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Thirty Years of “Crazy Ideas” Breed Sustainability for Chicago

Sept. 18, 2008 – In 1978, while most environmentalists focused on preserving natural areas, a small group of young people opened an office on Chicago's West Side, where they started working with neighborhood organizations to promote community gardens.

Thirty years later, the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) has compiled an impressive record of achievement as a "think-and-do" tank that combines research and practical innovation aimed at making cities sustainable.

The group celebrated its 30th anniversary Wednesday, September 17 at the Garfield Park Conservatory at 300 N. Central Park from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

CNT "started out small with some crazy ideas, and now those crazy ideas are what everyone is talking about," said Nicole Gotthelf, director of development and communications for the organization.

In its early days, CNT worked to scale back the Deep Tunnel project, saving taxpayers billions of dollars. Today it's working with public agencies on storm water management, a topic of growing concern.

In the 1980s, CNT built greenhouses in low-income neighborhoods, won a ban on landfill expansion, joined the community fight against the Chicago World's Fair, helped 170 local nonprofits increase their energy efficiency and improved energy conservation in thousands of multifamily and single family homes. The group worked on local networks to prevent housing abandonment and job loss.

In the 1990s, CNT helped lead the fight to turn the Federal Highway Bill into a comprehensive transportation appropriation, with money for mass transit and other transportation alternatives. Locally, it organized citizen involvement in regional transportation planning.

Recent accomplishments include instituting the Chicago Transit Authority's U-Pass for students at 23 local colleges; the Local Efficient Mortgage and the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index; the Community Energy Cooperative (now called CNT Energy); and the I-GO car sharing program, which now has 10,000 members.

CNT has worked with the City of Chicago on its Climate Action Plan, and is now working with the Clinton Foundation, helping cities around the world reduce their carbon footprint.

The key concept which CNT pioneered was sustainability, combining environmental and economic concerns to promote efficiency and equity in resource use and improve urban quality of life — while lowering the cost of living.

"Our work is demonstrating that cities can be the solution to the challenge of climate change and economic inequality, because of their often hidden assets of density and social networks," Gotthelf said.

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