Trees flourish at Douglass Park in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood on April 13, 2021. | Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Efforts to make the West Side more lush and green may soon benefit from funds set aside in the city’s budget to make sure Black and Latino neighborhoods get their fair share of trees.

The city’s budget devotes $46 million to tree equity, which prioritizes tree planting in historically marginalized neighborhoods. There is a visible disparity between neighborhoods like Lawndale, where trees can be scarce, and North Side neighborhoods like North Center, where the public way is rich with trees, flowers and greenery.

The city funding also will support greening initiatives already set in motion by local communities.

One such effort is the TREEmendous Lawndale campaign, an initiative to double the tree canopy in North Lawndale over the next 10 years. TREEmendous Lawndale aims to use greening efforts for beautification and to tackle heftier issues like public safety, community health, stormwater damage and climate issues.

Bringing more trees to the neighborhood can transform North Lawndale by making it more walkable and improving people’s physical and mental health, said Carolyn Vessel, CEO of I AM ABLE Center for Family Development. The process of planting and nurturing trees also makes people feel more calm and more plugged in to their community, Vessel said.

“It has to do with air quality, breathing, as well as beauty within the community,” Vessel said. “A tree is a life-giving entity. We want to use it to push living over dying. We can take all this and use it as a learning tool, teaching people about replanting, starting over, how to take care of that baby tree.”

The CTA Green Line train tracks extend adjacent to Garfield Park on Nov. 22, 2021. | Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

TREEmendous Lawndale was created by the GROWSS committee of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, an arm of the neighborhood group focused on greenery, community gardens, outdoor spaces and food justice.

The campaign was also planned with public safety benefits in mind, Vessel said. A 2001 University of Illinois study of the Ida B. Wells housing project on the South Side found buildings surrounded by trees and foliage had 56 percent fewer incidents of violence and 48 percent less property crime than nearby buildings where trees had been removed.

The tree canopy offers residents a “place of healing to sit and have a respite and time together” with others in the community, Vessel said. The opportunity to connect with others in the neighborhood and the mental health benefits of the added greenery can serve to deescalate tensions before they come to a head, Vessel said.

“We look at it as an anti-violence initiative where people can sit and start to talk again. Where children can play and have fun again. Life takes on a new meaning when people can plant trees and be responsive for helping them grow and develop,” Vessel said.

Improving the greenery in the neighborhood was one of the goals laid out in the North Lawndale Quality-of-Life Plan, a community-led blueprint for addressing issues like health, public safety and education. Those planning efforts and the TREEmendous Lawndale campaign have set the stage for the city to allocate additional investments into projects that already have community buy-in, said Carolyn O’Boyle, program director for the Trust for Public Land and a member of the GROWSS Committee.

“The community’s wishes are already documented. It helps to guide the city’s work but it also helps to unify the community,” O’Boyle said. “The city’s efforts and the community’s efforts are mutually reinforcing.”

TREEendous Lawndale takes a multi-prong approach to boosting the tree canopy. The project has pushed for more public investment while encouraging individual residents, business owners and investors to plant trees on their properties and include trees in developments in the area.

Another strategy is to win over “the hearts and minds” of residents by raising awareness and educating people about the benefits of trees. The group has coordinated field trips to the Morton Arboretum to get people excited about trees, and it is organizing a monthly series of tree-related actions and programs.

“It starts with appreciation, and it moves to action,” O’Boyle said.

Community participation will also be key to ensuring the success of the city’s investment into the trees, O’Boyle said.

Since August, the city’s public health department has brought neighborhood groups together in a tree equity working group to develop a community site selection tool. The tool allows the city and local groups to examine data on the tree canopy, air quality, land surface temperatures, economic hardship and other factors to determine which areas should be prioritized and how the city will roll out the tree plantings when the plan is implemented.

“One of the things we don’t want to do is interrupt progress. … All of these community organizations have already been doing this. This is our opportunity to fill in any gaps,” said Raed Mansour, director for the office of innovation at the city’s health department.

The tree equity investment and other climate-related programs offer an opportunity to bring other racial justice issues into the environmental movement, Mansour said. One way that can happen is through employment programs that offer career opportunities in the growing green industry for people in historically disinvested areas.

As part of the TREEmendous Lawndale initiative, the Trust for Public Land gave a small grant to the North Lawndale Employment Network to start developing opportunities for local job-seekers in green careers, especially for people who were formerly incarcerated.

“It’s not only tree planting. As you talk to the communities, it’s tree maintenance and tree preservation, but also job training and workforce development in green jobs,” Mansour said.