SEP 24, 2021
Lightfoot says neighborhoods 'desperately need’ her plan for 75K new trees — but keeping them alive is just as hard, conservationists say
Mayor Lori Lightfoot plans to use $46 million in federal recovery funds to plant 75,000 new trees in Chicago during the next five years.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pitch to add 75,000 new trees to the city’s canopy during the next five years could have little impact unless the city also works to maintain existing trees and ensure new trees receive proper care, according to one conservation group.
The mayor included the tree-planting plan in her budget address on Monday, touting her canopy expansion program as “the largest” in Chicago’s history.
Lightfoot’s Chicago Recovery Plan calls to set aside $46 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars for the city to add 15,000 trees annually and create jobs for tree planting and maintenance.
Leaders in the city’s Bureau of Forestry during the past year told aldermen city workers are removing trees faster than they can plant them, due in part to a lack of funding and too few employees. On average, the city has to remove between 15,000 and 20,000 trees each year for a variety of reasons, including disease and storm damage.
Lightfoot’s plan seeks to re-grow the dwindling canopy.
“If you look at the report every time there's a major storm in the city, we talk about the number of trees that are down,” Lightfoot told The Daily Line in an exclusive interview on Tuesday. Intense storms are occurring more regularly as a result of climate change.
“There's a great need for us to exponentially increase the amount of trees that we're planting on an annual basis, not only to replace the trees that are lost, but also to be very intentional about areas of the city that don't have, but desperately need, tree canopies to cool the heat that is generated from living in an urban environment,” Lightfoot said.
Certain areas of the city, including the South and West sides and the community around Midway Airport, feel the most impact of the urban heat island phenomenon, which leads to higher temperatures in areas lacking tree coverage and green infrastructure.
“There are areas of our city who literally have very little in the way of green space and have very few trees,” Lightfoot said. “Other areas of our city are lush with trees.”
“We go to the West Side and there's so few parks, you can literally see on the map where the parks and playgrounds stop,” Lightfoot said. “We've got to increase the opportunities for those green spaces.”
But while Lightfoot’s proposed 2022 spending plan increases from $18.5 million to $20.5 million the Corporate Fund money allocated to the city’s Bureau of Forestry, which is a section of Streets and Sanitation, it cuts the bureau’s number of full-time positions from 200 to 192. The forestry bureau lost the equivalent of nine full-time positions between 2020 and 2021.
“Tree planting is a seasonal operation and so my expectation is that some of that work will be done with seasonal employees,” Lightfoot told The Daily Line when asked about the reduction.
Additionally, the city has not yet established the Urban Forestry Advisory Board (O2020-3651) that City Council approved in June. A spokesperson for Lightfoot did not answer questions regarding when the board will begin meeting.
- Urban Forestry Advisory Board proposal headed to City Council for approval
- Forestry Advisory Board ordinance stalls, aldermen approve legal settlements
Once it is established, the all-volunteer 13-member board will be tasked with making policy recommendations on the city’s tree planting and maintenance efforts.
Lightfoot told The Daily Line on Tuesday that the 75,000 new trees proposed in her recovery plan will come in addition to the 12,000 trees her five-year capital plan proposed to plant by 2023. The capital plan proposed dedicating $15 million to trees over its five-year span.
The mayor said in her budget address that as of this summer, 4,563 trees had been planted.
“If you look at where things have been planted already, both through [the Chicago Department of Transportation] and through Streets and San, we are looking at areas of the city where we don’t really see a lot of green space. Planting and growing and nurturing an urban canopy is critically important to address the challenges of climate change,” Lightfoot said on Tuesday.
The city is also planning to put “additional resources into the park district, over and above what the park district is doing itself” because “green spaces are really important,” Lightfoot said.
Proper maintenance for new, existing trees
Daniella Pereira, vice president of community conservation for the conservation organization Openlands, told The Daily Line “it is very exciting” that Lightfoot is carving out funding to put toward growing the tree canopy.
“This could be a steppingstone to a lot more positive change in terms of our tree canopy,” Pereira said. Still, “there’s all these other layers that need to be dealt with to make sure the trees survive.”
One layer includes, “who is going to plant the trees and maintain them?” she said.
“When a tree is planted, can we check to make sure that the tree survives through its warranty?” Pereira said, adding that it is important to ensure that new trees are “planted correctly” and survive long enough to mature and contribute to the canopy.
“It’s very sexy to say how many trees you want to plant, and we understand trees die for many different reasons, but if that tree doesn’t survive, that’s at least $500 down the hole,” Pereira said, adding it would be “helpful” for the city to create a grant program for organizations to be able to plant trees in their neighborhood and work with experts on the planting and maintenance.
“When you’re planting these little trees, it’s going to take them a long time — if they survive — to really create that canopy,” Pereira said, adding she hopes to see added funding for the city to conduct more frequent tree inspections.
“Outside of planting trees is really caring for the trees that are existing,” Pereira said, adding that it is also important that city officials educate the public about trees.
With a declining number of forestry employees, tree maintenance and inspection can get backlogged. Residents may call 311 with complaints about undesirable trees or issues with those near their homes, but if the city was “actually inspecting those trees on a five-to-seven-year basis, we would preclude many of those events from happening,” Pereira said.
Still, tree maintenance does not have to rest entirely in the city’s hands, as residents and community organizations can help the city keep track of the city’s trees, she said.
Tree planting obstacles
And as Lightfoot announced her plans for expanding Chicago’s canopy, permits and fees for planting trees can still make an individual resident’s or block club’s desire to add local trees to their neighborhood challenging.
The city requires that anyone performing work involving trees in the public way be licensed and bonded, and permits cost hundreds of dollars. Additionally, property owners can request to have a new tree planted in their parkway for free through 311, but the city is often backlogged in fulfilling the requests.
Pereira is also concerned about an ordinance (O2021-4124) introduced by Ald. Greg Mitchell (7) earlier this month that would require city forestry officials to remove “damaged, diseased or dangerous” trees upon the request of aldermen or their ward superintendents.
The proposal would require the forestry bureau to expedite trimming or removal of trees deemed dangerous or posing a risk of damage to people or property. But it leaves open the door for residents who simply do not like the trees overhanging their alley or home to request they be removed, Pereira said.
Additionally, an order proposed by Ald. Maria Hadden (49) in January that calls for the city’s chief sustainability officer and budget director “to prepare [a] report on costs needed to re-establish [a] Department of Environment” languishes in the City Council’s Committee on Committees and Rules without any action.
Hadden’s proposal also has support from Ald. Daniel La Spata (1), Ald. Matt Martin (47) and Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22).
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