The 7200 South block of Green Street in Englewood as seen from above on Nov. 9, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

ENGLEWOOD — When Bweza Itaagi talks to elders about growing up in Englewood, they sometimes speak of the vibrant trees they climbed, ripe with fruit and berries ready for the picking. 

As time passed, the trees dwindled; those that remained withered with age and neglect. 

Itaagi, the Englewood Nature Trail and plaza steward at Grow Greater Englewood, is one of many neighborhood organizers leading the charge to make the community lush with greenery again. 

Grow Greater Englewood is a cohort member of the Community Tree Ambassador Program. The program, launched by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot in 2022 under the Our Roots Chicago initiative, empowers South and West Side neighbors to plant more trees in their communities where tree canopy cover is lower.

The Tree Ambassador program was made possible through a collaboration with several city departments and the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, an effort at the Morton Arboretum that partners with community organizations to create a more equitable, abundant urban forest by 2050.

Trees line the baseball fields at Ogden Park in Englewood on Sept. 15, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Under the program, Grow Greater Englewood will work with neighbors to plant at least 100 trees throughout the community in public parkways, Itaagi said. The organization received $50,000 to sustain its work over the next two years.

The trees will provide immeasurable benefits — cooling the community, improving air quality, mitigating flooding and boosting mental health, Itaagi said.

In a year with record-breaking heat and the worst air quality in the world, neighborhoods like Englewood need resources like trees more than ever, Itaagi said.

For older Englewood neighbors, the ones with memories of a better time, the trees will create a space where a new generation of children can climb trees and play in nature again, just as they did. 

“Trees are where we gather, tell stories, sit and rest in the shade. They naturally bring people together,” Itaagi said. “I hope this program creates more space for us to have conversations, while also creating moments where we can share more of the value behind trees.”

Vegetables flourish and grow at Sistas in the Village’s urban farm, 5800 S. Ada St., in Englewood on June 17, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

‘We’re Listening More Than We’re Speaking’

The first step in the Tree Ambassador program is to find the public parkways in Englewood where the trees can be planted, Itaagi said.

The organization is targeting areas that don’t have many trees, starting with well-traveled corridors, industrial sectors, bus stops and paths leading to local schools, said John Paul Jones, nature trail steward consultant at Grow Greater Englewood. 

Block stewards walk the neighborhood, scouting public parkways and “identifying specific spacing,” like if the tree would be too close to a power line, Itaagi said. 

Most of the parkways are in front of neighbors’ homes, Itaagi said. Before they begin any next steps, they ask the homeowner if they want a tree near their home, Itaagi said. 

That connection with the community is why the Chicago Region Trees Initiative is letting neighborhood organizations lead the tree program, said Trinity Pierce, stewardship manager at the Chicago initiative.

In the past, the city has planted trees without permission from neighbors, Pierce said. Historically, “that work has been harmful,” Pierce said. 

By having a respectful conversation with neighbors, “everyone gets on board to ensure the trees are cared for,” Pierce said. When you let trusted community leaders steer that work, neighbors know their best interests are in mind, she said.

“The Chicago Region Trees Initiative isn’t about just increasing trees,” Pierce said. “It’s increasing tree advocacy and engagement to support trees. We know these community groups know their neighborhoods best. When we follow their model, we see more trees requested and more trees cared for. It’s an excellent, exciting way to put these local community groups first. We’re listening more than we’re speaking.” 

Spring foliage and flowers flourish at Ogden Park in Englewood on May 3, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

‘Trees Are Such Powerful, Beautiful Organisms’

Getting neighbors involved in the tree planting process requires “speaking of collective benefits rather than individual,” Jones said. 

“it’s a two-fold approach where we express how we’re improving the livability and beautifying the neighborhood,” Jones said. 

Trees play a critical role in almost every part of living, and we are “inherently connected to our green spaces,” Pierce said. 

In “urban heat islands,” or communities covered in pavement and concrete, the material absorbs the sun’s energy, releases the heat and can cause skyrocketing temperatures.

The city experienced “oppressive and dangerous heat” this summer. In South Side neighborhoods like Englewood, temperatures are on average higher than most other Chicago communities, according to data from the Chicago Region Trees Initiative.

Trees keep neighborhoods cooler by providing shade, according to the initiative.

Trees have been found to mitigate flooding, a problem Englewood faces “every time it rains,” Itaagi said. Trees obstruct stormwater and hold water in their leaves that would otherwise enter the sewage system, according to the intiative. 

Trucks carry containers at 47th Street near the Norfolk Southern intermodal yard in New City on Jan. 9, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Beyond the poor air quality from Canadian wildfires, new studies show that South and West side neighborhoods like Englewood and West Englewood have been hardest hit by pollution

Sixteen percent of adults in Englewood and 12.7 percent in West Englewood reported having asthma between 2020 and 2021, compared to 8.6 percent of adults citywide, according to health data. And with nearby fumes from the trucks that move through Norfolk Southern Railway’s intermodal yard, some neighbors worry conditions might worsen

Trees planted in neighborhoods with poor air quality have been shown to improve neighbors’ health, including their mental health, according to the Chicago Region Trees Initiative.

Trees can even better people’s lives by increasing property values or attracting new customers to their businesses, advocates say.

“Trees are such powerful, beautiful organisms,” Itaagi said. “I don’t think everyone is aware of how important they are to our ecosystems socially and environmentally.”

Leaves turn orange ahead of fall in Ogden Park in Englewood on Sept. 15, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

‘Everyone Has A Role To Play’

When neighbors agree to the program, Grow Greater Englewood uses the 311 app to request the trees, Pierce said. 

There are dozens of trees neighbors can pick from, but the “right tree for the right place is critical,” Pierce said. The key is to “diversify” the trees and brighten the community with a mix of tree types, Pierce said.

Once entered into the 311 app, Tree Ambassador program requests go to the top of the city’s list, Pierce said. Rather than waiting a few years to see a tree planted, neighbors can have their requests filled in a couple of weeks or months, she said.

“Because of a lot of that historical disinvestment, a lot of mistrust and issues, there tends to be more requests for trees on the North Side of the city, but we know that’s not indicative of people being more interested in trees on the North Side. That’s a dangerous simplification and inaccurate,” Pierce said.

“The Chicago Region Trees Initiative is focused on growing a tree canopy that is more diverse, abundant and equitably distributed to provide needed benefits to all people and communities.” 

Clouds float above Ogden Park in Englewood on Sept. 15, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Grow Greater Englewood is just getting started with its tree efforts, Itaagi said. Their work alone won’t solve climate change. It’s one piece in the larger puzzle the city must solve to eradicate decades of disinvestment and harm, Itaagi said. 

But it is a great start.

“Everyone has a role to play,” Pierce said. “The changing climate will cause more stressors and issues for everyone. So how are we working together? What can we be doing now to help improve our community that builds resilience?

“It’s a lot of conversations, not just about the benefits of trees, but our stewardship, our responsibility, what we need to do to make a healthier, more vibrant urban forest moving forward that everyone benefits from equitably.” 

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Atavia Reed is a reporter for Block Club Chicago, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis