Chicago Hopes Life Imitates Art

I watched Chicago’s Cool Globes exhibit rise slowly over the past few months — from its installation to being surrounded by gawking tourists — because I run almost daily along the lakefront area where they’re on display.

And, for weeks, I was confused. I didn’t see any signs; I didn’t see any articles about it; all I saw? Giant globes (whose bases I tripped over on a regular basis.)

Summer outdoor displays are a rich tradition in Chicago. Since the 1999 cow show, in which more than 300 life-sized decorated cow statues were placed downtown, we’ve had other giant art structures, including sofas. So when I saw the globes, I just assumed that was this a new summer public art display that was in a different part of the city.

But when I one day passed the composting globe, I started to put things together. This was no beautified bovine.

The Cool Globes exhibit is an extension of Mayor Daley’s commitment to making Chicago as green as possible. Mayor Daley has already agreed to building “green” libraries, public schools and police stations; his green building agenda includes supporting the Chicago Center for Green Technology, which offers tours, workshops and other opportunities for people to learn about green building, and the creation of the GreenWorks Awards, a bi-annual award program that recognizes outstanding green buildings in Chicago.

But Cool Globes, on display from June to September, is the city’s first public art project designed to inspire citizens to take action against global warming.

There are more than 100 globes in all, near the museums, Navy Pier and the lakefront. The globes were created by artists including Tom Van Sant and Jim Dine, using different materials to express concerns or solutions for global warming.

Take, for example, the first globe that I saw, which is actually enclosed in a giant white box. Tiny shutters can be lifted to see worms turning food waste into a rich soil nutrient–a little gross, but effective.

Others include the residential solar globe, which displays the variance in energy use around the world, and a sustainable building design globe, which includes green building materials.

To further the learning experience, the Cool Globes Web site offers a number of home improvement green tips for Chicagoans, including:

  • Installing programmable thermostats to automatically adjust the heat or air conditioning can save you $100 a year on your energy bill.
  • If each household in the U.S. replaced its existing appliances with the most efficient models available, we’d eliminate 175 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.
  • A variety of environmentally friendly building materials are available for home improvements, including reclaimed wood, natural fiber cotton insulation and energy efficient ventilation.

But what is particularly admirable — in addition to the undertaking a project of this size presents — is that Cool Globes project organizers, recognizing that the globes’ creation would have some effect on the environment, took things an extra step and attempted to be a carbon neutral project. They developed a "green tag" strategy of renewable energy certificates, investments to plant trees and plans to foster environmentally-friendly agricultural practices.

The more I researched, the more surprised I was. True, Chicago’s commitment to green design has been traditionally strong. But there’s a big difference between supporting new building initiatives and installing 100 giant educational orbs outside to educate citizens about the issue. (And by the way, there is another public art installation this summer on Michigan Avenue — this was truly an extra effort.)

Hopefully the globes will serve as an important visual for those who pass by.
And even if they don’t, the globes will help increase environmental
programming: They’re set to be auctioned off on October 5 to benefit
environmental education programs, including the expansion of Chicago
Conservation Clubs in Chicago Public Schools.

The Cool Globes project is a unique endeavor, placed in one of the highest-volume tourist traffic areas in the city. And I’m curious to see what effect it will have. We can cry green design’s benefits from the green rooftops, publish guidelines and start programs to encourage new green construction, but sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words, isn’t it?