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An Interview with Karen Weigert: Chicago's Chief Sustainability Officer

Dec 26, 2012 12:04PM ● By Linda Sechrist

Karen Weigert serves as chief sustainability officer for the city of Chicago. Appointed in 2011, she guides the city’s sustainability strategy and implementation to bring about innovative and practical solutions. The graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Harvard Business School is helping accelerate and build on Chicago’s great heritage as a sustainable city as well as helping Mayor Rahm Emanuel to achieve his goal of making Chicago the greenest city in the world.

What in your background do you feel has most prepared you for your present role?

It is all about finding practical solutions with real benefits. Sustainability is central to opportunities in neighborhoods, businesses, homes and governments. Specifically, I find that my history of working closely with people and focusing on prioritization, communication and creating value propositions—how all participants will benefit—helps me in all that I do now.

As an example, prioritizing and communicating played a large part in my work as producer and writer for the documentary film, Carbon Nation, which addressed solutions to climate change. After months of talking with hundreds of people to find stories to use in the film, we had to select the best ones and prioritize them.

It’s impossible to do everything, and partnerships are central to results. So it’s essential to determine the important things I can do, communicate them and make sure there is a big team involved, not just one or two people.

How important do you think active listening skills are in your job?

Active listening on multiple levels is an important skill that matters, especially when I need to not only listen for what the challenges are, but also for solutions—who has a piece of an answer we can facilitate, what people care about, who is doing similar work that we can help by facilitating connections and what are the big ideas that the city can be a partner on.

What kinds of interactions around sustainability do you encourage between Chicago residents and the mayor’s office?

Sustainability is a huge factor in the context of what we consider Chicago’s great quality of life—being able to walk easily around our neighborhoods, enjoying our parks, convenient access to the CTA, not having to own a car and yet being able to get around town, and other aspects. It’s also part of many different jobs, which means that we want to make sure that Chicago continues to be strong in industries that are growing.

To invite more interaction on solutions that continue to improve our quality of life, we launched a sustainability Twitter feed early in 2012 (@SustainChicago). This was meant to actively communicate with people wherever they are, rather than requiring them to come to city hall to engage us. We love that Chicagoans use it to tell us what they think.

Other ways that we encourage interaction and feedback are our informative monthly Chicago Sustainability E-News and presentations to different groups. We feel that it is important to be in front of residents so we can hear about their interests and the solutions they are creating, so that we can find ways to partner and implement their solutions in other parts of the city.

I love that Chicagoans do remarkable things for the city they love—not just in the present, but also in generations past. For instance, more than 150 years ago, foresighted residents insured that our 26 miles of public lakefront were protected—we now have 24 free public beaches along this beautiful lakefront These amenities are part of the city’s heritage because residents came together to create small solutions in their individual neighborhoods that were an overall boost for the entire community.

Do you have a large staff to help your carry out the Sustainable Chicago 2015 agenda?

The mayor is leading this effort. While there is a small team in the mayor’s office that focuses solely on sustainability, we are fortunate to have talented leaders throughout the departments and sister agencies who deliver sustainability as a part of everything they do. Some good examples of this are that Streets and Sanitation is expanding recycling, Fleet and Facility Management is accelerating energy efficiency in our buildings and Transportation is adding permeability to street surfaces and new bike lanes, and Water Management is driving water conservation through new infrastructure and a meter program. There are examples like this throughout the city.

This mindset is also evident in Chicago’s neighborhoods, where residents come together on a grassroots level to accomplish sustainable projects. Last year, a local nonprofit attempted to catalogue all the sustainable activities around the city. Their project turned up as many as 900 things that were being done in all 77 community areas of the city. This is a wonderful example of what makes Chicago the remarkable city that it is.

For a complete explanation of Sustainable Chicago 2015, visit

Linda Sechrist is a senior staff writer for Natural Awakenings. Find other articles about sustainability at her website,