I recently visited my hometown of Chicago, which 25 years ago, featured many neighborhoods that looked and felt like the proverbial concrete jungle. The street trees and lush and creative parkways throughout the city now make virtually unrecognizable some of the old northside neighborhoods I used to haunt.
The city wasn’t always denuded: a massive infestation in the 1960’s and 1970’s of Dutch elm disease wiped out most of the city’s street trees (a warning against mono-species planting). That left city parkways and sidewalks bare for a few decades, and might have exacerbated the city’s deadly 1995 heat wave that killed more than 700 citizens (possibly including my grandmother, who died during the event of unexplained causes). With climate change, the urban heat island effect is a threat all cities should be preparing for with street greening, along with green roofs and white-painted cool roofs: many of those that died in Chicago were elderly residents that lived in top-story apartments under black tar or asphalt roofing. They were literally baked to death, according to cool roof expert Lisa Gartland of PositivEnergy.
Mayor Richard M. Daley accelerated a massive street and city greening campaign around that time in preparation for the 1996 Democratic convention, and the city was transformed to this day (despite having to cut down of hundreds of diseased trees again around 1999-2000 due to an infestation of the Asian Longhorn Beetle). From planted and thickly mulched medians and boulevards, green rooftops, and lush bioswales under the city’s El, Daley’s Chicago legacy is evident. During previous visits, I’ve even come across steaming piles of rich-smelling free compost that the city has left at convenient pick up points for residents.
The only thing missing would be some strategic curb cuts to better accommodate soil filtration of storm run-off. Also, Norway maples dominate the street trees, which could be supplemented with other appropriate species that do not block the understory so much, something my friend and local master gardener Martie Sanders pointed out to me.
Still, walking four miles from the Roscoe Village neighborhood to the far north Hollywood lakefront neighborhood, I was enchanted by the green urban landscape in one of the nation’s largest and most diverse cities.
Enjoy the last of the summer greenery You’ll notice that the streets are devoid of people in the photos, as they were taken during the Bears National Football League game–one of the most dependable times to explore US cities in peace.