Half a million trees is a lot of trees when you consider that all the trees in all the parks in Chicago add up to only about 250,000. Lay half a million trees end to end and–well, you’d have a lot of dead trees, because they don’t grow that way. But plant half a million trees right way up on parkways and playgrounds, beside railroad tracks and roadsides, in schoolyards and vacant lots, and you could start revolutions.
Which is just what Mayor Daley has in mind. Richard M. Daley, born on Arbor Day in 1942, is a tree freak, self-confessed. “All engineers think about is concrete,” complained the mayor at his office recently. “I get tired of looking at concrete. There’s no beauty in it. Look at the S turn on Lake Shore Drive–there’s not one tree. In our neighborhood, we used to punch holes in the sidewalks so we could plant trees in front of the church and the school. When you look at what trees offer to the city . . .”
It is unlikely that the mayor has read Jackson on landscapes or Spirn on nature in the city. Nor has he troubled his evenings with treatises such as “The Factor Structure of Street Tree Attributes.” But Daley finds himself–and thus Chicago finds itself–in the vanguard of urban forestry in the U.S. nonetheless.
Daley imagines a Chicago where Urbs in Horto is a description and not just a slogan. Where the Eisenhower Expressway is transformed into a French-style allee. Where tree plantings on the public approaches to O’Hare would excite our poets of PR to sing about “the world’s prettiest airport.” Where parking lots cease to be forests of cars and become forests with cars. Last October Daley unveiled “GreenStreets,” a program of expanded public and private tree plantings, improved maintenance, and public education. The GreenStreets goal is to achieve a net gain of 500,000 trees in the city by 1992, what Daley calls “the most comprehensive and ambitious urban forestry initiative by a major U.S. city.”
For 150 years, it seems, Chicago has measured progress by the number of trees it kills–for lumber and newsprint and packing boxes. Trees are for kids on Arbor Day, not 50-ish mayors: even people who agree with Daley that trees are a good idea have a hard time concealing their condescension; when the Tribune editorially praised GreenStreets in November, the endorsement bore the title “Great news for city squirrels.”
The mayor’s thing for trees surprises a lot of people. It’s as if Mike Ditka were caught listening to opera. Bridgeport is hardly a sylvan glade, and those who know Daley say he doesn’t know a basswood from a basset hound. Plant more trees along the cattle drives that connect the train stations with Loop office buildings, he says, and “people would slow down. It would help them go to work.” OK, so the mayor is unlikely to write a poem as lovely as a tree, but Joyce Kilmer would probably agree, it’s the tree that counts.
“We were a forgotten child,” laments Steve Bylina, superintendent of the Department of Streets and Sanitation’s Bureau of Forestry. “Now we’ve got to play catch-up.” Bylina’s official speech could use some pruning (he once pledged to manage Chicago’s tree resource “in a concrete manner”), but as a 16-year veteran of Chicago’s tree wars he knows the business. He has a two-man lumberjack’s saw hanging on his wall big enough to slice his desk in two, and he looks like he could do it if he had to.
Chicago today has 650,000 to 700,000 trees growing on its various public ways. This does not exactly make Chicago the Bois de Boulogne; still, they are the only trees Chicago has. “That precious natural resource needs to be managed,” Bylina adds. “If neglected, eventually it will deteriorate. This happened in Chicago over the last decade.” Indeed. Chicago has been losing three trees for every one it planted on its streets and parks for years, a net loss per year that averaged 3,000 trees. And many of the trees that survive are of poor quality or are in ill repair. True, Chicago was named a “Tree City USA” by the National Arbor Day Foundation in 1983 and every year since, but that honor goes to any municipality that spends a buck per person on trees. These days Chicago spends that much just cutting down and hauling away the trees it kills through neglect.
There have always been trees in Chicago. A thin stand of trees graced the south branch of the Chicago River, wooded sloughs filled what is today River North, bottomland woods hugged the Des Plaines and its tributaries to the west, and trees crowded the lakefront south of 31st Street. None of these woods would excite anything but contempt in a modern landscape architect. The romantic may like to imagine Lincoln Park as the remnants of a primeval forest, for example, but 150 years ago the sandy site boasted only stunted, scrubby trees of the sort that still grow near Illinois Beach in Lake County; the trees that tower over Lincoln Park today were planted there. Though it is thought that a few of the trees in Lincoln Park may be survivors of the Great Fire in 1871, nowhere in the city is there a tree as venerable as the Treaty Oak in Austin, Texas, or as loved as the 60-foot weeping beech that New Yorkers officially designated a landmark a few years ago.
Chicago’s tree cover is no more distinguished by its pedigree than by its age. The massive public plantings made around the turn of the century, especially those made on the city’s boulevards and parks, were mostly American elm, that stately and adaptable member of the genus Ulmus that has pretty much come to define what we mean by “shade tree.” Chicago’s public trees tend to be either mature elms that are now aging and infirm, or younger, less elegant trees such as the ashes and the commoner maples, trees that are fast-growing and cheap and thus popular among developers and aldermen eager to make a quick impression.
Cheap, fast-growing trees were the inevitable choices for replanting a city denuded by the calamity by which urban foresters have come to reckon all dates–the outbreak of Dutch elm disease that hit Chicago in the 1970s. In other parts of the midwest where the disease has had longer to establish itself, fewer than 2 percent of the elms that used to grace parks, college quads, and Main Streets survived. In Chicago, reports Bylina, the “vast majority” of elms were lost. “Our founding fathers were in error,” he adds. “The elm was such an acceptable and beautiful species that they overplanted it.” Bill Lough, who spent 14 and a half years in Chicago’s forestry operation before leaving in 1986 to become New York City’s chief forester, recalls that when he came to Chicago in 1971, 100,000 dead trees stood along its streets. “It was a petrified forest.”
The 1970s were the golden age of urban forestry in Chicago for the same reasons that the Civil War was the golden age of battlefield medicine. Charles Stewart, who was assistant general superintendent of the Bureau of Forestry from 1970 to 1974, recalls that in those days he had at his disposal 250 rolling vehicles and 500 employees. “At the height of the Dutch elm outbreak we were taking down 54 to 55 thousand dead trees a year, planting maybe 30 thousand, trimming more than 40 thousand. It was a pretty aggressive program.” Describing the 14-hour days and six-day weeks spent battling the outbreak, Stewart sounds a lot like any war veteran in whom pride of performance has soothed the memory of carnage: “We had 15 or 20 people who just went around looking at trees so we could schedule work.”
Today the Chicago area is the only part of Illinois where Dutch elm disease is still a problem, because it’s the only part of Illinois where enough elms still stand to sustain the disease’s natural cycle. In spite of energetic treatment, the University of Chicago is still losing one or two mature elms every year, and last year saw a resurgence of the disease among Grant Park’s surviving elms.
By 1979 the worst of the dying was over, however, and Chicago’s army of tree trimmers suffered the fate that usually awaits armies when peace breaks out. Budget cutters working for the new Mayor Jane Byrne concluded that forestry was a luxury the cash-strapped city could not afford. Budgets were slashed by more than 50 percent, and there began a decade of next years, not yets, and make dos.
Bylina offers some numbers. In 1979 the bureau spent $12.8 million. In some of the years that followed the dollars allocated for tree operations disappeared like leaves after a November blow, to as little as $8 million. In 1990 Bylina expects to spend $11.8 million, a figure that reflects the 25 percent increase that Daley put into his first forestry budget. Milwaukee’s model forestry program serves a population about one-fifth the size of Chicago’s, but that city spends nearly as much on its trees (about $10 million a year) as Chicago. Stewart says that the backlog of chores in Chicago is now so large that the city could spend 15 to 20 million dollars a year for several years “and still not do all the things they’d like to do.”
Planting was one of the things that had to be curtailed during those lean years. Trees die all the time (like people, the old ones from age or disease, the young ones from neglect or violence) and must be replaced. In 1989 City Hall planted about 4,000 trees, which is about as many as were planted that year in Saint Louis, a city one- seventh the size of Chicago. Plans have been announced to boost plantings to 10,000 trees a year for the next five years, as the city’s contribution to the GreenStreets reforestation effort. That’s a welcome increase but still modest; Milwaukee has been planting nearly 10,000 trees per year for the last 20 years, and at the peak of Chicago’s own elm replacement program in the mid-1970s, crews were putting 30,000 trees a year into the ground, one year planting 40,000.
Forestry administrators estimate that planting a tree accounts for only about 10 percent of the total cost of caring for it during its life cycle. Trimming has to be done on a regular basis, both to clear limbs that obstruct utility wires or traffic signs and to balance the loads borne by branches. (An unbalanced tree is more vulnerable to winds.) Watering is essential for trees planted in shallow planting pits, and helpful for all trees during droughts. And disease and insect infestations must be treated. All the while, as Stewart points out, “The trees keep growing. If you don’t maintain a level of operations, you get behind very quickly.”
“There has to be sufficient funding to maintain all that beauty that’s been erected,” says Bylina. He points in particular to certain federally funded beautification projects that put trees in the ground. “When they were through they walked away,” leaving trees in pits that no truck could get at or encased in too-narrow wrought-iron armor that swelling trunks eventually choked on. “It’s tedious and time-consuming, a maintenance nightmare.”
However trying it is for foresters, prolonged inattention is harder on the forest. Neighborhood tree activist Steve Later moved to Ravenswood three years ago. “One of the most appealing aspects of the neighborhood was its large silver maples,” Later says. “I could see a lot of neglect though–dead wood and rotten limbs. Here was something that took 50 or 60 years to come about, and it was being threatened by 3 or 4 years of neglect. If these trees were to be lost, a lot of the character of the neighborhood would be lost.”
The situation is scarcely better at the Chicago Park District, whose parks have been losing trees at a rate of roughly 1,500 a year for a couple of decades. “The district’s budget for landscaping is not enough to keep up with the yearly losses,” frets Erma Tranter of Friends of the Parks, “let alone replace what’s been lost in the past. In a system as historically significant as ours, that’s crucial.”
Trimming and disease control have lagged too. Without capable and timely care by public agencies, most of Chicago’s public trees are abandoned to the not always tender mercies of adjacent property owners. And as Steve Bylina points out, “We have to be cognizant that in an urban setting not everyone shares the same love of trees on a parkway.” People don’t like to rake leaves, or the leaves spoil the look of their lawns, or they have no lawns because trees block the sun, or they worry that limbs will fall through the roof and land on Grandma. Everybody knows that muggers hide behind trees, probably in them as well–you never know these days. People even complain–Streets and San swears it’s true–because leaves fall on their cars.
There are parts of the southwest side where you can drive blocks at a time–hell, miles–and see scarcely a tree on the street. They have been banished to preserve the sanctity of the sewer pipe. People say–and thus other people believe–that tree roots penetrate sewer connectors in their lust for water, clogging them; pretty soon you’re calling the Roto-Rooter man as often as you floss your teeth. Bylina tries to tell them that tree roots will only enter a pipe that’s already been damaged because it was put in wrong or because the ground settled or because some truck ran over it, but prejudice is immune to correction. “They’ll point to the pipe,” Bylina says, “and say, ‘The tree did it.'”
Bylina says that there’s no point planting a tree in front of a house whose owner doesn’t want one. Big trees get girdled and die when people slice through the vital water-conducting tissues of the outer trunk; small trees are simply uprooted or battered to death by “accidental” bumps from lawn mowers. Such attacks differ from the vandalism inflicted on trees by kids in being premeditated arboricide. (Chicago does have a tree-protection ordinance, but while killing a city tree is more serious than stealing a library book, it is hardly a crime that will bring the cops to the scene with sirens wailing.)
As a result, the city does not automatically replace a dead street tree, indeed plant a tree under any circumstances, until affected property owners request one. (“Why waste a tree?” asks Bylina.) This has led to the near-denuding both of certain middle-class districts and of poor neighborhoods where dwellings are owned by absentees whose ambition is to take green out of the neighborhood, not put it back in.
There are those who say that if the city’s tree-protection ordinance had been strictly enforced in the past, it would have put the Bureau of Forestry out of business. The tree trade has changed over the years in ways that have made it possible to replace skilled humans with machines. (“Cherry picker” cranes are an example; as Lough says, “I doubt if anyone’s climbed a tree on city business in Chicago for 15 years.”) But tree work still demands a surprisingly high level of technical expertise by specialists whom the city has not always thought itself able to afford. Climbing the career ladder with Chicago forestry in the 1980s was riskier than climbing trees, because you were more likely to find yourself out on a limb. In 1979 the bureau employed nearly 600 people; in 1990 it will be staffed by slightly more than 300. More than one person with a forestry degree today works elsewhere in Streets and San’s sprawling empire because there was no money to pay them to do what they were trained for.
Manpower shortages were partly the result of a misapprehension common among the public (including city budget analysts) that tree care is a summertime thing. Bylina wishes they didn’t think that. “We survey for dead, diseased, and dangerous trees in late summer,” he explains. “Ideally, we remove them prior to the following spring. In early May and June, we also must go into concerted tree trimming; that will last all the way through the end of December. This is all in addition to spring and fall planting programs and keeping 400 acres of boulevards manicured.”
Certain economies can be achieved if you take a tree trimmer out of the trees over the winter and put him in a truck. You can usually tell when the guy who trims your tree is the same guy who plows your snow, because he uses the same techniques to do both. The perception endures that city tree crews are staffed by somebody’s cousin who’s too dumb to get a real job, that the guy who works the garbage truck on Wednesday is on the tree crew on Friday. Steve Later recalls that when a neighbor directed a question to a city worker about her injured silver maple, “She wasn’t sure the guy even knew it was a tree.” Stewart recalls that in the pre-Byrne days Chicago’s crews were as good as any commercial firm in the area; today, he says, the city might have to contract some tree work to those same private firms if it wants to do it right.
Bylina admits that training “has not been addressed the way it should be in the last decade,” and has plans to improve it. Chicago doesn’t have the country’s worst big-city tree-care program, but then the U.S. standard isn’t very high. Nationwide, the ratio of trees lost to trees gained these days is about four to one. Three cities in five say they regularly “maintain” their trees–the word must be rendered within quotes, like the word “development” when it’s used by shopping-mall promoters–but only one city in five does so according to any kind of plan. Illinois municipalities outside Chicago are responsible for street trees estimated to be worth more than $3 billion, yet they spend less than 1 percent of their budgets on forestry, and only a handful employ trained foresters.
Apart from a few suburbs, no Illinois town even knows how many trees it has, or what kinds, or what their condition is. Chicago has never made an inventory of all of its public trees. Neither has the Park District, although tree counts are being done for new master plans for Grant and Lincoln parks. “To not know what the needs of the resource are,” explains Stewart, “makes it hard to budget, to set priorities, or to schedule work.” Across the street in Oak Park, for example, tree crews carry hand-held computers into which are fed data about the species, location, condition, planting and pruning history, even the nursery of origin for each of 20,000 street trees; at the end of the day they are down-loaded into the village’s main computer. Residents can even call Dial-a-Tree and get a biography of the tree in front of the house!
Thus as the second Daley era dawned at City Hall, Chicago’s trees were ailing, its Bureau of Forestry was underfunded and demoralized, its streets hotter and uglier than they’d been in years. It is proof of the profound confusion of purpose that had come to prevail at City Hall that the gravest threat to Chicago’s street trees was its own forestry crews. Responding to political pressure to give the more vociferous Chicagoans the kind of urban forest they wanted, the city would, upon the request of adjacent property owners, cut down live, healthy street trees–a remarkable antiforestry program that, until the new Mayor Daley ordered it stopped, was costing the city seven or eight thousand trees a year.
“This tree thing is escalating to dizzying proportions,” says Gerald Adelmann, executive director of the Open Lands Project. One of the reasons is a special program of the project, begun in 1987, called NeighborWoods. Its aim was twofold: to begin the reforestation of Chicago by community-based plantings and tree-care projects, and to prod the public agencies responsible for tending the urban forest into doing a better job.
Do-gooder groups don’t always do much good, but NeighborWoods could hardly help it. Open Lands dubbed it “the steward of Chicagoland’s urban forest,” which was not only presumptuous but reckless for a program that had only one full-time employee and an annual budget of less than $90,000. But the little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dike was understaffed and underfunded too.
“We were losing the urban forest,” Adelmann recalls. Open Lands hired a coordinator, a recent forestry grad named Edith Makra who was then helping a commercial tree-care firm make places like Oak Park and Lake Forest live up to their names. It begged donations and free help from city agencies and local businesses. Projects were to be collaborative, with neighborhood groups providing labor and a share of the money as well as pledging to care for the results for two years.
Requests for projects drew 25 proposals, more than it could possibly support. Three dozen trees did get planted in Little Village, another 130 in Kenwood, 18 at Oz Park, 60 in Brooks Park, 120 on and near Logan Square. In all, more than 1,000 trees went into the ground by the time the 1989 planting season drew to a close.
More than 2,000 volunteers took part, from the Oz Park Advisory Council to the 22nd Ward Youth Organization to the Kenwood Commuters’ Association to various grade schools. The city donated stakes and mulch; at one planting janitors from Saint Anthony’s Hospital on West 19th did the watering. NeighborWoods bought some trees, local banks paid for others, corporate sponsors such as the EJ Gallo Winery paid for some, and many were donated by Morton Arboretum. Kentucky coffee trees were planted, as were gingkoes and amur maples, and red oaks; it was as much a reoranging and a rewhiting as a regreening of these blocks, considering the colors that these species offer in their spring flowers and fall foliage–but who can say “reoranging”?
NeighborWoods attracted certain attention. (In some of these neighborhoods, the sight of kids wielding shovels instead of bats is news.) The program was cited by the National Arbor Day Foundation, the State of Illinois, and the International Society of Arboriculture; more significant, it also attracted the attention of Richard M. Daley, who would later appoint Makra to run his GreenStreets program.
NeighborWoods did not limit its efforts to conventional street tree plantings. Commuter stops were beautified, ethnic groups commemorated, parks repopulated. Typical was the effort to regreen the city’s boulevards. Built mainly in the 1880s and ’90s by a succession of parks agencies, the boulevards form a chain of landscaped drives, an archipelago of parks and squares that form a municipal greenway ringing the old center of the city. In configuration they are linear parks, but their social function is much more complex. In their original form they served as magnets for real estate development, as pleasure drives, as neighborhood recreational centers, as transit links, and as civic space. “The city historically has been a leader in this field,” explains Adelmann. “The whole “City Beautiful’ movement was tied to the Columbian Exposition and the Burnham Plan. In those days small towns looked to big cities like Chicago for inspiration.” So did such big towns as Boston, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C.
Trees were essential to the boulevards. Their shade softened the space, and their shapes defined it. The original formal plantings of symmetrical rows of shade trees had gradually given way to a more parklike mix of shade trees and ornamentals as fashions in landscape design changed; without trees in some arrangement the boulevards were just big streets.
And “without trees” pretty much describes some segments of the system. The Dutch elm disease hit its massed plantings of elms hard. Hundreds more boulevard trees died after the drought of 1988; an irrigation system that might have saved many of them has languished unrepaired for years. Weedy trees such as the ailanthus and mulberry have flourished.
In 1989, the city’s planning department published a blueprint for a restored boulevard system titled “Life Along the Boulevards.” Under the plan, the boulevards would be a catalyst for the revitalization of the neighborhoods that abut them, with landscape improvements being the catalyst for the revitalization of the boulevards.
A preview of that process can be seen along Logan Boulevard. Phil Ihrig of the Logan Boulevard Association explains: “Ten years ago the boulevard lost a lot of fine old trees. Due to budget constraints there had been some neglect by the city too. Not malicious neglect. It’s just that things hadn’t quite been taken care of.” Working with planners from City Hall, neighborhood volunteers had inventoried the surviving trees, with discouraging results; the one-mile stretch of Logan Boulevard between Kedzie and Western alone needed 350 new trees to restore its depleted medians and parkways.
About six years ago various neighborhood organizations began planting trees obtained through one of the Bureau of Forestry’s rare planting programs, at rates of 30 to 50 a year. More recently, NeighborWoods helped organize a two-phase planting. These days the Fire Department helps out, but before that neighbors had to run hoses to the transplants from their own buildings or deliver water via bucket brigades.
Foresters like to say that anyone who puts a tree into the ground is an optimist. The saying used to be a comment on the planter’s chances of living long enough to see the tree in its mature glory, but urban forestry has given it new meaning–nowadays it’s the tree that’s not as likely to survive. Vandals uproot or batter or break off roughly one of every ten new plants in the Logan Square area. “It’s discouraging,” admits Ihrig, “but we can accept those losses as long as we can see that we’re still making progress.” In some other NeighborWoods sites, the attrition rate is one in four.
Dorothy Tillman was asked once why she spent scarce community-development money to fix up her ward’s boulevards. She explained that the people there needed a visible sign of change, some physical evidence that change is possible. If planting a tree in some neighborhoods is a political act, so, one suspects, is killing one.
“That’s not just liberal talk,” insists Adelmann, who argues that planting a tree can give people who don’t have it a sense of ownership in a place. The principal from Spry school overseeing a gaggle of grade-schoolers at a NeighborWoods “tree-in” on Marshall Boulevard last year explained to reporters that if anybody messed with those trees they’d get beaten up.
With reforestation under way in earnest at City Hall, NeighborWoods organizers expect to plant less in coming months and teach more. City people in particular can be remarkably ignorant about how trees work, even that they work; lumping trees with such urban infrastructure as parking meters may be a metaphor to the planner but it’s biology to a lot of kids who don’t realize that trees are living things. “If there ever is going to be a broad appreciation of the importance of ecology within an urban setting,” says Adelmann, “urban forestry will be the key, because often the only contact city people have with nature is trees.”
NeighborWoods would like to establish a demonstration forest somewhere in the city, a place where community people could be trained to do their own planting and maintenance. Morton Arboretum is a first-class facility but physically remote from the city, and the Chicago Botanical Gardens are located in the wilderness outside Glencoe. Such an arboretum might be set up in one of the larger city parks where mature trees of various species are already in place.
Adelmann is quick to point out, however, that NeighborWoods wasn’t conceived as a community program to nurture the urban forest but as a forestry program to nurture communities. The nice thing is that both happen together. One way to look at NeighborWoods is as an orchard whose harvest will be a citywide constituency for trees, what Adelmann calls “pockets of people who care.”
Sappy? You bet.
“In a country like the Netherlands, they wouldn’t have to discuss the benefits of trees,” explains John Dwyer a little testily. “It isn’t an issue. It’s just what’s done.” Dwyer works at the U.S. Forest Service’s North Central Forest Experiment Station on Pulaski Road. He leads a group of researchers whose specialties include forestry in urban settings.
There is much to learn. Historically, foresters have been trained to be servants to the lumber, paper, and recreation industries. When Bill Lough graduated from college some 20 years ago, he fully expected to find himself “out in the woods in Wyoming.” Urban forestry meant ornamental landscaping and parks management. It’s been only in the last 15 years or so that urban forestry has been recognized as a legitimate specialty of the trade; even now there are disputes about what urban forestry is, with some experts pointing to forest preserves as their province, others to the street tree.
Dutch elm disease had something of the same impact on urban forestry studies that Watergate had on journalism schools. Development is another kind of tree-threatening disease, and as surviving stands of woods are cleared in suburban districts, it has become clear that–outside of commercial tree plantations and remote wilderness areas–the urban forest soon may be the only forest we will have left in settled parts of the U.S.
It is not just their rarity that makes trees so precious in the city. As a piece of GreenStreets propaganda puts it, “Trees improve our city’s air quality and liveability. They help reduce home energy costs and enhance property values.” Most people appreciate that; even an alderman knows enough to seek the shade of an oak tree on a hot day. What most people don’t appreciate is how adroitly trees accomplish these miracles. A million medium-size trees in the Los Angeles basin, for example, would collect 200 tons of dust from that city’s freighted air per day. Three big shade trees planted near one’s house can reduce the load carried by its air-conditioning system by 10 to 50 percent. An acre of big trees can also absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide in a year, which makes trees the frontline soldiers in the fight to slow the potentially calamitous buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. City trees are especially useful in that cause, their function being preventative rather than curative. Because carbon dioxide is generated by the combustion of fossil fuels, and since so much energy goes to run air conditioners, a heat-reducing shade tree in the city is believed to be 15 times more effective in reducing atmospheric loading of carbon dioxide than a gas-eating tree growing in a forest.
Trees also muffle traffic noise, soften harsh winds, and cut eye-stabbing glare, all in addition to providing shade. Dwyer says that Julius Caesar planted the first street trees to cool his marching troops, knowing that conquering the world was warm work. For these reasons, houses on tree-lined streets on average fetch prices 20 percent higher than do their twins on treeless streets. Money, it appears, grows on trees after all.
Tree people don’t hesitate to point out the practical benefits of city trees, even when you don’t want them to, but there is often something perfunctory about their recitations. The mayor, for instance, can talk about trees for half an hour and not mention global warming once, but will talk expansively about how trees make the city more human. In fact, tree people sound a lot like school reformers who feel obliged to justify expanded reading instruction for the sake of a more efficient work force when they really believe that kids need to be able to read so they can enjoy Tolstoy someday. They know that trees have social and psychological benefits as well as practical ones.
Put more accurately, the social and psychological benefits of trees are surprisingly practical. Herbert Schroeder is an environmental psychologist with the local USDA research group. Reviewing current research in the field recently, Schroeder concluded that the most important reason to have trees around is the influence they have on people’s moods and feelings. The passive aesthetic pleasure that people take in trees, for example, can have profound effects. In one much-cited study, hospital patients who enjoyed views of trees from their windows recovered from surgery faster and with fewer complaints than did patients whose rooms overlooked brick walls.
Most people consider a tree in full leaf to be pretty to look at. But, says Charles Lewis, a member of the research staff at Morton Arboretum, the appeal of trees in the city is only partly visual. “It goes much deeper than that.” Lewis has spent some 20 years studying how people respond to the presence of plants in their environments. He notes that the constant bombardment of sensation we endure in a big city is so intense that the human brain would reel in confusion were it open to all of it. Making one’s way along even a familiar street would be as disorienting in its way as attempting an arctic crossing in a blizzard. “You’d be so distracted you’d never get to where you wanted to go. So the mind discriminates. Those signals, visual and aural, that the brain needs to help you get from here to there, it notices. The rest are screened out.”
That screening mechanism becomes fatigued under the sensory assault of the city. “That’s part of the stress of being in a big urban area,” Lewis explains. Vegetation such as trees, however, is registered by the brain as a benign presence, a source of neither information nor (just as significant) danger. “Trees don’t need to be screened out. They provide rest for that part of the brain that does the screening. The mere presence of vegetation, in other words, helps us cope with the strain of living in the city.”
Trees, the tree huggers sing, can hug back. Trees have been proposed by responsible grown-ups as crime preventers and anxiety reducers. In Europe they are being planted in schoolyards so that city children may experience the silence, the solitude, the communion with living things that used to be available, indeed unavoidable, in a rural existence. Researchers even posit a universal, ancestral appetite for the company of trees that can be traced back to the days when protohumans stalked the African plains–an environment whose sparse groves of deciduous trees standing on a carpet of grass are the mother of the modern park. “I don’t think that’s been proved,” says Schroeder. “I don’t know that it can be proved. But it’s certainly plausible.”
Is it possible that social scientists, perhaps for the first time, have not missed the forest for the trees? Is it possible that the mandate for urban forestry in the 1990s is no longer to make our cities safe for trees, but to make our cities safe for us?
Edith Makra is a certified arborist, a tree nut with sap in her blood who was transplanted from the NeighborWoods staff by Mayor Daley to be his special assistant for urban forestry in charge of GreenStreets. She’s a lean, mean planting machine; people who know her report that if Edith Makra says that the city of Chicago will be reforested by 1992, the rest of us might as well start getting out our rakes.
“I have a personal mission to change the face of Chicago,” Makra says, with characteristic understatement. “We want to hold onto what we have, first of all, then get caught up on our losses through special efforts.” Those efforts will have to be very special indeed if GreenStreets is to achieve a net gain of 500,000 trees by 1992, but it’s a challenge Makra relishes. (When, upon arriving at City Hall, she learned that ill-considered policies were unnecessarily losing the city maybe 10,000 trees a year, she actually was a little disappointed; as she says, “I hoped to be able to save a lot more trees.”) Makra doesn’t think that half a million trees is too many in a city whose public lands alone could accommodate as many as 600,000. “And don’t forget, there are 400,000 single-family houses in Chicago with backyards,” she adds. “Everybody ought to have one tree. Not necessarily a big tree, but something.”
Makra graduated from the University of Illinois’ forestry program in 1984 and like most neophytes found herself up a tree, doing trimming for a commercial tree-care firm. (In forestry, young people start at the top and work their way down.) NeighborWoods at least got her back on solid ground; GreenStreets put her behind a desk.
Makra points out that GreenStreets is not a new forestry program–Chicago already has one of those–but a coordinating program. “We don’t have a model for what we’re trying to do,” she says. Reviving the city’s own forestry operations in planting and maintenance will be augmented by a variety of public-private projects that will include plantings, public education, and fund-raising. Last fall some 3,000 street trees were planted by community groups and block clubs and another 7,000 white fir seedlings were given away for yard plantings; the trees were paid for by donations from investment house Bear Stearns, FMC Corporation, and Kraft General Foods. Another big planting is being organized for downtown with the Central Area Committee, the Chicago Development Council, and nearly two dozen developers.
The approach assumes a continuing paucity of public resources. A new fund was recently established by the 75-year-old Chicago Community Trust, which disburses 30 to 40 million dollars a year from more than 250 separate funds endowed for civic improvements. An endowment for Chicago trees called the Urbs in Horto Fund will generate income to fund tree projects by public or not-for-profit agencies potentially ranging from tree plantings to workshops to the purchase of open space. The first donation to the fund was in the form of a personal check from Richard M. Daley.
GreenStreets further assumes that civic and corporate interests coincide on the matter of trees. Peter Fox, senior managing director of Bear Stearns, explains that his firm gave $25,000 to GreenStreets partly because it has a good chance of working–every Chicago boss believes in backing winners–and partly because “We live in the city and we’d like to see more trees.”
City trees as an economic development tool is, like their healing benefits, one of those things that everybody knows to be true but can’t prove; the people who run the world are mostly suburban in values if not in residence, and have a certain expectation of trees. Public education when it comes to trees is mainly a matter of teaching people what they already know. The job also will require a certain amount of cheerleading, sweet-talking, arm-twisting, and problem solving; one of the mayor’s directives to Makra was to find ways to put trees on the new White Sox stadium parking lot.
GreenStreets in short expresses the new urban forestry ethic, which may be summarized this way: rather than plant a tree only where one is required, plant one anywhere something else doesn’t have to be. NeighborWoods envisioned new trees in short-lived “mini-groves” on vacant land awaiting redevelopment in blighted areas, and trees as part of what Adelmann calls a “new generation of parks,” of a different scale and character from the grand classical parks.
Makra is able to think even bigger. “We’ve got 28 miles of boulevards alone,” she points out. “You can plant things on a boulevard you can’t plant other places,” she says. “Flowering trees like plums, or trees that grow too tall or too wide to use as street trees.” She sees miles of spring blossom and fall color, and if you ask she will remind you that in Washington, D.C., one of the things people like to do best each spring is walk around and look at trees.
Derelict land (a category that, sadly, includes many city parks), college and corporate campuses, and factory grounds are among other potential planting sites; the city of Saint Louis has even ripped up seven acres of sidewalk to make room for more trees. Transit corridors are an especially tempting target. Daley likes to talk about adding trees to the expressways, some stretches of Amtrak and Metra tracks, and the roads in and out of O’Hare. Such plantings (ornamentals probably, such as the spring-flowering hawthorns and crab apples, although some shade trees might work too) would be a welcoming gesture more cost-effective than a hundred glossy brochures in making out-of-towners remember Chicago as something more than an Akron with a lake.
Makra hasn’t the time to reforest Chicago the way nature might, by dropping a seed here and there and hoping for the best. At the same time, GreenStreets will not attempt to plant trees en masse, the way so many parks and boulevards were planted a century ago. The boulevards were built mile by mile; the plan assembled by the Department of Planning assumes that restoration must proceed–if it proceeds–block by block. The model for what GreenStreets might do is not Burnham but places like Boston. There, more than four miles of abandoned transit corridor were redesigned as three separate segments, each designed by different architects working closely with affected neighborhood groups. The result is a linked series of forested plazas, playgrounds, and parks that Landscape Architecture magazine called “discombobulated but useful.”
The resources the city can bring to bear, both directly and indirectly, are enormous. At NeighborWoods, putting a tree into the ground meant picking up a shovel; at GreenStreets it’s a matter of picking up the phone. “I worked my butt off for two years to get a thousand trees planted with NeighborWoods,” she says. “I got 10,000 planted in two months this fall with GreenStreets.” Only two or three city departments do not, as Makra put it, play with soil. An autumn planting on Logan Square used stakes and wood-chip mulch supplied by the Bureau of Forestry, water delivered by the Fire Department, and holes dug by–you’ll never guess–the Bureau of Rodent Control. “When I first looked at a list of city departments that might do us some good, I wouldn’t have picked Rodent Control,” admits Makra with a laugh. “But they sent over a chain gang of guys working off drunk-driving sentences who were very useful.
“The mayor is very much personally committed to this program,” says Makra, which means City Hall denizens can be clouted into cooperation. But even a mayor’s influence is limited outside City Hall. Big developers, like most home owners, have learned that trees are an amenity that pays for itself. But managers of most other kinds of property still regard trees as nuisances. For example, all that most right-of-way managers know about trees, Makra charges, is how to kill them. The attitude was summed up (perhaps apocryphally) by a veteran Park District administrator now retired, who liked to remind importunate defenders of nature that you can have too much green.
In other words, forestry is a hard sale. The most successful urban forestry programs tend to have people in charge who are (as Milwaukee’s Bob Skiera has been described) real go-getters. New York City’s recently departed parks commissioner held a public funeral complete with Verdi’s Requiem for four London plane trees butchered there. Makra’s persuasiveness is more personal in style than public, but no less effective. “I was impressed,” reports a corporate type. “Edith sort of inspired me,” confesses a neighborhood type. “The most encouraging thing is that the mayor saw fit to put somebody like Edith on his staff,” asserts a professional type.
Daley gave Makra a tricky mandate. She is not only to plant trees but to (as he puts it) “knock heads” at City Hall. Makra is an odd blend of Pollyanna and pol. Joel Weisman of WGN dubbed her the city’s “tree czarina,” a term that suggests her impatience if not her power, which derives solely from the mayor’s enthusiasm. Her use of the royal “we” in describing forestry programs of the Park District and Streets and Sanitation seems to rankle some veterans. “She coordinates special projects but she has nothing to do with ongoing programs,” explains one Streets and San veteran in tones a combat platoon leader might use to describe the USO.
“We’re not up to speed yet,” is all Makra will say about City Hall’s own efforts to overcome low budgets and bad morale. It would not be surprising that in a city where courts are presided over by judges indifferent to justice and where schools are run by educators who don’t care to teach, the forestry operation might harbor people who don’t like trees. Nonetheless, both the city and the Park District have capable and dedicated people on their tree staffs. The problem has been that there aren’t enough of them, or they have no power, or they don’t stay very long. If they differ from Makra it isn’t by not caring about trees but by not caring exclusively about trees.
Still, concludes a disinterested John Dwyer from his post on Pulaski, “It can go. For it to work, Streets and San has got to make it work, and Edith doesn’t work for Streets and San. But they both work for the mayor.”
Actually, planting half a million trees by 1992 may be, if anything, too easy. “We don’t want to have a planting frenzy,” Makra says, “with people sticking trees into the ground everywhere that end up dead in two years.” The program by Los Angeles’s Tree People to plant a million trees in time for the 1984 Olympic games proved to be both a smashing success and an embarrassing failure; a million trees were indeed planted, but nearly all of them died. “A valuable lesson for this program,” says Makra, sounding like NASA after Challenger.
You can’t have a planting frenzy if you don’t have anything to plant, however. Earth Day organizers have set a target of a billion new trees worldwide; the American Forestry Association’s Global ReLeaf project aims at 100 million new city trees in the U.S. by 1992. Illinois’ Department of Transportation is already under instruction from the General Assembly to plant trees along the state’s highways “where appropriate.” But that’s nothing compared to the plan to provide a new tree for every one of the state’s 11 million citizens; toward that end, Illinois’ Department of Conservation will be giving away 165,000 white pine seedlings to the state’s third-graders in April, and the state EPA will distribute 300,000 packets of redbud tree seeds.
“There’s going to be a shortage of trees, no doubt about it,” frets Makra. Of course, counting trees can be done as creatively as counting votes. Any of DOC’s pine seedlings that find their way into Chicago backyards no doubt will be counted toward GreenStreets’ target, and vice versa. As Gertrude Stein once was heard to say as she pruned an unruly dogwood, a tree is a tree is a tree.
M.W. Newman has been the Harriet Beecher Stowe of Chicago’s trees, raging at their enslavement and mistreatment for years as reporter and columnist. Newman was once moved to poetry on behalf of the ailanthus, China’s “tree of heaven.” The tree that grew in Brooklyn grows in Chicago too, of course; Newman called it Chicago’s family tree. To the urban forester, such enthusiasm for what the most generous among them decry as a weed is twaddle, akin to the romanticization of subway graffitists as artists. A surprising variety of trees, real trees, will grow in Chicago, given half a chance.
In fact, the possibilities for tree growing on this shore have been increased by building. A big city offers a continent’s worth of growing environments crammed into a very small space, from concrete canyons buried in perpetual shade to exposed plazas as hellish as any desert. Moving from the lakefront to any point two miles inland takes you the equivalent of 200 miles, climatologically speaking; because of the moderating effect of the water on winter temperatures, the winter climate near Lake Michigan more closely resembles that of Springfield, 200 miles to the south, than it does the climate of Schaumburg. The trees that GreenStreets is making available include such delicate species as would find life in the remoter wards as uncertain as would any pampered North Shore dowager.
But it isn’t only the weather that makes Chicago a tough town for a tree. City air is no healthier for trees than it is for people, and its soil often isn’t worth dirt. A city park or boulevard only looks like a forest; tree roots there are covered not by a blanket of leaf litter but by grassy turf that steals nutrients and invites human foot traffic that compacts the soil. The street is a more punishing environment still. Standing too far apart to shade each other, trees on the street actually get more light than they would if they stood in open fields, in the form of “bounce light” delivered from nearby reflective surfaces. Their roots are often pinched by buried pipes or poisoned by ice-melting salts applied to pavements nearby.
Sixty-five years ago, Chicago city planner Myron West lamented that street trees “are subjected to every imaginable abuse and neglect.” That any lived at all, he wrote, was “a striking example of the tenacity with which trees cling to life.” A tree planted in the shadow of a skyscraper will develop more branches and larger leaves than it would in a sunny spot, indeed will even turn its leaves so as to maximize their exposure to whatever light is available.
The ignorant may be forgiven for thinking that trees are indestructible. Consider the plight of what are sometimes called sidewalk trees, or trees planted in holes dug into the pavement. Such holes are usually sodden in April and parched by August; in between they act like sinks that collect pollutants, from salt to motor oil. And a balled-and-burlapped transplant must cope with such conditions after having had as much as 90 percent of its root system lopped off back at the nursery. Imagine Saul Bellow banished to Bolingbrook or Jonathon Brandmeier stuck in a library job and you have imagined life as a sidewalk tree.
Of Chicago’s nearly 440,000 street trees, only about 2,000 are sidewalk trees. (The rest grow on parkways and boulevards.) However, the very barrenness of their settings gives them an importance out of proportion to their numbers. “A tree planted downtown won’t be healthy,” concedes Makra, “but they make such a difference.”
Sadly, trees are not safe anywhere. Construction and utility crews chop up roots; Makra estimates that the city’s sidewalk-repair program costs about 50 trees a year. Weed killers can sicken, even kill a tree; picnickers dump live charcoals against the trunks of park trees. Makra says that the Chicago Park District loses maybe 2,000 young trees every year to mower damage. “We spend taxpayers’ money to plant trees,” she complains, “then we pay guys $20 an hour to kill them. That’s pretty stupid.”
Mike Stankovich, Oak Park’s city forester, says that a shade tree that lives in a park for 50 to 60 years can be expected to last on a parkway strip only 20 to 30 years; that same tree placed in a sidewalk planting hole will usually be dead in 10.
Like any captive population, city trees must conform to the social expectations of their oppressors. Older varieties of crab apple trees were banished from parkways in many towns because they dropped putrefying fruit onto sidewalks. Flowering trees that shed big juicy petals onto sidewalks have also been nixed, often by lawyers worried about slip-and-fall injury suits. Edith Makra reports that planting a Norway maple–a tree whose shade is so dense that grass struggles to grow beneath it–is like lighting up a cigar at a party; you can be certain that somebody will eventually demand that you get rid of the damned thing. Trees planted beneath power lines must not grow too tall (they snag power lines), trees planted in front of fancy buildings can’t be too dense (they hide expensive architecture), trees planted near el stops can’t be too bushy (they hide the muggers).
Human bigotry toward tree species is comprehensive. Consider the Catalpa bignonoides. Tough as a linebacker in spite of its graceful white flower, the catalpa is something of a slob. Its leaves are large, which means it makes a mess in the fall. Worse, it drops 18-inch seed pods that earned it the nickname “cigar tree,” thus offending people whose idea of the perfect lawn is a pool table after the last ball has been sunk. “I have a high tolerance for things that drop off trees,” Makra says defiantly. “It’s just that many more things to kick around and play with.” Catalpa is not on Makra’s list of GreenStreets trees nevertheless, although she would not shrink from planting one on, say, a CTA right-of-way.
Fortunately nature has anticipated urban forestry’s needs by producing trees in almost every imaginable size, shape, and habit. Finding the right tree for the right spot is difficult, or at least seems to be, since it is so often poorly done. Commonwealth Edison for example is obliged to spend millions of dollars each year “trimming” trees that tangle its overhead electrical-transmission lines. “You wouldn’t think a town would plant a tree knowing that ten years down the road the utility is going to have to cut a hole in it,” says Paul Appelt, Com Ed’s forester. “But politicians give people what they want, and the public wants tall-growing trees–even if they never get tall.”
Through decades of trial and error, the profession has come up with a dozen or so species that meet the demands of the city environment in this part of the country. Trees such as the pin oak, the shagbark hickory, the linden, and the sugar maple are the arboreal equivalent of the high school student council. They are polite, well-adjusted, eager to please, what Makra damns as “neat, plain, green trees.” “They’re real trees,” Makra adds, being kind, “but they’re not everything a tree could be.”
If ever one tree could be considered everything a tree could be, it is the American elm–an upright brancher of orderly habit, with smallish leaves that throw a shade that is neither too dense nor too light. The American elm is remarkably long-lived too. The elm was originally a swamp tree, accustomed to life in thin, oxygen-poor soils; it can last 70 years on parkway strips that stress lesser trees to early declines. No other tree matches it as a shade tree for parks and parkways, and it is hardly planted anymore.
The reason of course is the Dutch elm disease. The disease (often referred to by the apt acronym DED) is caused by a fungus that reproduces in the water-conducting tissues of the tree. It is spread mainly by the European elm bark beetle, although the fungus is Asian in origin. The disease was first reported in Illinois in 1950 in downstate Coles County; by 1959 it had spread to every Illinois county and had already destroyed 80 percent of the original elm populations in central and southern Illinois.
While the disease worked its way north, Illinois municipalities in advance of the blight had time to mount counterattacks. Healthy trees were sprayed (or, later, inoculated) to kill the beetles, and towns were “sanitized” much the way a surgeon sanitizes a gangrenous leg–by sawing it off. The dismemberment of thousands of these majestic trees removed the inoculum of the fungus and also the nest sites of the beetles, but the costs were high in both trees and money. Virtually the whole forestry budget in many towns was spent fighting Dutch elm disease, usually to no avail.
What the world needs is a disease-resistant elm just like the elms that sheltered dear old Dad. Such a miracle tree would be the arboreal equivalent of a Republican with a social conscience, a thing to be treasured for its usefulness as well as its novelty. American elms that are relatively naturally resistant to DED do exist; they’re the ones down the street that aren’t dead yet. (Some of Grant Park’s elms seem to be resistant.)
The very hardiest elm varieties, however, are found abroad, in Europe and especially in Asia. All the elms of China are naturally resistant to Dutch elm disease after long exposure to it, since the fungus, Ceratocystis ulmi, evolved in that part of the world. Researchers across the country have taken up the search, including Dr. George Ware, director of research at Morton Arboretum. For years Ware has been patiently prowling the forests of the globe, pollinating, taking cuttings, collecting seed. “I’ve been to China three times,” he explains. “I’ve found three elms that I like,” including one that shows particular promise as a street tree. “It’s rather like a mini-American elm. It will fit under power lines, and it copes well with clay. It’s taken me six to eight years to get them to where they will seed; I’ll be able to distribute them in a year or so.”
Over the years, Ware has made a couple of dozen varieties of his experimental elms available to municipalities and other institutions (including neighborhood groups) around Chicago so they might be planted in real city conditions. Some now dwell on a north-campus urban-renewal site at the University of Chicago. “There’s a lot of rubble in the soil left over from demolition,” notes Richard Bumstead, the school’s planner. “But the tree seems to be doing well there. It has great promise as a good urban tree. We’re so pleased that we’ve asked for 12 more for the spring.”
Alas, most city trees don’t live long enough to succumb to disease. Most plant breeders prize beauty or convenience in a tree before toughness. But a really successful sidewalk tree in particular needs to be something of a weed, able to exploit the degraded environments available to it. Like the common buckthorn. “It’s perfect,” enthuses Makra. “You can’t kill it!”
Common buckthorn is a Eurasian native, like so many of our weeds. It is a prodigious producer of seeds, which are spread in bird droppings. Once sprouted, it will quickly crowd out better-behaved native plants, and has become a scourge in Illinois’ natural areas. The volunteer stewards who help tend such preserves spend many a weekend burning and slashing and poisoning buckthorn; to them, the notion of deliberately planting it anywhere this side of hell is like bringing home termites as house pets.
George Ware doesn’t think buckthorn is such a loony idea. “It’s a coper,” he acknowledges. “When seen in the urban picture, buckthorn is pretty nice.” Ware notes that a buckthorn has adorned the Sears store at the Oakbrook shopping center for something like 30 years, evolving into what Ware praises as a “stable, bonsai-type tree.”
“The ecology-minded are fearful of its spread, of course,” Ware adds. “But male plants can be planted that will produce pollen but no seeds. Such nonfruiting forms are no real threat.” Ware has already identified male buckthorns growing wild on the grounds at Morton that seem especially promising candidates for the job; propagation from cuttings should begin next spring.
Such Eliza Dolittle-type transformations are common in the tree business. Look at the honey locust. The honey locust is to downtown Chicago what the pine is to Maine. Daley Plaza, the First National Bank Plaza, the State Street Mall are all shaded by honey locusts. The tree is wind resistant. Its tiny leaves make a light shade that cools without obscuring the buildings the trees stand in front of. (Architects love it.) It’s a quick grower and tolerant of salts in the soil and dirt in the air.
In its native form the branches of the honey locust are thorned and bear seed pods up to a foot long. But naturally thornless and podless honey locusts were known, and some trees had been found that had neither thorns nor pods. Such eccentrics occur naturally as a result of genetic variability, and they provided the stock from which the commercially significant honey locusts have been produced.
But even the honey locust is not the ultimate city tree. No single species could be, since heavy plantings of any one species are inherently vulnerable to epidemic disease. The city no longer plants any one block with trees of the same species as a protection against such disasters, but that may not be enough; some foresters worry that Chicago has been planted too heavily with maples, ash, and honey locust, leaving those populations vulnerable to some as-yet-unrecognized scourge. Downstate cities for instance are monitoring an outbreak of a fungal disease called anthracnose, or twig blight, that has stunted the growth of the thousands of sycamores they planted to replace their dead elms.
“Most urban forestry departments aim to have no one genus represent more than 15 percent of its trees,” explains Oak Park’s Mike Stankovich. Its name notwithstanding, 95 percent of the street trees in pre-DED Oak Park were elms. At the peak of the outbreak the town was losing 1,500 mature trees a year. Today elms make up only 25 percent of the town’s tree inventory, which includes no fewer than 80 species. The bulk of its 20,000 street trees are one of the dozen standard species, however.
Chicago’s forest unfortunately is not only potentially vulnerable to disease, but Chicagoans are vulnerable to boredom. The University of Chicago decided to buy its own trees for the parkways near the center of its campus, thank you very much, because the trees made available by the city were not up to the Hyde Park standard. “The choice hasn’t been wide,” says campus planner Bumstead. “We say, ‘This is what we want’ and they say, ‘This is what we’ve got.'”
What the city’s got is trees like ash. “It’s a good, quick, green fix,” says Bumstead, trying to be polite. “But its rapid growth makes it a weaker tree than we like, because it causes maintenance problems down the road.” (Not to mention on the road.) “It’s acceptable in certain situations,” such as the fringe areas of campus. In more conspicuous spots on the campus the university wishes to achieve what Bumstead calls “a certain aesthetic”; there it resorts to tulip trees and Turkish hazelnuts and some of the newer Bradford pears. Milton envisioned academe planted in olive trees rather than pears, but sadly Olea europaea is not hardy as far north as Zone Five.
“I can say that forestry in Chicago is on the road to recovery,” pledges bureau chief Steve Bylina. “I intend to make it the best program in the U.S.”
The recent flowering of interest in forestry has left the old hands in the bureau understandably giddy. That 25 percent budget boost for 1990 sent the sap rising throughout the bureau. Last fall crews were out catching up on their low-branch trimming after a hiatus of 12 years, and this year will begin a proper cyclic trimming program in which every city tree will be tidied up routinely once every six years. Bylina also plans to upgrade the nursery operation at O’Hare and to expand the fleet of cherry pickers. “By the mid-1990s we plan to have 30 to 35 towers on the street on any given day,” he promises. “That’s a considerable tree resource by any city’s standard.”
Training is to be improved too. Bylina plans to identify training agents within the department who will be sent to schools to learn the essentials of tree care; those agents will return and conduct in-house, hands-on training for work crews. “We plan to hold the training agents responsible for the trimmers’ ability to do the job,” Bylina says. Home study courses are also available from the National Arborists Association; says Bylina, “We may make that part of the job too.”
What goes on outside Bylina’s bureau matters as much as what happens inside it. “We see trees not just as beautification but as infrastructure,” says Adelmann of Open Lands, but not everyone does. Planners, traffic engineers, and street-maintenance crews have generally regarded trees as a nuisance. Bylina says he will seek more of a say in planning and construction decisions. “If we don’t, we end up butting heads down the line.” Digging stumps, too. Not long ago a street was resurfaced and widened on the northwest side. When the grade changed as a result, a dozen big trees were killed and others were seriously injured. As Makra puts it, “It was a serious screwup on the part of the city.”
Opinion surveys cited by Herb Schroeder suggest that the things that ordinary people like about their neighborhoods are not always the things that are officially considered relevant to zoning and planning decisions. Trees is one of them. Herb Schroeder has suggested that a “scenic beauty index” could be built into street-tree data bases. Unlike a tree inventory, which shows where trees are, such an index would show where trees ought to be. Such an index would not only guide tree planting programs but would be helpful when streets are rebuilt after widenings or repairs by providing space in advance for trees.
When foresters daydream about the perfect urban forestry program, they usually imagine something like Milwaukee’s (“If I could make Chicago forestry as good as Milwaukee’s I’d be a very happy woman,” admits Makra). However, the better model–in climate, size, and problems–is probably New York City. Bill Lough’s crews are responsible for a staggering 2.7 million public trees. (New York’s five boroughs have as many street trees as Chicago has street, park, and boulevard trees put together.) Like Chicago’s, New York’s urban forest suffers from age and pollution and neglect, and Lough’s department is losing two trees for every one it can put into the ground.
Lough knows both cities, and says that as a place to grow trees Chicago has its advantages. There is more room for trees to grow, fewer overhead power lines, a just-get-it-done tradition in city government, and (perhaps most important) a high proportion of housing occupied by the people who own it.
What New York enjoys that Chicago doesn’t yet is a tradition of citizen involvement through organizations like the Street Tree Consortium, a tradition that is rooted in New Yorkers’ almost custodial attitude toward their trees. “We can’t get what we need from the city,” Lough complains. So what he can’t buy he begs or borrows. The Street Tree Consortium raises money for special projects and lobbies the city for tree programs. More remarkably, Lough has at his command some 2,000 citizen tree trimmers, volunteers who have taken one-day training courses and who take care of much of the necessary pruning of younger trees, freeing up Lough’s staff for other chores.
“We can’t depend on City Hall to do it either,” says Adelmann. Of the new trees that will contribute toward GreenStreets’ goal of a half million net gain in trees, only about 10 percent will be planted as a result of the city’s routine forestry operations. As for Washington, the federal government under Reagan was more eager to sell forests than plant them, and Bush looks to be no better, his name notwithstanding. The heavy work will have to be done by the private sector, citizen groups both individual and corporate. “Who would have known that this Daley would be so passionate about trees?” asks Adelmann. Who knows that the next mayor won’t be?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.