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Chicago fails to live up to its motto — City in a Garden — with every tree lost

The longer the city waits to restore its magnificent tree canopy, the harder the job gets. New trees need many years to grow to maturity.

Trees line a block of North Richmond Avenue in Logan Square.
Tim Frisbie/For the Sun-Times

A century ago, Chicago was a leader in shading its neighborhoods with an urban forest. But as Chicago continues to lose trees, other cities have caught up and surpassed us.

For a host of environmental and quality-of-life reasons, It’s time Chicago worked to regain its status as exceptional when it comes to tree-lined streets.

Since 2010, due to disease and other factors, Chicago has lost an average of 10,000 more trees than it has planted every year. That’s 200 fewer trees in each of the city’s 50 wards on average each year.

The city now has a tree canopy that covers just 19% of its land. The metropolitan area has a canopy of 15.5%. By comparison, New York has 21% coverage and Los Angeles has 25%.

Restoring Chicago’s urban forest will be a big job, but the longer we wait, the more difficult the job becomes. New trees need many years to grow to maturity.

Trees benefit cities and human health in many ways. They cool areas that otherwise would be heat islands. They filter the air, helping people with respiratory problems, and absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. They soak up stormwater that otherwise results in flooding. They create habitat for wildlife, including birds that fly through on semiannual migrations.

Tree-lined streets make daily life in the big city more pleasant.

But Chicago not only is failing to replace trees, it also is cutting down perfectly good ones. The city has a bad habit of removing healthy parkway trees just because some resident puts in a request. Developers are allowed to cut down mature trees for no justifiable reason.

“It keeps getting worse instead of better,” Openlands Vice President for Community Conservation Daniella Pereira told us.

Chicago’s Bureau of Forestry is creating an inventory of the city’s tree canopy, but the city has no overarching strategy for reversing the loss. Nonprofits and neighborhood groups are planting new trees, but they can’t do enough.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), Ald. George Cardenas (12th) and Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th) want the city to create an advisory committee to coordinate efforts among government agencies and nonprofit groups to protect heritage trees, increase the number of tree plantings, and eventually — as the money becomes available — train new arborists to work in underserved communities.

The committee also would work with the private sector to minimize the loss of trees during construction projects and when utility work is done.

Chicago’s official motto is “urbs in horto” — City in a Garden. Let’s live up to it.

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