Chicago is set to invest $46 million in tree planting over the next five years. Mayor Lori Lightfoot says the city will plant 75,000 trees and prioritize neighborhoods that have been underserved and disproportionately impacted by climate change. It’s part of an effort to increase tree canopy coverage throughout the city.
“Tree canopy is the upper portion of the tree where the leaves are, the leaves are what create the benefits for us, they’re what intercept stormwater, they intercept air pollution, they help reduce temperatures by cooling the air around them, “the trees themselves function as environmental mitigants for some of the challenges that we experience with climate change.” said Lydia Scott, director of the Morton Arboretum’s Chicago Region Trees Initiative.
Despite the health and social benefits associated with tree canopy, the distribution of trees throughout Chicago is far from equal. According to data from a 2020 tree census by the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, the tree canopy coverage in Chicago is 16%. Neighborhoods with the least amount of canopy coverage can be found on the south and west sides.
“When it comes to disparities in tree canopy, there is a distinct difference between the tree canopy on the north side versus the south side,” said Lillian Holden of Openlands, a Chicago nonprofit that focuses on fighting climate change and preserving nature. “Trees are a part of our city’s infrastructure and it reflects the investment of our city’s infrastructure historically and contemporarily.”
Trees are especially vital to improving air quality and reducing pollution. According to Chicago’s 2020 “Air Quality and Health Report,” Chicago’s most polluted neighborhoods can be found on the South and West Sides.
“A lot of our trees do not survive in our community only because of the abundance of pollutants in the air,” said Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery, an environmental advocacy group based in the Altgeld Garden Homes on Chicago’s far South Side “Most neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, particularly Black neighborhoods on the South side of Chicago do not have trees, and we do not have the accessibility to many of the programs out there to allow our community to be educated about maintenance of trees.”
The city says planting trees where they are needed most will be central to its approach. To find out the tree canopy coverage in your neighborhood, check out this map from the Chicago Region Trees Initiative.