In a city known for its expanses of steel and concrete, it can be easy to forget the importance that greenery plays in the life of Chicago residents. For many co-op and condo residents, the flowers, shrubs, grasses and trees that surround their buildings, fill their courtyards and spill gently from their balconies soften the edges of urban living and bring colorful life to a sometimes monochromatic landscape.
The selection, planting and care of those oases of green can be a significant undertaking, one that requires a solid understanding of what plants and flowers will thrive in an urban environment and avoiding those that simply will not.
A Tree Grows in …
“Trees enhance urban living in vital ways,” says Dr. Andrew Bell, curator of woody plants at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “They absorb sound and pollutants, and keep our cities cooler in the summer. Cities are not as kind to their trees. The urban environment puts many stresses on our trees.”
Specifically, Bell cites a number of issues that can impact the health and well-being of a city tree. For example, “many street trees are the victims of vandalism,” he said. “Trees help keep city air clean, but in so doing, they absorb pollutants that can undermine their health. Reflected sunlight from buildings and asphalt can increase the heat loads to stressful levels. City trees are also often asked to grow in less than ideal locations and under less than optimal planting conditions. Poorly draining sites can leave a tree standing in water, making it difficult for the tree to breathe.”
Jenna Jones, ASLA, LEED Green Associate, of Site Design Group, Ltd., in Chicago, agrees that city life can be a significant challenge for trees, shrubs and flowers. “Plants in Chicago are challenged by a number of difficult conditions, including our dramatic temperature changes, air quality (pollution), wind exposure, salt from roads and walkways, and people,” she says. “Curbs or raised beds that separate the plants from some of these conditions in addition to thoughtful planning and placement of plants and planting beds can help contribute to their success.”