West Side residents are disproportionately burdened by pollution and environmental hazards that harm residents’ health, and are among those most heavily impacted by environmental issues when compared with other Chicagoans, an environmental justice city report released in late summer showed.

Austin, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park and North Lawndale are some of the areas with the highest cumulative impacts – a score that measures how a community is affected by environmental factors.

 In Austin, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park and North Lawndale the index reached the 90-100 percentile. In contrast, more affluent neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park or Lakeview have scores in the 1 to 30th percentile.

Many residents in these neighborhoods go to school or live closer to freight rail lines, brownfields and hazardous waste facilities than residents in other communities. They also live amid heavy transit, industrial corridors and fewer green spaces. All of that, combined with historic disinvestment in these neighborhoods, is taking a toll on residents’ health, experts said.

Often, these neighborhoods are also impacted by activities that benefit the city’s economy, such as distribution centers or asphalt or metal manufacturing facilities. At the same time, they bring higher volumes of heavy traffic to these areas or intensive industries that pollute the air and water.

People in these communities also tend to live in heat islands, or areas where heat feels more intense because of a lack of trees, heavy traffic and a high density of buildings and paved streets. During extreme heat waves, like the one that hit Chicago Aug. 28, people in heat islands are at higher risk of heat-related illnesses than people living in cooler neighborhoods. When heat islands are compounded by the pollution, congestion and disinvestment of such communities, people’s risk for health problems or even death is increased.

“The number one weather-related cause of death in the United States in the last three decades is heat,” said Raed Mansour, director of innovation at the Chicago Department of Public Health.

In this year’s report, called the Chicago Cumulative Impact Assessment, city officials didn’t just look at the environment in these neighborhoods; they measured how they combine with social and economic conditions that impact the health and quality of life of these communities. These efforts areas the result of a years-long push from environmental justice organizations and community members, as well as health officials, who recognize environmental conditions play a role in the life-expectancy gap between Black and White Chicagoans. On average, Black Chicagoans live 8.8 years less than White Chicagoans, a city health report shows.

The city also considered people’s pre-existing health conditions, which may make them more vulnerable to pollution. Studies show that air pollution can trigger symptoms in people with asthma and reduce the heart’s ability to pump blood, increasing risks of heart attacks for people with heart failure. The effects of pollution on vulnerable populations – seniors, children and people with disabilities – were also considered.

People living in areas disproportionately affected by environmental issues are also more vulnerable to the effects of extreme climate events.

 With heat waves becoming more frequent in the future, these findings show why the city’s policies and plans must consider how much more vulnerable West Side communities are – and take action to build up their resiliency, Mansour said.

Measuring environmental justice and the West Side’s score

Environmental justice is achieved when everyone has the same degree of protections from environmental and health hazards, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. For years, community and environmental advocates have demanded the city considers the disproportionate impact of industries on Latino and Black communities on the South and West Sides. This assessment is part of a multi-departmental city effort to implement policies and procedures that guide decisions in issues like zoning, land use, permits for new industries, transportation and public health.

The city’s report evaluated all 77 Chicago community areas, considering how environmental factors affect residents’ health and quality of life. That included environmental conditions and exposures, such as the presence of polluting sites and measures of air pollution. They did that because such measures affect people differently based on their socioeconomic status and health.

The city measured how all these factors combined affect Chicagoans using a method applied by a California environmental agency and data from Chicago’s 2020 report on air quality. Officials then calculated an environmental justice index for each community area in the city. The index includes 28 indicators, such as measures of air pollution, traffic volume, how close a community is to polluting sites and the percentage of people affected by illnesses like asthma or coronary heart disease, among others.

Areas in the West Side, along with the South Side, came in last, the report shows.

High-burdened neighborhoods and extreme heat

This summer, the city invited residents to participate in a program aimed to identify heat islands.

Some of these areas are in parts of the city that have been historically marginalized and have less trees, leading to higher air temperatures, Mansour said. As other community groups pointed out, some of these sites also see high gun violence rates and are near vacant properties, showing how local economic, social and environmental conditions impact community members.

This Heat Watch program invited volunteers to measure air temperatures across the city. Volunteers equipped with heat sensors traveled 29 routes in the city in the morning, afternoon and evening of a very hot day in July.

One of the hundreds of places identified as a “hot site,” included a city-owned vacant lot in Austin, at 4700 W. Huron St., one that is not only a daytime heat island with little tree coverage, but also on one of the most violent blocks, according to data submitted to the city’s Heat Watch program. 

“Before we designed the routes to drive, we had to get a better understanding of where people perceive where in their neighborhood it’s either warm or hot or cool,” he said.

The data is yet to show it because it has not been published, but community members said that in their experience, these sites tend to feel hotter than other areas.

Two volunteers hold Heat Watch tools – a car bumper magnet and a car sensor – to measure air temperatures on July 28, 2023 | Photo by Kyra Woods, provided by the Chicago Department of Public Health

The information they collected will be used to create a heat island map. City officials will be able to use the map to identify areas where activating cooling shelters earlier in a heat wave could help better protect vulnerable populations, Mansour said.

With this data, the city also plans on partnering with residents to create a public health community-driven vulnerability index. Engaging with communities is important, he said, because people in their neighborhoods can have better ideas to reach vulnerable members and help them prepare. For example, instead of waiting for a citywide heat watch alert, local health providers or officials could reach out to at-risk residents and help them prepare for a heat wave, Mansour said.

Community members could also lead the push for solutions, such as investment in planting trees, installing green roofs or installing more water sprinklers in parks, all of which have been proven to reduce air temperatures.

Nature-based solutions underway

Tom Drebenstedt stood beside a mature tree on a recent Saturday morning. Surrounded by nearly 25 neighbors, Drebendstedt and certified arborist David Kusnierz walked down the 1800 block of North Nagle Avenue. On their way, they stopped at each of the trees on the sidewalk as Kuznier identified trees and evaluated their condition.

“Trees are like young children,” Kusnierz told families gathered there. “They need care.”

Galewood neighbors and tree ambassadors learn about their tree canopy from certified arborist David Kusnierz during a tree walk on Oct. 28, 2023 | Francia Garcia Hernandez

Drebendstedt is a tree ambassador in the Galewood neighborhood, where he has lived for more than 20 years. He organizes tree walks and recruits trees ambassadors in his neighborhoods as part of the Chicago Trees Initiative. The program brings residents, arborists, experts and local officials together to spread awareness of the importance of trees and increase the number of trees in areas with a lower tree canopy.

Drebendestedt and his neighbors have trained others on identifying parkways to see if there are spaces where new trees could be planted. Tree ambassadors also talk to homeowners to share why trees are important and how they can get a tree planted for free outside their home.

“One of the benefits, of course, is holding down the temperatures,” he said. Trees provide shade and in the winter time, they provide a barrier to break down the wind speed.”

Trees also absorb CO2 and enhance natural habitat for birds and insects. Their roots also help absorb water, reducing the risk of flooding. And, they “make the neighborhood look nicer and make people want to take a walk.”

“The majority of people say ‘Oh I can get a tree?’ And they go with it,” he said.

Since the spring, nearly Galewood’s tree ambassadors have planted about 60 trees in the area. They still occasionally hear some pushback from concerned homeowners who have the misconception that trees’ roots will damage the sidewalk, break the sewer system or create additional chores like raking leaves. But the benefits for the community outweigh the work.

“With a more robust tree canopy, you have decreased violence, people drive slower, but it also improves social cohesion,” Mansour said. “It creates a sense of community belongness.”

“It draws you out of the home and it helps you walk -reducing obesity- but you’re also meeting your neighbor, and you build trust within that community and you feel like you belong there.”