perkins+Will. It proposed turning a vacant site on the West Side into apartments and a public plaza. Solar panels provide the energy needs for the entire building, a green roof grows leafy greens, and the modular construction materials will be from nearby Little Village.

Now, Chicago will field pitches and select between three to five finalists. Those projects will be judged by the coalition and then final winners will be announced in late 2020.