Chicago tree canopy needs improvement; communities connect to plant and you can too

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The city of Chicago has a plan to plant tens of thousands of trees over the next five years, starting this spring, both for the health and wellness of city dwellers and for equity.

A year ago ABC7 spoke to Rosalba Bernal as she had just planted a sapling in front of her West Lawn home. Since then, she has become a woman on a mission, helping neighbors plant dozens of trees in her community.

"Since they've seen my face on TV, they were able to recognize me, so now they know who's knocking on their door seeing if they want a tree," Bernal said.

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In 2021 we focused on Bernal's southwest side efforts to start planting trees to improve her neighborhood's air quality. After our story she said the number of requests skyrocketed, and they are planning another tree planting this fall to keep up with demand.

Bernal and her neighbors planted 20 brand new trees all throughout their neighborhood.

"Last year it only had a few little stems here and there. Now it's sprouting up," she said. "Just the fact that the community is finally coming together and thinking about our air quality, because we need to improve our air quality, especially around these neighborhoods."

The benefits tree cover have for physical health and more are tangible. Non-profit conservation organization Openlands works with neighborhoods and residents like Bernal to keep and expand tree canopy in the city.

"Trees are what you would call a part of 'green infrastructure' and those natural solutions will really help to improve the air quality and the shade in the neighborhood," said Daniella Perreira, Openlands VP Community Conservation.

Perreira said they're focusing their efforts by planting trees in historically under-resourced neighborhoods and those surrounded by industry, like Little Village.

"When you think about where people want to live now or in the future, they want to have that access to green space. They want to have healthy clean air," she said.

But data from the latest tree census through the Chicago Region Trees Initiative shows Chicago's tree canopy needs help.

In the past 10 years, Chicago's tree canopy has gone down from 19% to 16% with areas of concern interconnected to Chicago's history of poverty, racism, the environment, and health.

The neighborhoods with the lowest canopy are on the South and West Sides. Some have less than 10% coverage. Neighborhoods with the highest canopy tend to be to the north of the city, with Forest Glen at the top of the list.

The areas of Chicago with the lowest average canopy cover today were given the lowest grade under historic redlining.

Now these 20 at just this one intersection in La Villita are growing well. Openlands plans to plant 500 trees throughout the city in the month of April, including on the West and South sides.

But trees don't just benefit your physical health. Experts say they also make a difference to your mental health.

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"Access to nature is a necessity more than a luxury because it has a global impact on mental and physical health," said Dr. Sheehan Fisher, clinical psychologist & Northwestern University Professor.

Dr. Fisher said it's vital all communities benefit from improved tree cover.

"People have improved mental health by having access to nature, for example, having reduced anxiety and low mood and just in general, having less of that psychological stress," he said.

Mayor Lightfoot has pledged to plant 75,000 trees over the next five years, starting this spring with a special focus.

"Under resourced, underinvested, areas in the city such as the south and west regions. So those are really where we're emphasizing and prioritizing our efforts," said Gaby Wagener-Sobrero, City of Chicago environmental policy analyst

Areas like West Lawn are ready for the benefits tree canopy can provide.

"They reduce flooding, they can also cool the air, we know actually for a fact if you have a tree close to your home and there's shade in the home, you can actually see a reduction in your air conditioning costs," Wagener-Sobrero said.

They also clean the air and can improve property value.

"We have to do something as a community to try to better the situation," Bernal said. "Sooner or later we're going to have the air quality we really need."

You can request trees at no charge to yourself from Openlands by going here: https://openlands.org/what-we-do/trees/treeplanters-grants/how-to-apply/

You can also request a tree from the City of Chicago by calling 311.
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