Community groups hope to improve the canopy in minority neighborhoods through education and outreach.
October 28, 2021
Trees beautify neighborhoods, provide shade, and help combat sometimes deadly heat in cities. The problem is, they aren’t always welcome.
In Chicago, nonprofits working to improve the canopy and reduce “tree inequity” are focusing on educating residents about the benefits of trees and their maintenance. That’s particularly pertinent for neighborhoods in Chicago’s South and West Sides, many of which are minority communities that tend to have less tree cover than the city’s well-off North Side.
Among complaints about trees are that they require pruning and create a mess of leaves and seeds that can clog gutters and dirty cars. They can also obstruct visibility and can make streets feel unsafe. Falling branches can damage property. And there’s a misconception that tree roots can damage pipes.
Carolyn Vessel used to share some of those concerns. The president of I Am Able, a nonprofit that works on violence prevention in North Lawndale on the city’s West Side, changed her mind after joining TREEmendous Lawndale, a volunteer coalition trying to expand the predominantly Black community’s canopy.
It was a revelation for Vessel that North Lawndale has a thinner canopy (17%), measured by its ratio of tree cover to hard surfaces, than some wealthier parts of the city, such as Lincoln Park (21%) and Lake View (20%). The city’s average canopy is 16%, according to a report from Morton Arboretum.
Vessel also learned that trees improve air quality and increase property value. “It was education that turned me to like trees more,” she says. TREEmendous Lawndale aims to inspire that kind of attitude change through family activities, storytelling, films, nature talks, and tree plantings.
In addition to health benefits, shade reduces electricity consumption for air conditioners and fans. Trees in the Chicago area lower energy-related costs of residential buildings by an estimated $32 million annually, according to Morton Arboretum.
After record-breaking temperatures this summer, President Joe Biden in September called for measures to mitigate extreme heat—the biggest weather-related killer in the U.S. each year. More trees can help.
Chicago invests about $2 million each year to plant about 3,000 trees, and cuts down as many as 15,000 annually. Some are dead or diseased, but healthy trees are also removed by the city at the request of Chicago property owners and local officials. “It’s not difficult at all to take down a tree,” notes Daniella Pereira, vice president at Openlands, a Chicago-based conservation group.
Pruning is critical to keeping trees healthy. Over three decades, Openlands has trained more than 2,000 volunteer TreeKeepers to maintain trees. It’s trying to recruit more people in under-resourced areas, such as Little Village, a predominantly Hispanic West Side neighborhood.
Involving locals is vital for long-term canopy growth. “You need to go to communities and find out what’s important to them,” says Lydia Scott, director of the Chicago Region Tree Initiative, which works with TREEmendous Lawndale.
Otherwise planting trees can prove fruitless. Tracie Worthy, vice president at I Am Able and a North Lawndale resident, said the City planted a new tree outside her neighbor’s home recently. Within a couple years the healthy tree was cut down, perhaps at the request of her neighbor.
Worthy also recalls how the city planted a tree outside her home 20 years ago. She got no information about caring for it, such as watering and pruning, but watered and staked it herself. It has since flourished. “It’s pretty and provides some shade,” says Worthy, showing a photo of a magnificent tree covered in snow. “It’s a real blessing.”