Chicago City Council Debates Urban Forestry Advisory Board To Address Declining Tree Population

Photo: Openlands

By Zachary Mauer 
Associate Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD/MPP 2022

Across the United States, metropolitan areas are experiencing a net loss of about 36 million trees every year. That amounts to about 175,000 acres of lost tree cover. Meanwhile, Chicago loses more than 10,000 trees every year due to, in part, inefficient tree trimming and management. Fewer trees means less shade and worse air quality. In response, several Chicago City Council Aldermen are proposing the Urban Forestry Advisory Board (“UFAB”) in order to assess current policies and propose innovative ways to protect Chicago’s tree population.           

Chicago has a tree-trimming problem
In 2019, the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) released a report highlighting ways in which the Department of Streets and Sanitation’s Bureau of Forestry could improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their tree-trimming program. Since the creation of 311 in 1999, the city has used a reactive approach to tree trimming by responding only to resident’s complaints. As a result, the Bureau of Forestry spent 75% of its time addressing these 311 requests, causing 40% of parkway trees (approximately 206,000) to not be trimmed in 10 or more years.   

According to an independent report issued in 2009, a grid-based approach to tree trimming would reduce the average crew’s travel time by 35% and the average cost per tree trim by 60%. This could increase the daily tree trimming by 147% and 87% more addresses receiving services over the course of a year.

CBS News reported in January that that Chicago residents across the city have been complaining that 311 requests are being marked completed before the job was done. Some residents are forced to spend money to repair damage on their homes or cars caused by falling branches. Residents of West Englewood are worried that a falling branch could seriously injure someone.

City workers are avoiding completing these tree-trimming requests by marking the requests as “no tree” or “no such address.” The city’s response has been that the pandemic, as well as a large storm, have kept them busy over the past year. Still, other major cities that use a proactive, cyclical, or grid-based approach include New York City, Toronto, Los Angeles, as well as Chicago’s neighbors Evanston, Oak Lawn, and Park Ridge.

Environmental and health risks associated with loss of trees
One of the main consequences of losing trees in a large city is the urban heat island effect. Shade from trees, together with evaporation of the water their leaves transpire, can help reduce peak summer temperatures in their vicinity by 2 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit. In Davis, CA, researchers found that shade from trees reduced the surface temperature of asphalt by up to 36 degrees F, and of the passenger compartments of parked cars by 47 degrees F.

Also, urban trees reduce concentrations of particulate matter, the most damaging type of air pollution. A study of 10 U.S. cities found that urban trees remove enough particulate matter to reduce annual health impacts by amounts ranging from $1.1 million in Syracuse, NY, to $60.1 million in New York City. A 2015 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that in the 15-state area and 17-year period covered, more than 15,000 additional deaths from cardiovascular conditions such as heart attack and stroke occurred as a result of urban tree loss.       

Further, nitrogen dioxide is one of the main contributors to smog and one of the six leading air pollutants identified by the Environmental Protection Agency. In a study conducted in Portland, tree cover had a significant effect on nitrogen dioxide levels and residents’ respiratory health by area. In higher-tree areas, young kids were estimated to have avoided missing more than 7,000 school days annually because of asthma attacks.           

Chicago Urban Forestry Advisory Board
The proposed Urban Forestry Advisory Board (UFAB) would have seven ex officio members and six appointed members. The seven ex officio members would be the Chief Sustainability Officer, Chair of the Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, General Superintendent & Chief Executive Officer of Streets and Sanitation, Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, Commissioner of Water Management, and Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development. The six appointed members would be representatives from two nongovernmental organizations that participate in the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, a representative from a nongovernmental community organization, two representatives from a tree service business, and a representative from an academic arborist community. 

UFAB’s duties would include developing and annually updating an Urban Forestry Management Plan, as well as recommending legislation based on viewing and assessing current city policies, procedures, and expenditures. UFAB would also facilitate a public education of urban forestry and establish a Heritage Tree program that identifies trees of special significance. Other major cities with forest advisory boards include San Diego, which has a 15-member board appointed by the mayor, and Seattle where they have a 13-member board comprised of various professionals and community members.       

The ordinance to create UFAB was first introduced last summer, but was put on the back burner as the pandemic raged on. Now, the Chicago City Council hopes to introduce the ordinance again in the coming months.         

The City of Chicago’s Inspector General Joe Ferguson said it best: “A thriving and healthy urban forest is critical to mitigating ever-mounting climate change concerns like the urban heat island effect and excessive storm water runoff, and recent studies have revealed stark differences across city neighborhoods that generally correlate with tree canopy percentages. Chicago’s communities and individuals particularly stand to benefit from a more efficient and equitable city service, with obvious environmental health benefits, including cleaner air, cooling, and reduction of stress in children. Strategic, rather than reactive, tree care also prevents property damage, utility interruptions, and street closures.”