A New City Agency May Try To Save Chicago’s 4 Million Trees — And Plant More

Anna Pack rests underneath the trees at Lincoln Park zoo, in 2017. G-Jun Yam / Associated Press
Anna Pack rests underneath the trees at Lincoln Park zoo, in 2017. G-Jun Yam / Associated Press

A New City Agency May Try To Save Chicago’s 4 Million Trees — And Plant More

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Everybody has a tree story.

That’s the mantra of Michael Dugan, the Director of Forestry at Openlands, one of the main organizations that helps the city of Chicago plant hundreds of trees a year. As he walked through Douglass Park, an expansive city park on the Southwest Side of Chicago, Dugan rejoiced about the benefits of green space, and the attachments to which Chicagoans place the trees within them.

“Everybody talks about a tree as they’re growing up,” he said through a smile. “… Interacting with a tree, climbing a tree, having a picnic under a tree, planting a tree with family members.” 

But Dugan and other environmental advocates in Chicago want residents — and the aldermen who represent them — to think more consciously about the trees they walk past in their everyday adult lives. They say that if so-called “tree inequity” — how some neighborhoods that lack resources also are lacking in tree canopies — is fixed, that could lead to better health and community outcomes.

In Chicago, there are nearly 4 million trees to consider. But, until now, there hasn’t been a single city agency to oversee them in a unified way. Instead, the departments of Streets and Sanitation, Transportation, the Park District, aldermen typically field individual requests for tree trimming or tree planting by residents who need it. That’s opposed to an overall plan that looks at the environmental impacts of the trees the city plants.

Then in June, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance to create the Urban Forestry Advisory Board — an unfunded agency tasked with coordinating efforts between the numerous departments that deal with trees on a daily basis. It won’t have a budget, but advocates say it’s a major step for the future of Chicago’s tree canopy.

“We cannot do this by ourselves,” said Daniella Pereira, VP of Community Conservation at Openlands. “This really needs to entail a group of people thinking about policy, especially in light of climate change … I think everyone is stretched so thin, that if it is not mandated, it’s not going to happen.”

Dugan and Pereira, along with the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, the Morton Arboretum, and others, for years have been pushing leaders to create a city-wide department to oversee the city’s green canopy — a small, and shrinking ecosystem compared to other major U.S. cities. And advocates say they have some major, but for now manageable, hurdles ahead of them.

Council officials say the advisory board will comprise 13 members — seven of them from government departments, six of them being mayoral appointees.

The board is expected to create an overarching plan for Chicago’s urban forest, guide policies, and educate the public on the importance of trees.

Achieving tree equity

If you look at a map of Chicago’s tree canopy, it’ll look similar to many other city maps that control for resources: the North Side is flush with trees, while disinvested areas on the South and West Sides are lacking. That’s according to the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, an organization serving as the main source on the city’s tree population.

Data show this is bad news for the city’s most vulnerable residents. Studies show trees can mitigate flooding damage, by absorbing water through their roots, and holding water through their leaves. Trees canopies keep residents cooler as climate change encroaches. Studies show that greenspace and healthy tree canopies correlate with mental health.

“Tree inequity” is a reality the city’s tree advisory board will have to tackle as it forms, advocates say. But it’s something that’s been on the city’s to-do list for several years.

“I think the story, at least for public health, goes back towards where I started looking at it in 2019, based on some just nice conversations with the Nature Conservancy, the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, and Openlands just inviting public health [into the conversation],” said Raed Mansour, the Director of Innovation at the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Mansour’s role consists of identifying and researching the ways overlooked aspects of life, like trees, can intersect with public health outcomes. This research has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted how pre-existing health conditions caused by systemic racism can lead to disproportionate outcomes in low-income communities.

Mansour is currently developing a database that overlays Chicago’s tree coverage with health statistics, like asthma, to help community organizations and the city look at intersections between public health and tree coverage.

“This tool is not saying, ‘Here’s how we stop flooding. Here’s how we stop the heat islands. Here’s how we stop asthma,’” he said. “It’s not built for that … I wish it was that easy. But it helps. It’s one of many tools that should be used, and I think that’s great.”

Securing financial support

It costs around $500 to plant a tree, not including additional maintenance needed in order to raise and maintain it, according to Streets and Sanitation Deputy Commissioner, Malcolm Whiteside, who oversees the department’s Bureau of Forestry. That’s one of the numerous government agencies that deal with trees, along with the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Park District.

“Trees need care and management just like the streets need repavement or the snow needs removal in the winter,” Whiteside said at a June committee meeting.

But state and federal funding for tree planting and maintenance is set to run out in just a couple of years, Whiteside said. A key role of the advisory board will be working with the federal government to find more money to maintain the city’s sum 500,000 parkway trees. That doesn’t include trees on private property the city, and aldermen, field calls for on a daily basis. The advisory board will also be tasked with developing policy to address issues related to tree removal on private property.

At a recent Finance Committee meeting in June, Whiteside warned council members that his bureau is under-resourced, and lacks the number of arborists and tree-trimmers needed to maintain the city’s tree canopy.

“We’ve talked about reaching out to corporate sponsors, reaching out to federal government sponsors … to try to bring more funding in, to get you back up to par,” advisory board sponsor Ald. Scott Waguespack told Whiteside.

Diversifying the canopy

Chicago’s trees cover about 16% of the overall aerial square footage of the city. That’s down 19% from 2010, according to the Chicago Region Trees Initiative. It’s compared to about 21% in New York City, which has a singular agency that oversees the city’s trees.

“The national average that they would love to get to, and this is from many different groups, is probably closer to 30%,” Pereira, from Openlands, said.

One way to get there, advocates say, is to diversify the city’s overall canopy in order to protect against a single invasive species, like the infamous emerald ash borer that cost Chicago millions of trees.

“If you’re thinking about LA, you’re thinking about New York, because of where their climate is, they are able to diversify by so many more species than we are able to in Chicago,” Pereira said. “It is colder here … there’s only a certain amount of species that will survive our winters where there is a larger palette in New York.”

In the Chicago region, around 60% of the region’s trees are from only ten tree species, “and this lack of species diversity provides an increased opportunity for ongoing catastrophic loss.” That’s according to analysis from the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, a member of which will serve on the advisory board when it convenes later this year.

Officials say the urban forestry advisory board is expected to begin in September after logistics, including mayoral appointments, are determined.

Mariah Woelfel covers city government at WBEZ. You can follow her at @MariahWoelfel.

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