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Urban Forestry Advisory Board Key to Mitigating City Flood Damages, Promoting Environmental Equity Passes in City Council

By Openlands’ embedded journalist, Carlyn Kranking

In an intense Chicago storm, rain can pour down at the rate of 2 inches or more per hour. One inch of rain alone, on an acre of land, amounts to over 27,100 gallons. Much of the city is covered in impermeable surfaces that don’t absorb water, such as concrete, asphalt, and metals. Since stormwater can’t be retained by these materials, it quickly flows into the sewers and overwhelms them. When the sewers are full and the water has nowhere else to go, it creates backups that push water into homes through pipes or basement sewers.

Luckily, there’s a defense against this damage: trees. Trees help absorb water in the soil through their roots, and their leaves hold water, slowing its fall to the ground. Planting and caring for trees is a proactive defense against urban flooding.

To protect trees, the Chicago City Council unanimously voted on Friday, June 25 to establish an Urban Forestry Advisory Board, which Openlands supported. The Urban Forestry Advisory Board ordinance passed almost a year after it was first proposed by Alderperson Scott Waguespack, along with Alderpersons Samantha Nugent and George A. Cardenasto. The win would not have been possible without the TreeKeepers and advocates who championed the ordinance, along with the 27 alderpersons who co-sponsored the bill.

Currently, according to Daniella Pereira, Vice President of Community Conservation at Openlands, trees are “usually a last thought.” But now, the Urban Forestry Advisory Board will work to put trees at the front of mind in discussions of infrastructure. 

Alderperson Scott Waguespack led the development of the ordinance, saying “I’m proud to work with Openlands and our governmental agencies to create the UFAB. Passage of our ordinance ushers in a new level of cooperation to save and build our tree canopy and tackle the climate change problem.”

What is an Urban Forestry Advisory Board?

In Chicago, the Urban Forestry Advisory Board will consist of city commissioners and industry professionals from across the city who will consult on issues related to the urban forest. The board will be made up of 13 volunteer members, seven of which will be commissioners and officials from government departments. The mayor will appoint the remaining six members, including representatives from the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, tree service businesses, and a non-government community organization, as well as one academic arborist.

The board will create an urban forestry management plan, assess policies and expenditures related to forestry, recommend legislation, make a list of protected “heritage” trees, and lead a public education program about the benefits of trees.

To help envision what an Urban Forestry Advisory Board would look like in Chicago, Openlands staff examined other U.S. cities that have established similar boards. The Atlanta Tree Commission aims to get trees recognized as infrastructure. They lead public education efforts and hear appeals about forestry-related administrative decisions. The San Diego Community Forest Advisory Board holds public meetings where residents can voice challenges relating to trees. Similar boards exist in cities countrywide, including Austin, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle.

Benefits of Urban Trees

Trees in Chicago and its surrounding counties provide countless benefits to residents. In one year, the region’s trees intercept 1.5 billion cubic feet of water and save $100 million in stormwater damages and treatment, according to the 2020 Chicago Tree Census. They store millions of tons of carbon and filter pollutants out of the air. Trees provide shade for buildings, saving residents $32 million per year on cooling costs. Animals use trees for habitat, and being around trees can improve people’s mental health and overall mood.

But Chicago’s tree canopy is under duress. In the last decade, the city’s canopy cover has dropped from 19% to 16%, even as six of the seven surrounding counties saw canopy growth. Largely due to the Emerald Ash Borer’s decimation of ash trees, the city is at risk of losing some of the benefits brought by its urban forest. When the city loses bigger, older trees, it’s more difficult to get those benefits back.

“A larger tree has exponentially more benefits,” said Michael Dugan, Director of Forestry with Openlands. “A very large tree — let’s say it’s 40 inches in diameter — if we replace that with 40 smaller, one-inch diameter trees, we’re not going to get the same benefit.”

The Urban Forestry Advisory Board will establish a heritage tree program that protects some of the trees with special value to Chicago because of their size, age or historical significance. This would help ensure the longevity of trees that provide the most services and those that have special value to a community.

“There’s no protection for any of our public or private trees at this point,” Pereira said. “But some of these have significant history or significant meaning to a neighborhood or a family, and it would be really great to acknowledge that.”

Protecting Chicago’s Tree Canopy

Openlands is also caring for Chicago’s trees by mobilizing residents to be tree caretakers themselves. Through the TreeKeepers course, Openlands trains volunteers to protect and advocate for the region’s trees. In the class, much of the coursework is voluntarily taught by tree professionals, such as city foresters, arborists, or professionals from tree-care companies or the U.S. Forest Service. Once they complete the course, volunteers become certified to plant, protect, and care for trees with Openlands. They can lead their own tree-planting or pruning events, and they have the knowledge to educate others and advocate on behalf of the urban forest.

Additionally, residents can apply for a TreePlanters grant, to have 10 to 40 trees planted at predetermined locations in their neighborhood. On the planting day, Openlands supervises while volunteers plant the trees and learn to care for them together. For the next few years, the resident volunteers are committed to caring for the new trees, though Openlands staff is available to provide assistance and answer questions.

This spring, the Openlands Arborist Registered Apprentices planted trees for Chicago residents, to comply with social distancing. These four trainees will spend a year learning and working with Openlands, followed by two years with a tree-care company in this region. After these three years of work, the apprentices will be eligible to sit for the International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist Exam. The apprenticeship program helps combat the shortage of labor in the arborist industry and gives these early-career arborists the skills to be successful.

Equity in the Urban Forest

Flooding in Chicago is a greater burden on communities of color and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, Pereira said. And with it, these communities have more health impacts.

“From the basement flooding, mold is a huge, huge issue that affects people’s lungs and respiratory system,” Pereira said. “[In] neighborhoods where there’s more flooding, there tends to also be a lot more health issues, sometimes with asthma, from dirty air.”

Openlands’s TreePlanters program tries to prioritize planting trees in areas with low canopy cover, specifically on the southwest side and near south suburbs. Prioritizing these areas can help create a more equitable distribution of trees and their positive effects, including relief from some effects of flooding. The Urban Forestry Advisory Board would be a way for city departments to ensure equitable tree canopy and care of trees throughout all Chicago neighborhoods.

Further, trees can encourage social cohesion, and taking care of large trees in an area can promote a sense of community. For example, Pereira said, without trees to provide shade, there might not be as many comfortable areas to gather on hot days.

“You can have less gathering and less socialization with neighbors, and that is gonna impact how people feel in terms of safety, within their neighborhood or connecting with their neighbors,” she said. “Unfortunately, [it] leads to a lot of isolation by just not having comfortable and safe green spaces in your neighborhood.”

Pereira said investing in planting and maintaining an urban forest will save money in the long run in other areas.

“[The urban forest] will pay for itself in terms of keeping the city cooler, keeping water from entering sewers, keeping our air cleaner and hopefully preventing more hazards,” she said. Without investment in urban trees, “We end up paying for it through all this disaster mitigation that has to happen at the end.”

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