Building Better Cities – One Green Space at a Time
Christy Webber Landscapes
Christy Webber, President and CEO of Chicago-based Christy Webber Landscapes, has a remarkable story to tell of how she turned a student job cutting grass into a multimillion-dollar landscaping business, front and center in the “Greening of Chicago.”
Thousands of students cut grass to make a few extra dollars. Very few succeed in turning it into a sustainable business, much less a multi-million dollar landscaping empire, serving commercial, municipal and residential clients. But that is exactly what Christy Webber did.
Today Christy Webber Landscapes (CWL), celebrating its 30th anniversary, employs over 400 individuals and owns a fleet of hundreds of General Motors trucks and specialized equipment, including mowers from John Deere. It is headquartered at Rancho Verde, a 12.5-acre eco-industrial park on Chicago’s west side, which has won numerous awards for its redevelopment of a brownfield site, while the building itself has received LEED Platinum certification. “It’s really a green industrial campus,” Webber says. “There’s a wholesale nursery on site and I’ve offered space to other local landscapers to run their operations and have a satellite location.”
Just outside Chicago in Markham, IL is another company branch, RR Landscape Supply, a wholesale operation that supplies hardscape, soil, mulch, sod, seed and other materials to both landscape contractors and homeowners. Other branches of the company include Kinsella Landscaping, Greenworks and the retail garden center, Christy Webber Farm & Garden.
The companies, staffed by a range of professionals including landscape architects, horticulturists, arborists, designers, construction, and maintenance specialists, offer a wide range of services. Among them are design-build projects, green roofs, roof-top gardens, and extended maintenance; some projects are monumental, others smaller in scale, but all have an impact on Chicago and, most importantly – Chicagoans.
“Landscaping,” Webber believes, “functions as a critical thread in the fabric of the community.” And now, throughout the once concrete, glass and steel “Windy City” there are multiple threads of green, thanks to CWL.
In 2002, for example, CWL installed what is essentially a massive green roof spanning the iconic Millennium Park, one of Chicago’s top tourist destinations, which once was an active rail yard. The company has continued to provide full grounds maintenance, including snow removal with annual installation of rotating seasonal enhancements.
In 2015 CWL installed over 250,000 trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and grasses on what’s referred to as “The 606.” This is a network of trails and parks, the backbone of which is the Bloomingdale Trail, an elevated greenway created by the City of Chicago on the former 2.7-mile Bloomingdale Line railway that ran east-west on the northwest side, passing through Wicker Park, Bucktown and Humboldt Park and Logan Square.
Based on research conducted by the University of Washington (Urban Forestry & Urban Greening Research: Green Cities: Good Health), studies conclude that “urban nature… incorporated into building design, provides calming and inspiring environments and encourages learning, inquisitiveness, and alertness.” CWL has partnered with The Big Green and Chicago Public Schools on such a project. The team has served as lead designer and contractor with The Big Green for over 170 public school vegetable gardens since 2012.
And then there’s the community outreach programs which partner with community organizations across the city to provide landscape and plant materials, labor and training to support urban agriculture and implement production gardens, pollinating gardens, and community orchards.
Webber started mowing residential lawns while at the University of Denver, playing basketball and pursuing a degree in physical education, “because I came from the country and I knew how to do it. But it was the 80s and I was introduced to cocaine, so I was on a different route for a while. But I got my act together, went through treatment and I haven’t touched it since.”
We asked her, “Are you sure you want that published?”
Her reply: “Yeah, I tell this story all the time, because it helps people to have hope, to know the cycle can be broken. And this is why I don’t shy away from people who have experienced challenges and struggles within their lives. People gave me a second chance, so I feel like I have to do the same.”
By 1988 Webber was starting over, cutting grass around Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood with just lawn mower, weed whip, leaf blower and a truck, purchased with a loan from her mother. “I was that broke that I couldn’t even co-sign a loan,” she says. “I lived in a really tough part of town in the beginning because it was all I could afford, but I remember my neighbor planting flowers in the parkways and I was like ‘Wow. Something is really happening here in Chicago.’”
The ‘something’ was the “Greening of Chicago,” an environmental initiative led by Mayor Richard J. Daley, elected five times between 1989 and 2011, but it wasn’t until 1996 that Webber sat up and took notice. “That was the year the Democratic Convention came to town and I was in my pick-up truck when the caravan with Bill and Hillary Clinton went through the city. And at the time there was all kinds of construction going on to beautify the City and I thought, ‘How did I miss that boat?’”
A year later an opportunity came through a residential client who was the daughter of the co-owner of the United Center, home of the Chicago Blackhawks (National Hockey League) and the Chicago Bulls (National Basketball Association). Through her, Webber was put in touch with the center’s facilities manager and given an opportunity to bid on cutting the grass. “He told me to shoot him a number. And that was it. I took on that account (in 1998) and then I hired a guy who knew about city and Chicago Park District work and that was the turning point for my business,” she explains.
“The United Center was a new and progressive sports facility, then only about five years old and it was the beginning of all the major teams rethinking and building new facilities – plus at that time Michael Jordan was the hottest thing on the planet, so yes, cutting the grass at the United Center was a big deal. It gave me a résumé and the confidence to bid on city contracts and larger-scale projects. By hiring Andrew Sullivan, a landscape architect with a ton of experience, and with Mayor Daley beautifying the city, installing green roofs, putting in landscape medians and planting trees and flowers across the city, it all came together for me.”
Adds Webber, “City beautification had to start from the top and that was Mayor Daley. I just followed his footsteps and whatever he did, I chased it. When he said, ‘we’re planting trees,’ I was on board and when he said he was doing flowers, I did those too, but I had to work hard. If I sent you a picture of my hands you’d see they’re all beat up, cut up and dirty.”
Fast forward 19 years. CWL was not only still cutting grass at the United Center, but had teamed with HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm, to provide landscape architecture services for the entire site, which includes a new six-story office building, atrium and two large plaza spaces, with benches, pedestrian lighting, custom tree grates, planter curbs, as well as all new landscaping on the eastern side of the property.
Reflecting on her years in the landscaping business, Webber says, “When everyone else was struggling in the aftermath of 2008, we actually grew, but over the course of the last couple of years, we’ve struggled. Because I’m a laborer at heart, I put a lot of major financial decisions in the hands of others and they got out over their skis and put us in a pretty bad spot.
“Then I realized they’d forgotten about our customers and getting things done on time and now I’ve been cracking the whip and getting very involved with my business again; I have to be. I think the biggest lesson of the last few years has been to never take your eyes off your business.”
Embracing and maintaining diversity is also important. “I do residential work, I do commercial work, I do municipal, and I do landscape construction, from cranes lifting plant material to the top of a high-rise building to creating a small, urban backyard. Even if it’s just a teeny postage stamp sized yard, or part of a town house complex, we do it. We don’t have minimums and we maintain almost 400 residential yards per week.”
While big projects have transformed the small business of “the down-home country kid who worked hard” into a leading, sought-after landscaper, she’ll never give up her residential customers. “People who’ve worked for me have tried to get me to eliminate that part of my business, but I will not let my residential customers go because they are the ones who brought me here, so I feel connected to them.
“Now I’m interested in doing even more residential work,” she says “and advocating on behalf of the industry, so professional landscapers receive the recognition and respect they deserve.”
Although Christy Webber Landscaping may not be coming to your neighborhood, her determination to build a better world, one garden at a time, has the potential to impact urban planning far beyond Chicago.