Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a commitment to equity, but when it comes to trees, she isn’t following through. She supported starting a forestry advisory board that hasn’t met. She wanted to eliminate prerogative aldermanic, but many aldermen continue to remove hundreds of healthy trees. The city’s new climate action plan promotes protecting the most vulnerable people by planting 75,000 trees, but her Department of Water Management continues business as usual and removes trees without any standardized process to find alternatives to clear-cutting.
A recent Tribune analysis of the city’s selective tree planting reminds us how inequitable the tree canopy continues to be without a strategy that outlasts a mayoral administration. Wealthier, white neighborhoods continue to receive more resources while communities of color bear the brunt of exacerbating climate-driven extreme heat, flooding and poor air quality. The city’s new climate plan recognizes this historical lack of community investment in Chicago, but a tree-planting initiative without city officials aligning only provides more hot air.
The mayor must hold aldermen and the Department of Water Management accountable to the strategy; otherwise, such a lack of follow-through will continue to disproportionately affect historically marginalized and underserved communities. New York City was able to reach and grow its tree canopy through tree planting and aligned policy under changes in administration starting with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and completed under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Chicago’s climate plan can be the blueprint for future administrations, but everyone working for the city now should recalibrate to this new North Star.
It is a disgrace that while $46 million worth of street trees will be planted, our existing healthy and large canopy trees continue to be removed through aldermanic privilege and a Department of Water Management that follows contrary to the mayor’s edict. Chicago already has a low tree canopy, and with the removal to planting ratio being 2 to 1, 75,000 trees will not even replace the canopy of what continues to be removed. Without saving the existing canopy, it will be decades for these young trees to offer the same environmental and health benefits to communities that need them the most now.
In 1990, Mayor Richard M. Daley released a memo to aldermen stating that he strengthened the bureau of forestry and shifted its priorities. And although planting trees was a top priority, he saw the need to limit aldermanic removals to 20 trees maximum annually per ward. The result of this was thousands of trees saved and a forestry department that was able to provide other forestry services more equitably across 50 wards. Lightfoot should do the same and have aldermen replace the same amount of tree diameter removed within their ward.
Chicago’s Department of Water Management continues to remove all trees in their way. These trees, the one appreciating asset we have in the city, are then not replaced. In all other cases, when trees are requested to be removed, a forester inspects the tree and, if healthy, denies the request. The difference is that city-funded projects don’t flag the landscape ordinance or a forester, and instead we continue to lose more trees than we plant.
Lightfoot should hold Commissioner Andrea Cheng and her water department accountable for updating and solidifying a process so that it’s not just the wealthier white neighborhoods that force the water department to find every alternative to removing their healthy trees. Cities such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Columbus, Ohio, have been successful with using “no net loss” policies to maintain their tree canopy. And it is a best practice that any removals of trees over a certain diameter be offset with as many trees to replace that same diameter, not just a replacement of 1 to 1.
Not all trees can be saved, and when they can’t, there should be multiple levels of review with signoffs from departments such as the bureau of forestry, the Department of Transportation and affected neighbors. It is shocking for residents to suddenly come home to find trees gone. When water department workers have spoken with neighbors, they have asked the neighbors to sign off on tree removals, telling them whether they sign, the tree is still coming down.
As one advocated, “It still confuses me as to why it was such a struggle and why there is so much resistance in the Department of Water Management to tackling these projects in a way that prioritizes trees given that the city is making an investment in the tree canopy.”
Environmental justice organizations and conservation nonprofits like ours cannot plant enough trees nor train enough advocates without the entire city moving in the same direction — toward climate resiliency for all Chicagoans. We cannot do this without you. The city needs to have a driver of a strategic urban forestry management plan and a tree canopy goal strategy as a minimum, for each community area. This would allow city departments to guide decisions through changing mayoral administrations. That strong vision should be followed by strong tree protection ordinances, policies, interdepartmental communication and public engagement.
This isn’t just a policy fix; This is how to manage your team. Chicago should maximize local benefits for communities for generations by making actionable the priorities that will support those most vulnerable to climate change.
Daniella Pereira is the vice president of community conservation at Openlands. Naomi Davis is founder and CEO of Blacks in Green.
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