Morton Arboretum awards $6.8M for urban forestry projects in 22 priority Illinois communities – Chicago Tribune

On any summer day, no matter how hot, Tom Tomschin can sit comfortably on his porch and enjoy the pleasant shade of his front yard.

“My neighbors always want to park under my tree,” said the longtime Cicero resident and executive director of the town’s Department of Housing.

Tomschin and other town officials expect more locals will have coveted and much-needed access to shade in the coming year as a new project aims to plant 500 trees and develop an urban forestry management plan for the west suburb of Chicago.

Cicero is one of 22 Illinois communities that will collectively receive nearly $6.9 million in federal funding to plant and care for more than 1,800 trees in disadvantaged communities across the state, the Morton Arboretum announced Monday. A tree canopy is crucial to public and environmental health by cooling high urban temperatures, supporting biodiverse ecosystems, reducing flooding and cleaning dirty air.

The arboretum, which received 61 applications for more than $14 million, will administer the almost $7 million through their Chicago Region Trees Initiative, or CRTI, using U.S. Forest Service Inflation Reduction Act funds and under the direction of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Awarded communities, which include the city of Chicago and the Chicago Park District, will also use these funds over the next four years to complete tree inventories, collectively prune over 500 trees, remove hundreds of dead or high-risk trees and clear several acres of woody invasive species, as well as provide educational and multilingual resident outreach.

“Doing an inventory of the entire community,” said Zach Wirtz, director of CRTI, “can really help us understand the priorities and then better provide resources to those areas that are considered disadvantaged. … I’m really excited that these grant opportunities have such a strong focus on community engagement because really, what we’re hoping for, are positives for both trees and for people.”

Clean air, cool temps and less flooding

Almost 88% of Cicero’s residents are Hispanic or Latino, according to the most recent census data. The town’s census tracts all score medium-high to high on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index — which refers to demographic and socioeconomic factors like poverty, lack of transportation access and crowded housing that adversely affect communities when they encounter human-made stressors such as pollution.

Part of the $511,200 awarded to the town will be used, Tomschin said, to share with vulnerable residents how the benefits they can reap from a bigger tree canopy “far outweigh” any concerns over perceived drawbacks, such as roots finding their way into the sewer system or gutters being clogged by leaves in the fall.

“Cicero historically has been a lower-middle class, blue-collar community. We once had a huge industrial base here,” Tomschin said. “So we’re surrounded by these industrial sites, landlocked in a highly urban community. And we’re now starting to feel those effects of heat islands and tree discrepancies. … We look to our neighbor to the north, Oak Park. They have an ancestral tree canopy. Why not us?”

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Using the White House’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, the Department of Housing and Urban Development Opportunity Zones Map and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, the arboretum created a map that indicates which census tracts in Illinois are considered overburdened or underserved and therefore disadvantaged by one or more of those standards, making them priorities for funding.

Cicero Public Works employees collect flood-damaged debris in an alley along 57th Avenue, July 6, 2023. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Cicero Public Works employees collect flood-damaged debris in an alley along 57th Avenue, July 6, 2023. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

“There are some blocks in town that have no trees,” Tomschin said of Cicero. “And it’s going to take a lot of work — not only taking the data from that inventory and maintenance plan, but to get buy-in from the community to once we plant the tree in front of their house.”

Besides helping purify dirty air, which became a concern for many city folks and suburbanites since Canadian wildfires blew smoke into the Midwest and other parts of the United States last summer, tree canopies can alleviate extremely high temperatures that are worsened by concrete and gray infrastructure absorbing and retaining heat.

Trees also absorb rainwater into their roots and allow it to more easily infiltrate the soil, which can prevent flooding — a salient issue for Cicero residents, whose streets and basements flooded multiple times during heavy rains last summer. In a July 2 storm that swept through the area, the town recorded 8.6 inches of precipitation.

“The more trees you have, the more roots that are taking that water out of the ground. If we can make room for more water, the better,” Tomschin said. “I’ve lived here my entire life, and we’ve had at least four horrendous flooding events. … Climate change is real. They used to happen every 20 years. Now, they happen, it seems like, every three or four (years).”

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After those floods in early July, a Cicero resident told the Tribune she lost furniture, appliances and family mementos when water in her basement reached waist-high in just one hour.

“The devastation around the neighborhood — it was just unbelievable,” Shapearl Wells said back then. “Until we have investment in (green) infrastructure, this is going to continue to happen and we’re going to continue to get flooded out.”

Green infrastructure in urban planning entails making space for parks, rain gardens and trees that can withstand torrential precipitation and more frequent storms.

Next steps

Taking stock of what’s out there will allow officials from different communities — from suburban to inner-city Chicago and other parts of Illinois — to understand where the strategic placement of trees or the maintenance of existing ones can yield the best results.

Tomschin said the next step for Cicero will be to perform a tree inventory or census and a management plan, for which the town will seek a certified arborist.

“We’re hoping to have a contractor consultant selected and the inventory done by the fall,” Tomschin said. “So that way, come spring when it’s the perfect time to start planting, we can start getting out there with the community to get trees in the ground.”

“Good things are on our horizon,” he added.

In the city, the Chicago Park District will receive almost $1.5 million to support an inventory across its parks that will inform future plantings in identified priority areas.

“If you can imagine, the Park District’s tree canopy is made up of 250,000 trees,” said General Superintendent and CEO Rosa Escareño. “What’s interesting about this is that we’ve been using this number for a long time, and I think for us, it’s so important to understand what our tree canopy is truly made up of. We want more data on how we can not only continue to nurture and maintain the canopy that we have but, data on the condition of our trees, the type of trees, the life of our trees.”

Escareño said this updated knowledge will become instrumental to policy- and decision-making in the future. Almost 9,000 acres of parkland make the Chicago Park District one of the biggest municipal park districts in the country, she said, a fact that demands investment in pressing climate issues.

“We have a responsibility to do this,” she said.

Receiving $3 million, the city of Chicago was the biggest awardee for the current round of grants.

“We know that in large cities like Chicago, we often overlook the benefits of green space despite these natural resources being the best ally we have in the fight to address climate change,” Mayor Brandon Johnson said in a news release Monday.

The other communities selected by the Morton Arboretum for awards include the city of Belvidere and the Belvidere Park District, Blue Island, Bolingbrook Park District, Burbank, Effingham, Elgin, Franklin Park, Hazel Crest, Hillside, Normal, Peoria, Roselle Park District, Round Lake Area Park District, Skokie Park District, the village of Streamwood and the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County.

“Every community is going to be a little bit different, with their schedule,” Wirtz said. “And some communities will move faster than others, depending on what their current capacity looks like. Each community did turn in a proposed timeline with their application. … Our staff members are going to meet with every one of these awardees on a quarterly basis.”

The Arboretum will continue awarding funds to nonprofits and government entities, from municipalities, townships and county governments to conservation districts, park districts, schools and other community-based organizations. Applications for a total of $7.9 million in their Tree Equity Grants for Disadvantaged Communities through additional IRA funding are now open until Sept. 13. Those awards will be available for a minimum of $25,000 and a maximum of $500,000.

Urban forestry grants for community-based organizations within t Chicago — including its tree ambassador program partnership with the arboretum, Our Roots Chicago — will also be announced in the coming weeks, Wirtz said.

“The arboretum has been doing urban and community forestry grants like this for a number of years, so we’re familiar with the process and we’re definitely ready to take this on,” he said. “But this is a large project. The IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) has brought this great influx of funding to urban forestry across the U.S., and we’re really happy to be a part of that. … And we’re ready to take on this adventure with these communities.”

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