A cobalt-blue sky serves as backdrop for this stunning summer Chicago day, comfortable and clear. In this city known for its architectural wonders, seemingly everyone finds his or her way outside. Near the north branch of the Chicago River, a mother pushes her infant in a baby swing at a triangle-shaped playground in a pocket park. On the Northwest Side, high school students create a garden to beautify their solar-powered school. Elderly folks walk to the new shopping center with a bank and a grocery store on the West Side. Further east, a family leaves the Field Museum, strolling past flowers and trees on the lakefront Museum Campus as they head to a picnic outside the Adler Planetarium. And just east of Michigan Avenue, tourists search to find themselves in the giant, polished silver “bean,” officially known as Cloud Gate in Millennium Park.

HillDaley_10_250How and where these people are spending this beautiful afternoon illustrate Mayor Richard M. Daley’s imprint on Chicago. Daley, who recently announced that he will not seek reelection in 2011, will be leaving the people of Chicago a legacy of successful community building that stretches over his 21 years in office. He has transformed this Rustbelt city into a revitalized international metropolis, bringing together the built and natural environments to make the city more sustainable, livable, and lively.

“A lot of people here in Chicago think that Mayor Daley is really this century’s [city planner Daniel] Burnham, and in many respects he is,” says Donna LaPietra, president of Millennium Park Inc.

Daley’s ability to bring his intertwining priorities to fruition have earned him the Urban Land Institute’s prestigious ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development for 2010, making him only the second mayor so honored in the award’s 11-year history. The $100,000 annual prize, which honors ULI founder and legendary Kansas City, Missouri, developer J.C. Nichols, recognizes an individual whose career demonstrates a longtime commitment to the highest standards of responsible development.

“Mayor Daley does it, and nobody does it better,” says ULI J.C. Nichols jury prize chairman James M. DeFrancia, president of Lowe Enterprises Community Development Inc. in Aspen, Colorado. In selecting Daley, the jury considered the broad template of changes fostered during his time in office. “That included everything from green roofs to transportation systems to improving entire neighborhoods. [It was] the whole rainbow of all those activities,” DeFrancia says.

“We talk about cities where we want to live, work, and play, and that’s what he’s created in Chicago,” adds jury member Deborah Ratner Salzberg, president of Forest City Washington in Washington, D.C.

“Nature Can Coexist with the City”

HillDaley_8_250Among the mayors Daley respects are New York City’s Michael R. Bloomberg, Boston’s Thomas M. Menino, and Philadelphia’s Michael A. Nutter. “Mayors understand they need common sense and they have to work hard to get what they want accomplished,” he says. Unlike many politicians, Daley shies away from attention, preferring not to take credit for the city’s many accomplishments. He is quick to cite city planners, artists, the people, even Lake Michigan as the reasons Chicago is so successful.

“We’re really fortunate. We’re one of the few cities [that] ever kept the waterfront,” he says. “And just think—the Burnham Plan protected it. When you go all the way from Indiana, all the way almost to Evanston, it’s all open space. That is very important. And to me, nature can coexist with the city.”

Born April 24, 1942, the fourth of seven children, Daley entered a family involved in politics. Home was a modest house in the South Side’s Bridgeport neighborhood, a place where residents are defined by their Catholic Church parish, and most everyone loved the Chicago White Sox. In 1989, after years of serving as state senator and county prosecutor, Daley followed the footsteps of his late father, Richard J. Daley, into Chicago’s City Hall.

A quick study, Daley is known for reading everything, cutting it out of magazines and newspapers, and passing it on. Daley takes the Burnham adage “Make no little plans” to heart. Compatriots say he knows every corner of the city, every park, every elevated train stop, every parking lot. Even as a passenger in a car, he is on the clock.

“He sees everything. He takes notes constantly. He’s always looking,” says Millennium Park’s LaPietra. “I can’t imagine that even his sleep time isn’t involved with envisioning how the city could be better, how it could grow. He doesn’t just dream the idea: he actually understands how you get it done.”

Unlike other Rustbelt cities in the past 20 years, Chicago has grown—in population, diversity, jobs, and income. Crime is down, making residents more comfortable to visit and enjoy new attractions, parks, and neighborhood amenities.

“He has a kind of do-it-and-fix-it attitude, which is rare in political circles,” says jury member Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, principal of DPZ | Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company LLC in Miami.

HillDaley_6_250Daley knows the desire of Chicagoans for recreation matches their intense work ethic. On his watch, the city developed 200 acres of parks and green space, plus planted thousands of trees along miles of major roadways. But one green space perhaps more than any other forever changed the city’s image. Millennium Park, which opened in 2004, serves as Daley’s gift to the future. The 24.5-acre park wedged between Michigan Avenue and the lake stands as Chicago’s most ambitious public/private undertaking, at a cost of $475 million, according to the Chicago Tribune. Millennium Park is now the city’s top tourist destination for both tourists and residents and has become a model of public/private partnership, with more than $200 million contributed by private donors.

Previously, old railroad tracks and an empty parking lot pockmarked the southern end of historic Grant Park, scarring the face of showpiece Michigan Avenue. But in this space, the mayor envisioned a free park for families of every economic class, every ethnicity. He saw a palette for young artists to leave their mark—something more important, Daley claims, than a mayor’s impact.

“We in politics think that what we do has an impact. But an artist, what they do in life—that lives forever,” Daley says. “I think artists can define a city much better than anyone else.”

Millennium Park is now the world’s largest rooftop, sitting above active railroad tracks, and is an economic development engine for the downtown area, further attracting businesses and enriching the city’s image as the home of major works of public art. The Jay Pritzker Pavilion, anchored by a silver band shell created by architect Frank Gehry, draws listeners to free concerts by world-class musicians. Steps away, the Lurie Garden offers visitors a respite, surrounding them with butterfly weed, purple prairie clover, and rusty foxglove. Anish Kapoor’s popular Cloud Gate sculpture vies with the Hancock Building and the Willis Tower for the title of Chicago icon. The park’s buildings meet tough environmental standards.

“He could see what it would be. I mean, those are concepts that only artists can understand. Daley took in the ideas,” says Chicago journalist and documentarian Bill Kurtis. “Is the art in making it happen?”

An Unrelenting Focus on Sustainability

HillDaley_4_250Chicago has been a leader in the environmental movement. Daley started to act in this arena shortly after becoming mayor two decades ago, proceeding in ways that many other cities are just beginning to appreciate and emulate today. The beautification of Chicago stems from Daley’s focus on sustainability. “While many cities just set a broad goal, Chicago has gone to work at it in a very different way—almost with a mobilization of the entire city. They [city officials] had hundreds of meetings with neighborhood leaders, saying, ‘Here’s where we see the problems. How do you relate to it?’” says jury member Neal Peirce, chairman of the Citistates Group and a nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group in Washington, D.C.

Today, Daley’s focus on creating a sustainable environment remains fixed, even as other cities pull back in this tough economy. “If you invest in an environmental manner, it saves money in the long run. It saves your health. It saves the air. It saves everything around you,” Daley says.

He wants Chicago to be America’s greenest city. Every new building in Chicago must strive for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for energy efficiency and conservation. In late 2009, 88 Chicago buildings claimed LEED certification—more than in any other U.S. city.

HillDaley_2_250Daley’s approach to achieving this goal has been to lead by example. In 2001, he ordered a 20,300-square-foot green roof to top City Hall, aiming to lower energy costs and help mitigate the urban heat-island effect. At least 400 other Chicago buildings followed suit. An avid cyclist, Daley has been a bike commuter, encouraging Chicago’s workers to leave their cars at home.

“You can’t put all the cars on the highway. It’s impossible,” he says. “Public transportation should have a higher priority. It has to be clean, safe, on time, and friendly. If you miss any parts of that, then people don’t like to use it.”

The Ripple Effect in One Neighborhood

In Englewood, on the city’s West Side, a bus stops at the corner of West 69th Street, just as the Reverend Willard Payton walks out the door at the New Birth Church of God. Vacant lots sit across the roadway; boarded up homes line the side streets. Payton is focused on the building across Laflin Street, Wheeler House, an independent living facility for seniors.

Inside the well-kept four-story brick building, he finds two residents sitting in the sunlight atrium with comfortable furniture. Opened in 2003, Wheeler House provides studio and one-bedroom apartments to 89 seniors with incomes less than $30,000 a year.

Englewood’s aging population needed a place to live with dignity. “It’s one of the visions, long term, of our church to provide services for the seniors of the congregation and of the community. We had senior members in our congregation that had outlived their children,” Payton says.

Wheeler House was conceived in response to the neighborhood’s longtime shortage of housing affordable to seniors. Once the church purchased the neighboring lot, public and private partners provided funding for the development, including a loan from a local bank, federal funds provided through the city of Chicago, and additional funding from the state and low-income housing tax credits obtained through Enterprise Community Investment.

HillDaley_3_250Wheeler House created a ripple effect in Englewood. New businesses include a Salvation Army center, a library, a full-service bank—the neighborhood’s first in decades—and a seven-acre shopping center on Ashland Avenue anchored by a Jewel grocery store.

“Wheeler House is an example of Mayor Daley’s Chicago,” says Jen Buxtin, director of asset management for Enterprise Community Investment. “The mayor recognizes that affordable-housing residents are not some subset of society. They’re our neighbors, our relatives, our coworkers, and they deserve a place to age with dignity in place in their neighborhood.”

During Daley’s tenure, more than 170,000 units of affordable housing have been built, upgraded, or maintained throughout Chicago with investments of more than $4 billion in local, federal, and private funds. In his view, adequate, affordable housing is one of the core components of a thriving city—one just as critical to long-term viability as high-quality education and highly efficient public services.

Daley also believes that the city’s overall progress is perhaps best measured by what is accomplished in the most challenged areas of the city. “Each community is connected to another community. Each block is connected to another block,” he says.

“A City for the People”

HillDaley_9_250Nearly 15 miles north of Wheeler House, Northside College Prep High School principal Barry Rodgers watches sophomores rush to hug each other at their orientation. Here, 1,100 of the city’s best and brightest teens attend a school rated tops in the state for every year of its ten-year existence.

Northside Prep is not a private school. It is a Chicago public school, and, as is the case at the city’s other eight merit-based high schools, its student roster represents a range of economic and ethnic groups.

Two years before Daley’s election, U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett declared Chicago’s public schools “the worst in the nation.” Once in office, the Daley administration took over the school system, overhauling everything from the basic curriculum to the actual structures. The Chicago Public School (CPS) system invested more than $5 billion in building improvements, and 41 new schools have been constructed—the first being Northside Prep. Today, CPS test scores are at an all-time high, and dropout rates are sinking.

“Fast forward 20 years and we’re now a model urban public school system,” Rodgers says. In fact, CPS now claims three of Illinois’ top five schools, and U.S. News & World Report ranks Northside Prep 37th in the nation.

“The most important aspect of livability is the quality of education that you give to a family,” Daley says. “If you offer good early childhood education, and good elementary and high schools, you’ll keep families in the city.”

At Northside Prep, all of Daley’s priorities—education, neighborhoods, sustainability, and beautification—come together on one campus. Northside Prep students, concerned about their school’s energy use, initiated a plan to install six solar panels and found funding via public agencies and private companies.

Outside, four boys move mulch onto the new Joy Garden, filled with tomatoes and cornflowers and environmentally friendly materials such as porous concrete. Their interest in landscaping grew from a summer jobs program Daley developed. But as summer ends, this becomes an organic movement as these students continue working with volunteers to create a Joy Garden club.

“This has become part of the culture. This has become part of the expectation of what they believe should happen in a city,” Rodgers says.

“Not only are our students going to have a better life in terms of their income and job opportunities, but they’re going to be the difference makers—the positive change agents in society,” he adds. “They’re going to be people that innovate with new green technologies. They’re going to be the people who are the CEOs—but they’re the responsible CEOs of companies, people that give back to their community . . . the people that make it the fabric of a successful society.”

HillDaley_5_250While many point to Millennium Park or the city’s LEED-certified buildings as Daley’s lasting imprint, Rodgers instead points to his students’ academic records, as well as their work to make the environment sustainable. “This is the mayor’s legacy. He’s passing this on for our future generation,” he says.

By virtually any measurement, Daley’s commitment has made Chicago a more accessible and more enjoyable city for all its residents. However, he is quick to point out that lasting success depends on goals shared and pursued by the public and private sectors. “You have to make sure the amenities are there—the schools, the parks, the open space, the cleanliness . . . and that the business community and the people in government are working together,” he says.

Adds LaPietra, “If [Daley] is any one thing, he is an artist. He is an urban artist—today’s most contemporary, most forward-looking artist in terms of how you envision a livable city, a city for the people.”