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Seeing Green in Elgin

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This city has always conjured images of lively commerce and industry, but concepts of “green” and “sustainable” are new additions to its image. Learn how this dynamic city is reinventing itself for a new century.

The city of Elgin is drawing national attention for its efforts to go green.

Earlier this year, the City of Elgin earned national recognition when it landed a spot on Mother Earth News’ fifth annual “Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of” list. Mother Earth News is a prominent magazine dedicated to sustainable living, and Elgin was one of six communities featured in its annual issue tabbed “The City in the Suburbs Quality of Life and Accessibility issue.”

“Elgin shows how a town of any size can transform from an industrial past to a green future through a commitment to sustainability,” the magazine stated. “Mother Earth News focuses on cool things you can do to live wisely and create community, and we think our readers will identify with a place like Elgin.”

Other cities making the list are Huntsville, Ala.; Louisville, Ky.; Carrboro, N.C.; Fredericksburg, Texas; and Floyd, Va.
The national attention underscores the transformation taking place in this bustling city of 108,000, located 36 miles from downtown Chicago.

“It really solidified the fact that we’re no longer an industrial ghost town,” says Aaron Cosentino, city sustainability and grants coordinator. “The recognition has definitely strengthened our reputation. We’ve done things over the years to transform the community, to make it more cultural, make it more diverse and more vibrant. Elgin is definitely changing.”

One of the biggest changes has been the city’s push to take a cost-effective, community-based, grassroots approach to creating a viable sustainability program. The movement to go green started in 2007 when city leaders developed a sustainability master plan, led by council members F. John Steffen and Dave Kaptain.

Kaptain, who was recently elected mayor of Elgin, oversaw several planning sessions along with Steffen, with assistance from a consulting firm. “Mayor Kaptain and council member Steffen have been there from the beginning,” says Cosentino. “Without their leadership, the effort would not be what it is today.”

Out of those planning sessions came nine working groups made up of community volunteers who were tasked with researching sustainable practices and making recommendations to the council in the following areas: green building technologies; alternative energy; economic development; healthy living; outreach and education; transportation and mobility; urban design; water; parks and green infrastructure; and recycling and waste management.

The Harold D. Rider Family Media, Science, and Fine Arts Center at Elgin Academy is LEED Gold-certified.

The ongoing discussion involves diverse topics such as demographics, landscape, economy, the Fox River, existing transportation and the feasibility of acting upon sustainable and healthy living strategies. In all, the plan recommends 108 objectives.

For example, the Alternative Energy group focuses on alternative and renewable energy in government, business and residential communities. Ideas include establishing a home energy audit discount program; coordinating the leasing of solar panels to businesses; tracking the effectiveness of the alternative fuel vehicles in the municipal fleet; and pursuing construction of a hydroelectric dam.

In addition to offering educational programs about reducing runoff and treating storm water, the Green Infrastructure group wants to create an incentive program so residents can get free or low-cost native plants for their rain gardens. The Water Resources group wants to start a faucet aerator rebate program to encourage residents to buy low-cost products that aid water use reduction.

The difference between Elgin’s plan and those of most other cities making similar efforts is the participation of community volunteers. More than 100 residents have stepped up, which eliminated the need to further use a consulting group – a savings of more than $100,000. “We thought, ‘We have all these people in the community who are willing to put the time in, why aren’t we using them more?’” says Cosentino. “So we decided to have the volunteers develop the plan.”

Many community leaders credit Cosentino for keeping the Elgin sustainability program organized and on track. A former city intern who graduated from Northern Illinois University with a master’s in public education, Cosentino was hired full-time a year ago in the newly-created position of sustainability coordinator. “His energy and enthusiasm really helped to move it to the point where we finally have a working document,” says Brian Borkowicz, district manager for Davey Tree Expert Co. “He provided the conduit we needed to keep this going.”

A significant catalyst for green and sustainable awareness was the formation of the U.S. Green Building Council in 1993. In March of that year, the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines were published, giving communities, businesses, builders, designers and architectural firms direction through the green building certification system. LEED was created as a means to identify and implement measurable green and sustainable opportunities in the design, construction, operations and maintenance of new or existing buildings.

Over the past several years, Elgin has seen a wave of green and sustainable designs, including LEED-certified projects, in both the public and private sectors. Examples include the Harm A. Weber Academic Center at Judson University; the Elgin Academy-Harold D. Rider Family Media, Science, and Fine Arts Center; the Grand Victoria Foundation offices; the Gail Borden Library-Rakow Branch; THE National Bank; Waste Management; and the Siemens Winergy manufacturing plant.

The Rakow Branch of Gail Borden Public Library, at 2751 E. Bowes Road, is LEED Gold-certified.

A major player in this effort has been Bruce Dahlquist, LEED AP BD+C, president and director of sustainability for DLA Architects Ltd. He’s been the technical facilitator for the City of Elgin sustainability action plan, working with Cosentino. Dahlquist was also co-founder of the Fox Valley Branch, Chicago Chapter – U.S. Green Building Council, and has been involved in many green and sustainable design and planning projects throughout Elgin and northern Illinois.

Dahlquist explains that being LEED-certified represents three things: a concern for the environment and preserving natural resources/assets; energy conservation and the economics involved in saving energy; and creating a healthy indoor and outdoor learning environment.

“These support what’s known as the ‘triple bottom line of environmental, social, and economic prosperity,’” he says. “Becoming LEED-certified is a visible and public way to emphasize the significant commitment made in the design and use of a particular building. In a publically-owned building, people see the LEED plaque and recognize the fact that the community or public agency has made the effort to design a healthy living and learning space which respects the environment and the community-at-large.”

The 10,000-square-foot Rakow Branch of the Gail Borden Public Library District, opened in 2009, is LEED Gold-certified, the highest standard of LEED certification. It has a geothermal well system that responds to the earth’s constant temperature of 55 degrees, which saves energy when heating or cooling the building; a high albedo roof coated in reflective materials, to lower absorption of solar energy and reduce surface temperatures; and low-VOC-emitting materials that improve indoor air quality.

Leaders of the main library plan to install a green roof in the near future. “There are so many trends that are going to be shaping our lives in the next 50 years,” says Kate Burlette, director of library experiences. “This community has a strong green movement, and it’s vital that the library is a great resource on issues of sustainability.”

Sherman Hospital has a 15-acre geothermal lake that’s heating and cooling its location on Randall and Big Timber roads; it could save the hospital $1.2 million a year in energy costs. The lake is the largest geothermal system in the state and one of two used to heat and cool medical centers in the country.

The Harold D. Rider Family Media, Science and Fine Arts Center, opened in 2008 at Elgin Academy, is also LEED Gold-certified. Built on a hilltop, the first and second floors are below ground level to provide insulation; the double-paned, Argon gas-filled windows reduce solar heat gain; the roof is highly reflective; and many materials were chosen because of their recycled content.

“This is extremely important for the study of science,” says Dr. John Cooper, Head of School. “It’s interesting, outdoor education is very important, yet most of us spend most of our lives indoors. Part of our curriculum is designed to help children understand the space they’re in and how it affects their health.”

Davey Tree Expert Co. helped the city to receive a $1.8 million grant through the U.S. Forest Service for its urban forestry efforts, including a comprehensive inventory of all public trees. The program, called Elgin Fit Forest, includes community outreach and education, street and park tree planting, urban wood utilization, ecosystem restoration and tree risk reduction. “Trees are an important priority,” says Borkowicz. “We’ve laid out one of the most advanced urban forestry programs in the country.”

Pipes at the bottom of the geothermal lake at Sherman Hospital pull in water and convert it to energy. The water is about 40 degrees Farenheit year-round. Sherman’s geothermal system has an energy efficiency rating of 400 percent, meaning four units of energy are produced for every one unit of electricity. Typical high-energy furnaces are 94 percent efficient. This geothermal lake is the largest in Illinois and one of the largest in the world.

Winergy Drive Systems expanded its wind turbine gearbox operation with a new 170,000-square-foot, LEED Silver-certified plant that assembles and tests mechanical gear boxes for a global market.

These are just a few examples of the sustainability momentum building within Elgin’s borders.

“I’m very impressed with everything that’s been done in Elgin, both in the private and public sector,” says Cooper. “It’s been a wonderful collaboration. It’s put Elgin on the map, in terms of being one of the greenest communities in the State of Illinois.”

The next task for Cosentino and volunteers is to further educate residents about ways they can help the cause, such as using more efficient faucets; watering lawns at off-peak hours; landscaping with plants better suited to the climate and in less need of pesticides and fertilizers; and making use of storm water.

“Change doesn’t come all at once,” says Cosentino. “The goal is to get more people involved. At this point, it’s a small but vocal part of the community. The biggest challenge we’ve found is educating the community about what can be done, why it will save you money, why it’s better for your lawn, better for your kids’ health. We need to start speaking a shared language.”

To help spread the message, Elgin hosted “Green Town: The Future of Community” this spring, a one-day conference promoting the importance of healthy sustainable communities, presented by Seven Generations Ahead, a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainability efforts, and a5, a Chicago-based marketing and communications firm. About 300 public officials and professionals attended the event.

In early May, the city hosted the Elgin Green Expo, a free public event that focused on green issues and energy efficiency. More than 100 area exhibitors participated, providing information on renewable energy installations; green remodeling; energy efficiency testing of building materials/designs; and community gardens.

The National Brownfield Association is holding a one-day workshop in Elgin in June to explore sustainability along the Fox River. Later in the month, Cosentino and others involved with the sustainability action plan will present their work at the National Sustainability Conference, hosted by the American Public Works Association in Portland, Ore.

“The residents of the City of Elgin are committed to making our community more sustainable,” says Kaptain. “Projects like the citizen-driven Sustainability Action Plan, Elgin Green Expo and the effort to reintroduce hydroelectric power to the Kimball Street dam are examples of our commitment to future generations. Portland’s going to spread the word beyond our borders, showing Elgin as the vibrant community it really is.”

Speaking of education, Elgin Community College has plans for an Energy Institute that could provide vocational training. The college now offers green, renewable energy, and sustainability non-credit courses, to help students and businesses qualify for 21st-century job opportunities. Courses include LEED Green Associate Training, Green Energy Savings and Alternatives, and Becoming a Green Teacher.

There’s still a long way to go, but community leaders are encouraged by the early results and the community’s willingness to get behind the effort.

“Working with the citizens on this plan has been very rewarding,” says Cosentino. “Success won’t be measured just by dollars and energy. I measure success by getting things completed within the plan. We’re past the point of talking about them. We’re ready to take the next step.”

Elgin’s Sustainability Action Plan will be presented to the city council at the end of June. Officials are optimistic that it will be well received.

“I believe the Sustainability Action Plan will help guide us forward,” says Kaptain. “The process of using volunteers to help write the document has helped to create the policy for future efforts. I look forward to establishing similar programs using the extensive creative talents in Elgin.”

Cosentino agrees, declaring, “It’s going to change the way people live in Elgin.” ❚

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