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Michelle Schaefer/MEDILL

Peter Nicholson, executive director of Foresight Design Initiative, helps host the monthly Green Drinks events for environmental conviviality in Chicago.   

Happy hour with a green twist

by Michelle M. Schaefer
Jan 13, 2011

Peter Nicholson looked out into a crowd with many familiar faces at Chicago's Jefferson Tap & Grill Wednesday evening, but the group wasn’t there to discuss the next Bear’s playoff game. Instead, the conversation turned to water supply issues, local food systems, and government involvement in sustainability.

“I feel like I know everybody here. It’s like the annual homecoming,” said Nicholson.

Nicholson is the executive director at Foresight Design Initiative. The non-profit company hosted a monthly Green Drinks event at the bar, 325 N. Jefferson St., to bring environmentally passionate people together in order to discuss the annual state of sustainable Chicago.
Randy Blankenhorn, from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, was one of the six panelists speaking at the event. He said he also appreciated the familiar audience.

“It’s kinda nice to come to a place where I don’t have to explain who we [the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning] are,” said Blankenhorn.

He stressed the importance of water conservation while addressing the crowd of about 125 people.
“Water is the oil of the 21st century. We’re the Middle East. We have it here. It’s going to be a useful thing for us to look at how we develop as a region, but we have to protect it. We have to think about how we use it,” said Blankenhorn

Other panelists included Jack Darin from the Sierra Club, Karen Lehman of the Fresh Taste Initiative, Ben Helphand from NeighborSpace, Graciela Robledo with Claretian Associates and Kathy Tholin from the Center of Neighborhood Technology.

Each panelist addressed three questions, answering with an environmental spin. With regard to your specific work or organization, what were the specific happenings of the last year? What are you looking forward to this year? How can people get involved?

Helphand talked about local food systems and community gardens. He said he thinks the proposed city ordinance concerning the zoning of urban agriculture and community gardens is a positive initiative.

“A lot of people have been very critical of the proposed ordinance. I’m one of the people who thinks it’s a very very important step in the right direction,” said Helphand.

Darin asked the crowd to get involved by working with the local government and the mayoral candidates to foster change to improve the environment.

“As the environmental community, we don’t have to go out and tell the electorate that protecting the environment is something that the mayor of Chicago can do. That’s been established. Our job now is to go out and hold that field of candidates accountable,” said Darin.

Barry Bursak, a member of the board of directors at Foresight, said the main purpose of the event is education.

“No matter what happens here I hope people will leave having learned something, perhaps having connected with somebody who will be helpful with them in whatever it is they do. In return someday they could help someone else,” said Bursak.

Green Drinks encompasses a series of informal sessions held around the world to discuss green topics among community members. There is no central organization, just a multitude of city organizers and an informational website,, to help bring people together.

“The innovation that we did here in Chicago is the panel discussion. We’re one of the few green drinks that has a panel discussion and we were the first ones to do it on a monthly basis. We thought it was important to give everyone a focus and talk about different topics,” said Nicholson.

The event also includes power networking, which helps people make connections among the crowd of over 100 people.

“In the course of a half an hour you’ll meet at least six or seven people. You can make connections. You can take it to the next level whatever way you want from there,” said Nicholson.

MeLana Hessel, an urban planner looking for work in the city, came to the event for just that reason.

“I’ve been researching different organizations and places to network and this seems like a great opportunity,” said Hessel.

The concept of Green Drinks launched in 1989 in London, England when sustainable design consultant Edwin Datschefski, founder of Green Drinks, ran into a small group of fellow environmental professionals at a local pub. The group decided to make it a monthly event and the meetings grew. Datschefski created the website in 2000 to spread information about the events.

The first Green Drinks event in the United States launched in New York City in 2002. Foresight adopted the idea in Chicago when the non-profit organization started in 2003.  In 2010, the Green Drinks website reported that the movement now meets in 62 countries.

“We’ve spawned a bunch of them. People come here and go ‘This is a great idea’ and gone in different parts. There’s a couple out in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. There’s some downstate. It’s really this idea of bringing people together with common interests,” Nicholson said.

The next Foresight Green Drinks event will be held once again at the Jefferson Tap on February 22.  Nicholson said the topic of the event will surround local versus organic food. Information about Foresight Green Drinks can be found on the organization’s website at