Two centuries of forest and social change in the Chicago Region

Authors: Lindsay Darling*, Purdue University, Brady Hardiman, Purdue, Christy Rollinson, The Morton Arboretum
Topics: Land Use and Land Cover Change, Urban and Regional Planning, Social Geography
Keywords: Urban forestry, equity, historic imagery, pre-settlement data
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 26
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The urban forest is not equitably distributed. In the Chicago region, census block groups earning the top fifth of median income have 10% more canopy than those in the bottom fifth. This pattern is observed across many cities, and while the consequences of this inequity are the subject of abundant social, medical, and ecological research, its origins are poorly understood. Trees are slow growing, and the consequences of urban forest planning and management have decades or even centuries long legacies on tree canopy distribution. We explored the historical patterns of wealth and tree canopy and determined whether wealthy people chose to settle in sites that already had trees, or if trees were planted after their arrival. Both have occurred, but the socio-ecological variables that predict relationships between wealth and canopy vary dramatically between neighborhoods.
The historically patchy distribution of forests in the Chicago region makes the area an ideal system to address this question. We analyzed canopy and census data for this region from three time periods – 1830 (pre-Euro-American colonization), 1940, and 2015 – to quantify changes in canopy and socio-economic variables over two centuries of development.
The urban canopy we see today is the result of historical interactions between complex social and environmental forces. Many cities are actively working to increase tree canopy overall, while ensuring that underserved populations receive the many benefits that trees provide. Improved understanding of the forces that shape the urban canopy could strengthen such efforts.

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