NORTH LAWNDALE — Despite its green name, North Lawndale has some of the fewest trees of any area in Chicago, but hopefully not for long.
Community groups are aiming to transform the West Side neighborhood into one of the city’s greenest areas by planting and maintaining 7,000 trees in their neighborhood. Their efforts have not gone without notice, as leaders were recently recognized by the Chicago Region Trees Initiative with the Urban Forestry Award for their work on engaging the community to improve North Lawndale’s quality of life.
North Lawndale has less tree coverage than much of the city. According to an Urban Tree Canopy assessment, Lawndale has a tree canopy covering just 16.6 percent of the neighborhood, compared to about 38 percent in nearby suburban Oak Park.
Spurred by the simple desire to have more trees in the area, a partnership between the landscaping social enterprise Homan Grown, the School of the Art Institute and the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s greening committee was born in September 2017.
Together they launched the Oaks of North Lawndale, an ongoing project to plant and maintain 7,000 trees in the neighborhood. The project combines green landscaping with community events and public art to help improve the beauty, economic opportunity and public health in North Lawndale.
To date, neighbors have planted an estimated 250 trees toward their goal.
According to Annamaria Leon, one of the leaders of the project who received the forestry award, it is easy to forget how tremendously important it is for people to live in green areas surrounded by plants and trees. When people have access to green space, cardiovascular health improves because they are more likely to spend time being active outside, breathing fresh, oxygen-rich air.
“Our environment is conducive to community,” Leon said, adding that trees contribute to the walkability of a neighborhood, which can elevate the economic viability of Lawndale’s commercial corridors. They also provide local climate control, offering shade on a hot summer day and help to alleviate flooding.
One of the most important reasons Leon wants to work with other residents to transform Lawndale into a lush, green urban environment is the mental relief and therapeutic benefit of being surrounded by beautiful landscaping, gardens, trees and plants.
“What if on every block in North Lawndale you had affordable and mixed-income housing, and you had an area where you could go experience that connection with nature?” Leon asked. “I think it would be extraordinary, and it would have North Lawndale really stand out from other communities in Chicago, that we put the mental health of our residents at issue.”
Lawndale is already blessed with Douglas Park and the Boulevard System, Leon said. But the project aims to spread some of that greenery into every corner of the area so more residents benefit.
One branch of the project was Permapark, a food forest full of fruit trees and shrubs planted at 1330 S. Pulaski Road in partnership with the Community Christian Alternative Academy.
The project also aligned with art events, like the community tree planting in June at Unity Park, 1900 S. Kostner Ave., which was planned by Taykhoom Biviji from SAIC, who also won the Urban Forestry Award for the project. To make it happen, local park leaders brought in more than 200 residents to help with the planting. The event also featured a performance by famed cellist Yo Yo Ma and neighborhood children participating in the Ravinia Lawndale Family Music School.
Some of Lawndale’s ubiquitous vacant lots on Ogden Avenue and 16th Street were also transformed into community gardens to soak up storm water in areas prone to flooding under the program.
The project is ongoing, and there are many more trees left to plant before they reach their goal of 7,000. But already the project is making Lawndale a healthier, more beautiful place to live.
“When we focus on the monetary part of Lawndale, we aren’t that wealthy. But when we focus on the natural beauty of North Lawndale, the rich history, the open land we have here, we are wealthy beyond measure,” Leon said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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