Chicago unveils citywide air quality reform agenda

Verch, Marco. (2017). “Drohnenfoto: The Field Museum, Soldier Field und Hochhäuser im Bezirk Burnham Place” [Photograph]. Retrieved from Flickr.

Chris Teale@chris_teale July 28, 2020, Smart Cities Dive

  • Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Monday the creation of a citywide air quality reform agenda, which will aim to improve the city’s air quality while promoting equitable economic growth.
  • The agenda is driven by data from the Department of Public Health’s Air Quality and Health Report, which found that issues including ozone and air particulates are a problem citywide, but disadvantaged communities are more likely to experience worse health outcomes than others. That report’s data helped improve the city’s environmental inspection and enforcement by prioritizing communities most affected by pollution and strengthening the permitting process for industries most responsible for that pollution.
  • The new air quality agenda will also change the city’s zoning code to amend where manufacturing and other polluting sites can be located, in a bid to keep them separated from homes and some businesses. Additionally, the city will change its rules around industrial operations that produce air pollution and strengthen enforcement.

This new agenda comes just over a month after Chicago appointed Angela Tovar as its new chief sustainability officer, in an effort to create a more inclusive economy and equitable environmental policy agenda that addresses racial disparities. Lightfoot said in a statement that this new initiative will further those efforts and advance the city’s objective of “creating a healthy, equitable, economic environment.”

Tovar echoed these thoughts. “We can, and we must, find a way to mitigate the pollution issues faced by our most environmentally overburdened and historically underserved communities and work to improve our environment overall,” she said in a statement.

As part of the new air quality agenda, the city also plans to create an Environmental Equity Working Group. Officials say the group will contain “world-class expertise and community voices” to help further the cause of environmental justice throughout Chicago. The move also comes just weeks after the city reformed its large recycling rules to require recyclers to mitigate dust and pollution, and monitor air and noise quality at their facilities.

The agenda takes on extra importance with the city looking to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) 26-28% from 2005 to 2025, especially as those emissions can cause more health problems for disadvantaged communities. In a statement, Alderman George Cardenas, who represents the city’s 12th Ward on the Southwest side, noted that his community has been exposed to air pollution due to heavy industrial activity and trucking that goes on around the clock. He added that the city has a “moral obligation to reduce health disparities across minority communities.”

But despite the progress that these reforms represent, some environmental advocates are still calling into question recent decisions within the city. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, for example, recently approved a permit for metal scrapper General Iron to move from a wealthy and predominately White neighborhood to the city’s primarily Black and Latino Southeast Side. The planned move was met with major opposition from environmental advocates and is a recent example of the city’s “systemic racism,” WTTW reports.

General Iron must file an application for a permit with the city before it can move. 

Chicago sustainability officer to marry racial equity, climate goals

Szekely, Pedro. (2017). “Chicago skyline” [Photograph]. Retrieved from Flickr.


Cailin Crowe


June 15, 2020


Dive Brief:

  • Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has appointed Angela Tovar as the city’s new chief sustainability officer.
  • Tovar’s appointment represents the city’s latest move to create a more equitable environmental policy agenda that addresses its racial disparities, while also investing in a more inclusive economy — particularly in light of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’s disproportionate effect on Black residents.
  • Tovar was selected in part for her experience promoting racial equity, environmental justice, public health and inclusive economic progress, Lightfoot said in a statement. “As the COVID-19 crisis has shown us, our everyday environment has a direct impact on our individual health and wellness,” Lightfoot continued, adding that she was looking forward to “working with her in our shared mission to hold violators accountable and tackle the widespread injustices that have impacted our neighborhoods for generations.”

Dive Insight: 

The hiring of a new chief sustainability officer is part of the city’s efforts to reach its 2025 and 2035 climate goals. 

Chicago aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) 26-28% from 2005 to 2025. So far, the city has reduced emissions 15% from 2005 to 2017, or the equivalent of removing more than 1.2 million passenger vehicles off the road. And Chicago’s 2035 climate goals include transitioning all of its buildings to renewable energy, in addition to electrifying its entire bus fleet by 2040. 

Lightfoot’s administration is also working to achieve those goals while prioritizing racial equity and an inclusive economy, with Tovar’s appointment representing the latest in those efforts. In a statement, Tovar said she aims to advance “a robust climate and sustainability agenda that is rooted in equity and is aimed at mitigating environmental harm in our most overburdened communities.”

COVID-19 has highlighted the city’s underlying public health and environmental justice inequities. As of April 2020, 52% of Chicago’s positive COVID-19 cases and 72% of COVID-19 deaths were among the city’s Black residents — despite Black residents representing just 30% of the city’s population. 

Chicago’s Black residents are more susceptible to the disease due to pre-existing conditions, exacerbated by neighborhoods that have experienced years of disinvestment, with lower quality access to healthcare, transit, affordable food, green space and more. 

And this is not the first time Chicago’s Black residents have been over-burdened by a public health crisis. In a 1995 heat wave, Black seniors older than 85-years-old were over two times as likely to die compared to White residents. And during a 1989 national measles epidemic, over 70% of local cases were among Black children.

Lightfoot’s administration aims to address these disparities in their environmental agenda, and has said she would work to ensure long-term resiliency solutions

To keep up with all of our coverage on how the new coronavirus is impacting U.S. cities, visit our daily tracker.