In extreme heat, trees can help cool neighborhoods. But a Tribune investigation found the city has planted more trees in wealthier, whiter areas

·23 min read

The parkway in front of Marco De La Rosa’s home remains bare.

There isn’t a sapling to bloom in spring or a shade tree to temper the summer heat along this stretch of seven properties in a row in Gage Park, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood on the Southwest Side.

De La Rosa tried to change that. More than 2 ½ years ago, the former environmental science student asked the city to plant a tree. He’s still waiting.

“I feel disappointed,” he told the Tribune. “But I also don’t feel surprised.”

Over the past decade the city has backtracked on ambitious goals made years ago to provide residents with trees, particularly on the South and West sides where researchers say trees are needed the most, a Tribune investigation found.

The failures come as research shows trees blunt the warmer, wetter effects of climate change in the Great Lakes region. Fewer trees in neighborhoods can mean hotter temperatures, more flooding, dirtier air and higher electric bills — all of which can affect mental and physical health.

The city’s half million street trees, those often found on the strip of grass between roadways and sidewalks, make up a part of the overall canopy coverage, along with trees in parks and yards. How the city manages these trees can directly affect residents’ quality of life.

Tribune analyzed the rate at which street trees were planted per mile of streets from 2011 through 2021, finding higher planting rates in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods deemed less of a priority.

In Gage Park, a working-class neighborhood that’s become home to thousands of Latino immigrants, this translated to fewer than 300 street trees planted during that time period. Yet the city planted more than 850 trees in a similar-sized community on the North Side: North Center. And Edgewater, with fewer miles of streets than Gage Park, saw more than 1,000 trees planted in that time.

The Tribune studied data provided by the city’s forestry and transportation departments on street tree plantings and removals, then compared that to where federal and local studies had directed the city to prioritize plantings.

Among the Tribune’s findings:

  • Despite a public push a generation ago to plant more trees, Chicago parkways have lost more greenery in the past decade than they’ve gained. For every tree planted, the city has removed about two trees. While a destructive pest killed off tens of thousands of trees, the city drastically cut back on tree plantings, from 17,000 a year in the late 1990s to a few thousand annually in recent years.

  • When planting trees, the city failed to follow research that identified vulnerable areas or areas that had lost the most trees. Instead, a Tribune analysis found a greater share of trees went to community areas with higher income, education and employment levels, even if they were deemed a lower priority for planting, further contributing to the inequitable canopy.

  • The city has pushed residents to use 311 to request a tree — a system described as first-come, first-served that places responsibility on residents to know it exists and then work through a bureaucracy that inexplicably serves some people faster than others. Some residents are still waiting on requests made in 2019.

  • Mayor Lori Lightfoot has committed $46 million from the pandemic recovery plan to plant 75,000 trees in the next five years as part of the “Our Roots Chicago” initiative, a pace of roughly 15,000 trees a year. But the city has acknowledged that it would take at least that many trees planted annually over 10 years — and potentially thousands more — to make up for the past decade’s losses.

Acknowledging enduring problems in the city’s forestry efforts, the Lightfoot administration announced last fall that it would prioritize planting trees in “historically marginalized and underserved communities, equitably conveying ecosystem benefits to communities disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.”

With the season beginning on Arbor Day, the city has so far planted about 2,000 trees, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, which oversees the forestry bureau.

The city’s efforts come as tree equity has grown into a national issue.

“It’s become undeniable,” said Ian Leahy, vice president of urban forestry for the national nonprofit American Forests. “Trees have gone from nice–to-have-background to life-changing infrastructure.”

Poised to be a ‘green pioneer’

Chicago’s second Mayor Daley came to office in 1989 with a vision of trees.

By then, the city had been losing thousands a year as a result of killer disease, harsh conditions and poor care. Some residents simply wanted trees gone, viewing them as a nuisance even if they were healthy.

Daley didn’t like the concrete, said Edith Makra, then an under-30 arborist who was tasked with carrying out the early years of his tree agenda.

“He said, when the kids go to school or when you walk to the train, all you see is concrete,” said Makra, who today is the director of environmental initiatives for an organization that works on regional public policies. “And it shouldn’t be that way. We need trees.”

Reactions to Daley’s push were sometimes incredulous, she said. “He likes what? Trees?” U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush at the time called it a “poorly arranged rendition of Johnny Appleseed.”

The Daley administration wasn’t above cutting down a few trees for political gain but worked to change the way trees were planted and removed, creating policy to boost plantings as part of construction and capping unlimited aldermanic removal requests.

Under Daley, the city studied its trees. A groundbreaking 1994 project with the U.S. Forest Service quantified the climate, pollution and energy benefits of Chicago trees, down to the dollar, in an effort researchers saw as positioning the city as a “green pioneer” with the ability to strategically plant trees, according to a retelling of the undertaking in Jill Jonnes’ book “Urban Forests.”

Some findings were not flattering: Chicago’s tree canopy cover was estimated at 11%.

From the time Daley took office through 2010, nearly 300,000 street trees were planted for a net gain of nearly 70,000 street trees after removals , according to city records. Around the time he was on his way out, the total street tree tally was estimated to be about 580,000.

But by then, the Great Recession had arrived, as well as a new invasive pest.

Tens of thousands of ash trees, which made up nearly a fifth of street trees, were removed as a result of the tree-killing emerald ash borer beetle, while forestry worked to treat those that could be saved.

And faced with budget decisions in a city with more immediate problems, some aldermen prioritized other efforts over trees.

By 2012 — Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first year in office — the overall forestry budget was down to what it was two decades prior, according to city records. The planting-specific budget plummeted, from $3.5 million in 2008 to $173,500 in 2013.

From 2011 through 2021, there was a net loss of at least 69,000 street trees, according to city records.

Among the more than 140,000 trees felled by the city in the past decade was one outside the Gage Park home of Diana Mendez.

Mendez came home from work to find a stump where a mature tree was hours earlier. She still doesn’t know why the tree was removed.

She later got an oak tree planted through a nonprofit, but it wasn’t enough to stem the losses she saw across her neighborhood.

“If you go through the area, you’re going to see trees have been taken down and never replaced,” Mendez said. “I feel like because they’re mostly Latino areas and African American areas, nobody really cares.”

In recent years, city records didn’t say why thousands of trees were removed. Along with the ash borer, the city has blamed the loss of trees on extreme weather due to climate change. For those with a listed reason, the largest group was chopped down because those trees were dead, diseased or damaged, followed by water department work.

Each loss comes at a cost. Today a removal of a tree with a trunk 2 feet in diameter is about $1,000, while planting costs about half that, according to the city. And saplings, if they survive the crucial first years, won’t be an equal replacement of mature, broad-canopied trees for decades.

The lack of plantings and wide-ranging removals came as the city’s overall canopy coverage thinned. Unlike most of the collar counties, which saw modest increases in canopy cover, Chicago’s decreased by 3 percentage points from 2010 through 2020, from 19% of the city to 16%, according to the last census from the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, established by the Morton Arboretum.

Chicago lags behind other cities — large and small — in canopy cover. New York has increased its cover in recent years to 22%. Pittsburgh has canopy cover around 40% with a goal to increase that to 60% by 2030.

The census report said the Chicago drop was likely due to the loss of mature ash trees and younger trees unable to provide much cover — or from not replacing lost trees in the first place.

The losses came as researchers learned how important street trees are in cities — in aiding human health and guarding against climate extremes.

“If you can put something in the ground, and it protects you from the health impacts of extreme heat, and it sequesters carbon, and it can maybe actually reduce the overall rate of warming — then that sounds wonderful,” said Trent Ford, the state climatologist.

Trees can soak up water dumped during intense storms, which already disproportionately affect communities on the South and West sides with basement flooding. And they can lower neighborhood temperatures.

By the end of the century, a summer in Chicago could feel like one today in Mesquite, Texas, with average summer highs more than 10 degrees warmer than they are now.

And, for now, some neighborhoods are equipped with fewer trees to endure it.

‘This community deserves to have trees’

Monica SanMiguel lives in Pilsen, a largely Latino neighborhood with vaulted sidewalks and a long history battling industrial pollution. It’s part of Chicago’s Lower West Side, where the canopy covers just 7% of the community area.

SanMiguel’s interest in trees was inspired by her mother’s appreciation of nature. It’s now sustained by her own worries about the world that awaits her kids.

“We should have the broadest canopy in these neighborhoods because you’ve got an asphalt plant spewing toxins down the street,” she said. “I’m raising my kids here, and I want them to be able to enjoy the same quality of life someone 2 miles north of us gets.”

But in Chicago, like the rest of the country, trees are tied to deeper societal problems involving race and class.

Researchers have documented how racial discrimination in mortgage lending led to “redlined” areas that, decades later, have significantly less canopy coverage than whiter communities, including in Chicago. Another study found low-income blocks in urban areas on average had 15% less tree cover and were 2.7 degrees warmer than wealthier counterparts.

Through the years, Chicago gained tools to confirm what urban foresters and anyone taking a drive through different neighborhoods could easily see — environmental infrastructure wasn’t equitably distributed.

Under Daley, although equity wasn’t yet part of the conversation, the city began studying where best to plant trees, focusing on an unequal distribution of hot spots extending out from the Loop to the Northwest and Southwest sides where clusters of paved surfaces led to pockets of higher temperatures. The city later said it planted thousands of trees taking into account this urban heat island effect and low canopy cover.

By 2010, as part of a study with the U.S. Forest Service, the city had identified priority areas for planting, based on population density, available space and low canopy coverage.

In essence, the study offered a road map for the next decade of where Chicago should prioritize tree planting, down to the census tract.

But the city didn’t use it.

Instead, a Tribune analysis of planting locations found that efforts didn’t lead to — or even appear to work toward — a meaningful shift in how trees were distributed where people live and work.

Because the city’s 77 community areas vary in size and the amount of space available for street trees, the Tribune analyzed trees planted per mile of streets in each community, and found the highest rate of trees planted were in Edgewater, Rogers Park, Lakeview and Edison Park — all North Side communities, and all ranking in the upper half of measurements of residents’ income, education and employment levels. In Edgewater, for example, the city planted 28.5 trees per mile of streets. Over the past 10 years, this translates into more than 1,000 trees.

Some of the lowest rates of trees planted were in North Lawndale, Burnside, Pullman, Ashburn and Riverdale — nearly all majority Black neighborhoods — and nearly all of them ranking in the bottom half for income, education and employment. North Lawndale’s level of planting, for example, was 4.1 new trees per mile of streets, or just a seventh of Edgewater’s rate.

Pastor Reshorna Fitzpatrick, of the Stone Temple Baptist Church in North Lawndale, pointed out some of the unshaded areas on a recent drive around the neighborhood. On the nearly 90-degree day residents were out and about, biking and walking the streets.

“Some places are very, very hot and there’s no shade because there’s no trees,” Fitzpatrick said. “This community deserves to have trees.”

Fitzpatrick likened the treeless stretches to gaps in a toothy smile — you can tell there’s something missing.

“It looks and feels like a concrete jungle,” Fitzpatrick said. “It just doesn’t look alive.”

In the past decade, some communities lost more trees than others, but the city didn’t appear to target more trees to places that lost the most, the Tribune found. Or to places where they could make the most difference for residents.

The Chicago Region Trees Initiative — the Morton Arboretum partnership including city agencies — calculated priority rankings in 2016 for plantings for each community, based on air pollution, average temperature, flood susceptibility and vulnerability of its residents.

The Tribune compared that to socioeconomic rankings for residents’ income, education and employment levels of each community. Reporters found that communities less prioritized for trees — but with higher socioeconomic rank — tended to get more trees than communities that were more prioritized for trees, but with lower socioeconomic rank.

For example, low-priority, high socioeconomic communities saw a median of nearly 15 trees planted, per street mile. Compare that to high-priority but low socioeconomic communities, where the median rate was about half that, despite the greater need for trees.

Every North Side community along the lake had at least 15 or more trees planted per mile of streets, while the only community on the South or West sides to achieve that was the wealthier enclave of Hyde Park.

The city planted 16 trees per street mile there, or roughly triple the rate of what the city planted in Gage Park, among communities with lower socioeconomic status and also among the most prioritized for trees.

‘Resources that we don’t even know exist’

There have been aldermen who prioritized trees more than others and residents who didn’t want them, advocates and former officials say.

Sometimes that’s because residents buy into misconceptions around trees causing pipe problems. Or they don’t want to deal with maintenance issues — a fair concern in Chicago, where haphazard trimming based on the 311 request system has been criticized for more than a decade.

Poor maintenance doesn’t inspire affection for trees, and can be a reason why residents turn them down, researchers have found, along with overall distrust of city government.

Fitzpatrick, the North Lawndale pastor, is used to fielding these concerns, including who’s going to care for trees or safety issues they could cause. But it comes back to tree education, she said.

“Someone said, it’ll just be another place for someone to hide,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can say it, but what stats do you have to show that that really happens? Because we can give you stats on how healthy you can be if you have a tree in front of your house.”

Since 1999, residents have been able to turn to the 311 system for trees — if they know to do so.

Residents can also hire a contractor to plant on the parkway or plant a tree through the nonprofit Openlands. But the city says it has used 311 as the primary way to identify street tree planting locations.

Based on city foresters’ experience, the city said trees are most successful where they’ve been requested.

Two years after their 311 request, Gage Park residents Stefany Barajas and her mother, Inocencia Vargas, had a bur oak planted through the city. Today it reaches the second story.

If it survives the coming years, the native tree will one day swell dozens of feet toward the sky, a burst of yellow-brown in fall, fringed acorns providing snacks for birds and squirrels in winter, and its promised cover of dark green leaves returning every spring.

“I just want to see it grow,” Barajas said.

Other Gage Park residents told the Tribune they haven’t been so lucky, including De La Rosa, the former environmental science student still waiting on a tree.

His mother had city trees removed, fearing pipe damage. But De La Rosa learned the benefits of trees from his studies and shared them with her. He filed his request.

“I went ahead and did it for the sake of the environment,” he said.

He questions if the request would have been fulfilled sooner if he lived in a different neighborhood.

Most 311 requests, the city has acknowledged, have come from affluent communities, particularly on the North Side. But whether they live on the North Side or the South Side, the Tribune found residents facing lengthy delays with tree requests in limbo and a system that can make it inherently harder for people who lack the time, know-how or language skills to navigate it.

The estimated wait for a tree planted via 311 is 300 days. But some residents have trees planted within months, while others wait years. The city says the backlog of open planting requests is more than 10,000, although some may have been completed but not yet inspected or updated in the 311 system.

When asked why there was a difference in response times, the city said several factors are at play, including how quickly the forestry bureau can inspect the location, if planting is possible there, the kind of tree requested by the resident and when the planting permit is issued. Beyond that point, plantings are assigned in bulk to contractors, who determine the order trees are planted, the city said.

The 311 process has also involved multiple steps beyond the initial ask. The Bureau of Forestry processed requests, the city said, and then inspected sites. From there, if tree planting was possible, a notice was left on doors and someone had to call to confirm the planting.

Confirmed requests were scheduled with a contractor — planting is contracted out and supervised by the Bureau of Forestry, while removals and trimming are done by city crews.

Many requests appear stuck in the confirmation step, which the city also acknowledged as a factor in response times.

Some residents who want trees told the Tribune they never received the confirmation notice.

Others said they had trees planted without confirming, such as Arasmo Delgado, a Gage Park resident who works in private tree care and made a request to replace trees that died. He had white oaks planted in less than a year.

“I know that my trees are slow growers, but I’m at least happy that I got the trees,” Delgado said. “Plants make me feel part of nature. I’ve been in the city all my life.”

He suspects others may struggle because they don’t speak English. He has stepped in to make requests for family members who speak Spanish. He also questioned if renters might be less likely to request trees — or if people know 311 is an option.

Mendez, whose removed tree was replaced by Openlands, said she wasn’t aware tree requests could be made through 311.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Mendez said, while participating with her son in a neighborhood planting around a treeless parking lot. “That we have access to resources that we don’t even know exist.”

Advocates have criticized the 311 system as creating barriers to planting and have warned that getting buy-in from residents who don’t trust the system is a challenge.

“If somebody tells you, call 311 for trees — What? Why would I do that?” said Suzanne Malec-McKenna, the last environment commissioner under Daley. “With all the other issues, when I can’t get my potholes fixed or get the rats taken care of, that’s not going to be at the top of my list.”

After questions in recent months from the Tribune, the city recently said it would begin “flipping the script” and switch to a new approach. Residents can still request a tree through 311, but they no longer have to do anything beyond the initial request, unless they want to call to opt-out of a planting within 60 days.

‘What will happen in five years?’

Two summers ago, Lightfoot took a stroll in West Garfield Park.

In an email to commissioners, Lightfoot said she walked along a stretch where something “really hit home.”

“There are no trees along this heavily traveled boulevard, none,” Lightfoot said in the email, obtained by the Tribune in an open records request.

“It was an utterly depressing sight,” she said.

Today, dozens of young saplings dot the neighborhood, their tags still attached, some dated fall 2020.

To address tree inequities, Lightfoot’s administration isn’t planning on having the mayor stroll down every city block.

The city’s approach will “allow for us to plant trees where they have the greatest impact and to work directly with community stewards in those areas to help maintain the healthy tree canopy,” said chief sustainability officer Angela Tovar.

The city previously talked trees with aldermen at a few dozen community meetings a year, but starting this month a tree ambassador pilot program will train residents to scout possible tree sites, with training in Little Village and South Lawndale followed by North Lawndale. The program will then expand into other census tracts in priority areas, the city said.

In North Lawndale, efforts may be helped by longtime tree stewards including resident Mamie Gray, who has cared for neighborhood trees in the ground, watering them throughout the seasons.

Gray said she thinks of trees as ancient ancestors.

“When I look at a tree it’s almost like looking at a person,” Gray said.

Fitzpatrick, the North Lawndale pastor, highlighted some recently planted trees going strong on the neighborhood drive, including an Arbor Day sapling part of the 75,000 push. Fitzpatrick helped plant that one, and she took pride in checking in.

“You take ownership when you help plant it and then you water it and see it grow,” she said.

The city has created a new website for its tree effort, while the health department has also developed a new tool to identify where trees should be planted, taking into account data related to canopy cover, air quality, temperature, economic hardship and other socioeconomic factors.

The city said planting locations are tracked through the 311 system but did not provide additional information about where the first trees of the 75,000 push have been planted.

The city’s $7.2 million planting budget more than doubles the highest budgets in recent years. And there are additional planting funds for the city’s transportation department, which plants along arterial roads and has shifted focus to disinvested communities, the city says.

Although advocates say the city is moving in the right direction, they’re still waiting on some recommendations made years ago.

The city is “exploring options” for a tree inventory, referred to as a “vital” tool by city foresters and recommended in a city plan more than a decade ago. An urban forestry board suggested years ago by advocates as a way to connect tree priorities through mayoral administrations and ease communication between city departments, and approved last summer, is not yet in place. The city says it’s switching back to a more efficient grid trimming system, also recommended more than a decade ago, and has more than doubled crews in preparation, but the change is still in progress.

During her campaign, Lightfoot promised to bring back the environment department, dismantled under Emanuel, but it hasn’t happened yet.

More challenges lie ahead. Thousands of residents are waiting on a backlog of tree plantings, removals and trimming requests. A large-scale replacement of water mains and lead pipes is underway, meaning the potential for tree loss. And advocates are eager to see whether the city will start treating ash trees again — a practice it gave up years ago — before thousands more die.

There’s also the question of what will happen to planting efforts in Chicago after the 75,000 push and federal funding comes to an end.

“What will happen in five years?” Malec-McKenna said. “Who’s the Lorax in this situation? We don’t have a Lorax. And that’s very sad because there’s a lot of great people who care about this stuff and they only have so much time and resources and support.”

Cities across the country are facing their own challenges as they chart paths toward tree equity. Philadelphia has a goal to increase canopy cover to 30% in all neighborhoods by 2025. Phoenix is creating “cool corridors” in a city where wealthier and whiter districts enjoy more shade. Los Angeles has a goal to grow the canopy 50% where it’s most needed by 2028.

Success should be defined by working with residents on their terms, some advocates say. That could mean maintaining existing trees, more jobs in green industry or protecting against gentrification as a result of more greenery — a concern of residents that has played out in rising property values along The 606 in Chicago.

The city has not yet shared specific goals around increasing canopy cover but plans to agree on benchmarks with priority communities in the initiative’s next phase.

Some residents are eager to move forward, such as SanMiguel in Pilsen.

In a city with no lack of immediate problems to address, worrying about a tree “can almost be a privilege,” she said.

But planting trees seems like one thing that can be done to make the city more equitable.

“We actually have something we can do here,” she said. “Why aren’t we doing more?”

Chicago Tribune’s Gregory Pratt contributed.

mgreene@chicagotribune.com

jmahr@chicagotribune.com