CHICAGO — By more than doubling the city’s brigade of tree trimming crews in next year’s budget, Chicago is set to begin shifting toward a block-by-block or “grid” system to trim its parkway trees, replacing its complaint-based program that has been widely blamed for months-long backlogs.
The change comes years after at least two recommendations — one from the city’s Office of the Inspector General and another from an independent firm hired by the city’s Bureau of Forestry — that the city get rid of its complaint-based system for trimming trees and adopt a more systematic program. Backlogs of tree trimming requests have piled up, leaving residents waiting as long as one year to have their trees maintained.
During this year’s budget process, Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) pushed city officials to add more tree trimming crews than the originally proposed 11 new crews. Forestry bureau leaders told aldermen during a budget hearing that the department would need a total of 30 crews to move from its complaint-based system to a systematic block-by-block program resembling the grid system the Department of Streets and Sanitation took up for trash pickup starting in 2012.
Vasquez said that despite previous recommendations to change tree trimming, “ultimately nobody was doing the work on the ground to double the [tree trimming] crews,” as aldermen during budget discussions often focus on “big-ticket items.”
The city currently sends out 14 tree trimming crews, each of which consists of two tree trimmers, one driver and one city truck, according to city officials.
Vasquez told The Daily Line on Thursday the shift will offer a “proactive” and “regular way” for the city to handle tree maintenance. He said issues with tree trimming backlogs make up some of the most frequent complaints his ward office fields.
During the Oct. 5 budget hearing on the streets and sanitation department, aldermen criticized department leaders for the backlog of tree trimming requests.
Forestry experts in the department “know that tree service is mostly about the quality of the trimming,” Department of Streets and Sanitation spokesperson Mimi Simon wrote in a statement emailed to The Daily Line.
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“Moving to the grid system will ensure all 550,000 parkway trees have been serviced, and with 30 tree crews, it will take at least five years to properly trim every tree on the city parkway,” Simon said. “Once the tree is trimmed, it should not need any major trimming prior to the next 5 years.”
The department’s Bureau of Forestry this year was budgeted for 11 tree total trimming crews, so new workers will need to be hired to fill the new positions before fully implementing the block-by-block trimming.
“The Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) is diligently working to hire new employees for the Bureau of Forestry to start in 2022, and immediately begin training such employees on the safest and best practices for maintaining the urban tree environment,” Simon said.
The department is planning to oversee 30 fully staffed and trained tree trimming crews by mid-summer next year, according to Simon.
The additional crews are expected to cost the city an additional nearly $1.7 million.
The additional tree trimming crews will cost “$1,688,668 over the level that was budgeted in 2021” as the department is adding “18 additional tree trimmers and 11 additional drivers for 2022,” Rose Tibayan, spokesperson for the Office of Budget & Management, wrote in an email to The Daily Line.
Years of calls for change
The idea of overhauling tree trimming to match how trash is collected in the city is not new.
In former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s October 2019 report, his office found the department’s “reactive” and “request-based approach” to tree trimming led to “significant backlogs” and many city trees going without trimming for more than a decade “due to a lack of residents regularly calling 311 to request the service, and certain wards receive significantly more tree trimming services than others.”
The complaint-based system also meant that tree trimming crews were spending “more of their time on travel throughout the City while fewer City trees [were] being trimmed,” according to the report.
Additionally, an independent consulting firm hired by the Bureau of Forestry in 2009 found the bureau spent 75 percent of its time addressing 311 requests and that about 40 percent of the city’s 206,000 parkway trees had not been trimmed in the past decade.
Ferguson in 2019 recommended the streets and sanitation department switch to a “grid-based approach” to tree trimming, the benefits of which were also detailed by the independent consulting firm in 2009. The watchdog’s report noted the recommended system had been “previously used by the City,” is “commonplace for most municipal urban forestry programs” and would bring “efficiency” to the department.
“It would also result in arborists determining how best to manage the urban forest rather than safety-driven resident calls, which constitutes an important added level of input to proper holistic management,” according to Ferguson’s report.
Ferguson also wrote in the 2019 report that a “thriving and healthy urban forest is critical to mitigating ever-mounting climate change concerns like the urban heat island effect and excessive storm water runoff, and recent studies have revealed stark differences across City neighborhoods that generally correlate with tree canopy percentages.”
Ferguson’s 2019 investigation also found a discrepancy in how long residents in different wards had to wait to have trees trimmed.
“For example, between January 1, 2016, and December 18, 2018, the average service request time to completion for tree trimming in the 23rd Ward was 63.5 days, while it took an average of 151.4 days in the 46th Ward, 139 days in the 43rd Ward, and 133.4 days in the 44th Ward,” the report shows. “Transitioning to a grid-based approach to tree trimming would reduce these inequities, because all the City’s trees would be trimmed on an ongoing, cyclical basis.”Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012 implemented a three-month “blitzing” strategy and reduced by more than 25 percent the backlog of requests for tree trimming. The strategy “blitzed” neighborhoods that had the most open trimming requests with “a ward-based grid system to improve efficiency and increase productivity,” according to a news release at the time.
“With the new system, there has been a significant increase in crew productivity, with each crew now averaging 20 tree trims per day, as opposed to 14 under the old system – an improvement of more than 30 percent,” the news release touted.
Trees in the limelight in 2021
Trees have been in the spotlight on multiple occasions during the past year as the city works to grow its green canopy in part to help mitigate effects of climate change, including the phenomenon of urban heat islands.
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Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2022 budget, which was approved with a vote of 35-15 last week, sets aside $46 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars for the city to add 15,000 trees annually over the next five years and create jobs for tree planting and maintenance.
Lightfoot continued touting her tree planting plan in a Thursday news release.
“Our new tree planting strategy is part of our effort to fight the climate crisis,” Lightfoot said. “Delivering on bold, equitable climate goals is critical for our city to continue to thrive. These investments will directly benefit our residents in neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change and help address decades of disinvestment.”
According to the news release, Chicago’s overall tree canopy coverage is 16 percent, but that number varies between neighborhoods, ranging from less than 10 percent to 46 percent.
Additionally, the City Council in June approved the creation of a new Urban Forestry Advisory Board (O2020-3651) that will be tasked with boosting the city’s tree-planting efforts and making policy recommendations on the city’s tree-planting and maintenance efforts.