The following are remarks by Council Senior Fellow on Global Cities Karen Weigert at the April 22 March for Science in Chicago.
Why am I speaking at the March for Science in Chicago? I am not a professor, or a doctor, or a scientist. The reason is simple. Science makes our city stronger.
A few years ago, I made a movie on solutions to climate change called Carbon Nation. In the process of telling stories - of a one-armed cotton farmer who built a wind farm and of a community activist who created jobs installing solar panels – we worked hard to be sure the underlying data was accurate. Because, if you are going to pull on peoples’ emotions with topics where there is good science you need to get the science right.
When we finished the film, it was shown in Millennium Park - a park which, in and of itself, is a feat of science. It is a green roof that covers a parking garage and train tracks. From above you see a native prairie, a mindboggling playground, engaging art. Mostly, though, you see people gathering in a place made possible by science.
The year after that film screening in Millennium Park I was asked to become the first Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Chicago. I went to work trying to find the best data and best ideas to build a city for today and tomorrow. In the time that followed we took coal out of our energy supply, we made our buildings more efficient, we brought people to the river’s edge and we rebuilt playgrounds across our city.
My daughter was a toddler at that showing of Carbon Nation and when I started at the City. She is in second grade now. As I was getting ready to speak here today – in another beautiful park along the lakefront - I asked her what she liked about science.
Do you know what she said immediately? “It is fun!”
And then she went on. She said “you can learn a lot of stuff…and then you can do things…and people can build on that!”
The next day she brought up our conversation and reminded me that people can build on what you start.
That is what we have all been doing as we build Chicago – and if we protect and incorporate science we can continue well into the years ahead.
But let’s get back to how she started; “It is fun.” In second grade she knows the scientific method because she has used it in school. And fun is that curiosity – asking a question and trying to see what the answer really is. What is in pond water? Why does a toy roll farther on a hard floor than on carpet? Will lemon juice or orange juice make more bubbles with baking soda? That last question is a fun one to try at home.
And when you test your question in the right way at the end you get an answer.
“You can learn a lot of stuff.” The beauty of learning isn’t lost on a kid. When she learns something, she knows it.
This is the core of science – a foundation of empirical data that allows us to draw conclusions. In this way when we learn something we know it. As adults we need to remember this.
Thanks to scientific research we have learned that human activity is changing the climate. We know it. We cannot let others pretend that this knowledge doesn’t exist.
Knowledge gives us reasons to act.
“And then you can do things.” This is where I have spent most of my time with science, and in many ways this is why people fight science, why they try to sow doubt. If we really know of dangers we need to act, and if we really know of solutions we need to make them happen.
Acting brings science to life. In Chicago we have learned to turn down the heat and have strengthened our city accordingly. We have built streets that reflect the heat of the sun keeping our neighborhoods cool and we have built school programs that transform the heat of an argument, helping cooler heads to prevail.
And we know that sometimes less is more. In our city, sometimes you walk on pavers that have less material and allow rainwater to soak back into the ground – the way it used to before we paved over this wetland area. Or you walk into a building that is using less energy while still providing the light and services that you need. Or you breathe cleaner air in a neighborhood that used to have operating coal plants.
In our city, science has let us elevate our thinking. When you look up in our city you see our elevated train moving people all around. You also see plants on green roofs giving bees a place to land and keeping buildings cool.
“And people can build on that!” This is an amazing city for these words. Chicago burned down over 140 years ago. We rebuilt, and in the process we tried new things and we learned what worked. We built the first skyscraper, and then we built a few more.
Chicagoans built on the motto chosen 180 years ago – “City in a Garden.” We have added more parks to our city and rebuilt playgrounds in our neighborhoods.
One person didn’t make this happen, many did.
“It is fun. “And you can learn a lot of stuff.” “And then you can do things.” “And people can build on that!”
Today is Earth Day which was founded in 1970. The City of Chicago was founded in 1837. If we get our science right, both of them will be celebrated long into the future.
Science is a process. Building a city is a process. Democracy is a process.
We must defend the integrity and importance of science - of what we have learned and of what we can continue to learn. And then we must act.
And when we are handed lemons we don’t always need to make lemonade. Because if you want to make a lot of bubbles from baking soda don’t use oranges. Use lemons.
And bring some friends.
And then get to work.