Chicago Prepares for Steamy, Southern Weather

One of the Few US Cities Actively Planning for Climate Change

This year Illinois decided its state tree, the white oak, would no longer be incorporated into Chicago’s future design plans. Climate change projections for Chicago show that if the current warming trend continues, by the end of this century the city’s weather will be similar to that of southern states like Alabama — too hot for white oaks.

Photo by Art PoskanzerWhite oak tree leaves

Tree species that would thrive here would be ones that grow primarily in northern Alabama. Ash trees, which give the city 17 percent of its green coverage, will not withstand the century’s weather either.

This might seem like a tough, drastic decision, but at least, unlike most US cities, Chicago is doing more than just thinking about the future.

Back in 2008, the city formed the Chicago Climate Action Plan to figure out how to mitigate the inevitable. The plan includes a bundle of useful information, such as how the city’s atmosphere is changing and ways people can get involved.

Planners are also figuring subtle ways to blend ecological improvements into the city’s facade. For example, permeable pavement and rainwater catchments will easily advance existing urban structures.  The city also has the most green-roofs built or being planned for. Globally, it is the only city to have four buildings awarded LEED platinum status.

Adaptation strategies in the plan include focus on heating, cooling, air quality, stormwater, green urban design, and preserving plants and trees.

The way the last strategy — preserving plants and trees — is envisioned is a great example of how forward-thinking the action plan is.  An excerpt:

“Publish a new plant-growing list that focuses on plants that can thrive in altered climates. Also draft a new landscape ordinance to accommodate plants that can tolerate the altered climate.”

Chicago has always taken pride in its trees. Every year it spends close to $10 million planting nearly 2,200 trees. Tree coverage has increased by 17 percent in the past two decades. This decade the city hopes to raise the tree cover to 23 percent or higher. But this won’t include the white oak. Instead, anticipating changes in humidity, the city plans to include more trees from the south, such as sweet gum and swamp white oak, in its landscapes.

It’s kind of sad that the white oak cannot remain. The gradual disappearance of this tree from the urban landscape will definitely alter Chicago’s identity and feel of place.  A state tree or bird is symbolic of the place. It is chosen based on the region’s climate, habitat, and its popularity among residents.

The white oak has a particular, and rather charming, history regarding how it was selected. As described by Netstate, in 1907, Illinois school children voted to make the native oak tree a state symbol. But this was too broad a category since the state has many oak subspecies. So in 1973 state officials consulted schoolchildren again and they pinpointed the white oak to be the one and only state tree.

But whether you dispute the causes or not, climate change is for real. The world is getting hotter. There will be an increase in landscape upkeep during hot weather. There will be power outages. There will be heavier downpours during winter and there will be more floods. You’ve heard the rest. 

We can’t just sit back and do nothing about this. As collective inhabitants of this world we must accept the inevitable and figure out how to adapt. Though we may lose iconic ecological symbols along the way, we need to embrace how our cities are changing and find new symbols to show us the way forward. Which is exactly what Chicago is doing.

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