Each year, the Uptown Garden Walk grows. In 2016, a garden hub day at ICA planted the seed that would blossom into the first Garden Walk. The next year, the second Garden Walk aligned with the Out and About Uptown’s Coast series to explore connections between present day gardens and the history of Uptown’s coast. During the third Garden Walk, stewards from local gardens greeted participants who opted to guide themselves. On September 7th of this year, the Fourth Annual Uptown Garden Walk featured yoga, a garden workday, educational tours, and a social gathering.
On the morning of this year’s Garden Walk, several early risers gathered for a Yoga in the Garden session led by Eddie Miller of Yoga Body Elements Studio. Based in Uptown, Yoga Body Elements aims to “deliver whole body wellness practices to the community.” Founder Cindy Huston connected with ICA Program Manager Samantha Sainsbury at a women’s networking mixer organized by Uptown Business Partners, the local chamber that also sponsored the Garden Walk and the Uptown Yoga and Wellness Festival.
A few blocks away at Ginkgo Organic Gardens, a group of volunteers was exercising outdoors in a different way. “We use the strength of our bodies,” said garden steward Ivy Czekanski, explaining that Ginkgo doesn’t use a rototiller, a gardening tool that uses spinning blades to break up soil. Soil in urban gardens tends to be heavily compacted, and therefore tougher to work. Ginkgo forgoes methods that unnecessarily disrupt the soil, part of a larger practice of agroecology, which views the health of the soil itself as part of the ecosystem that allows plants to thrive. Weed management, for example, is a “balancing act” at Ginkgo, because weeds support soil health and attract pollinators, such as bees and butterflies.
A healthy garden ecosystem is like a healthy community, populated with a diversity of mutually-supporting neighbors. Most plants deplete nitrogen in the soil, making it a limiting nutrient. Other plants, such as legumes, actually convert nitrogen from the air into a form that other plants can use in the soil. That’s why ecologist Susan Ask calls legume “a community-minded plant.”
But Ginkgo’s community-friendly mission isn’t limited to plant life. Right out front, an apple tree welcomes neighbors to pluck its fruit. In the back, a pear tree extends its branches over the back fence, offering a healthy snack to anyone walking down the back alley. Food harvested throughout the growing season, which runs from April through October, is delivered by bike to Vital Bridges food pantry within an hour of harvest. On the morning of the Garden Walk, the stewards estimate they’ve harvested 50 pounds of produce, including leafy greens, tomatoes, zucchini, pea pods, and eggplant.
Outside the wrought-iron gate, in the shade of the ginkgo tree for which the garden is named, people began to gather for the first tour of the day. The Lake Effect tour, led by Susan and resident-activist Melanie Eckner, sought to explore the role of Uptown’s gardens and history in our climate-challenged times.
Climate change has been hard on the garden. This year saw snowfall as late as May, which killed off or delayed much of the season’s early growth. In the summer, extreme heat caused unmanageable overgrowth in some crops, while other crops withered and burned.
But the garden also practices climate resilience. A 50 gallon rain barrel diverts water from the city’s sewer system, which is already overburdened. Plant matter is composted on-site, and used to promote soil ecology. The ginkgo, apple, pear, and fig trees cast cooling shade over the lot. Many of these features and practices are just emulating what nature already does when healthy ecosystems are allowed to thrive.
As the tour group set out from Ginkgo, Melanie explained that most of the buildings in Uptown were built around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Along the route, she pointed out examples of climate-friendly features on several buildings of this period. Many Uptown buildings take advantage of the coastal climate with windows that can be opened to create a cross-breeze, creating natural ventilation. They also have awnings or other features overhanging windows, creating shade that keeps interiors cool, reducing the need for modern air conditioning, which releases freon and other greenhouse gases.
When most of Uptown was built, the streets were illuminated past dusk by light reflected from the terracotta facades that adorned most buildings. Today, massive streetlights blanket every corner of the city. Light and noise forms of pollution and climate change that are a particular challenge for urban areas.
Melanie and Susan expressed hope that the conversation around climate change can shift from fixing problems to changing lifestyles. By focusing on conservation, particularly by drawing on examples from nature and from history, we can live in harmony with our environment and draw less upon disruptive and wasteful technologies.
The tour led to a typical Chicago courtyard apartment building. At the end of the long courtyard, flanked by flowers and shading trees, was a musical spectacle. Decked out in a white suit adorned with beads and feathers, Beazley Phillips played a number of Elton John classics tweaked with references to the Uptown Garden Walk. As Beazley played, neighbors came out onto balconies overlooking the courtyard to enjoy the show.
On the short walk from the apartment complex to Clarendon Park, Melanie explained that the Chicago courtyard apartment is an example of community-minded design that brings neighbors and nature together.
Clarendon Park also brings together nature and neighbors of all ages, making it an ideal spot for the Garden Gathering. The Gathering was added to the Garden Walk last year to create a space for participants to mingle, chat, and relax between walking tours. Volunteer Joseph Taylor set up a table where people could plant cuttings of aloe and other houseplants to take home. He also brought a compost bucket courtesy of Urban Canopy to collect food scraps from the Gathering.
The Trees of Uptown tour, returning to the Garden Walk for its third year, closed out the day. Consulting arborist Andrew Lueck of Planned Forest Solutions designed this year’s walk to explore the relationship between trees and climate change.
Unsurprisingly, climate change is hard on trees. Insects breed in summer months, so longer seasons brought on by climate change support a swell in insect population, disrupting the delicate balance between insects and the trees that support them. This leads insects that normally coexist with trees to overwhelm and kill them, mirroring historic disasters caused by invasive species. Andrew recalled the dutch elm catastrophe, in which fungi spread by invasive beetles devastated the population of elm trees in North America. More recently, another invasive beetle, the emerald ash borer, killed tens of millions of North American ash trees.
But trees are vulnerable to more than just insects. In cities especially, many of them die to poor planning. The average lifespan of an urban tree is seven to 10 years, with many dying within the first two years because they were planted improperly. City trees are often planted too close to buildings or other trees. They are often contained within concrete and metal grates, which Andrew says serve no real purpose for a tree’s health and can cost up to $3,000 to install. In the summer, caretakers often pile too much mulch at the base of trees, keeping them wet and therefore vulnerable to insects and fungi. Andrew laughed as he shared how often during consultations he’ll stop to kick the mulch aside.
Caring for trees is neither easy nor cheap. Andrew stopped at several trees along the walk to point out broken branches, wounds, and other signs of poor health. As trees slowly die and decay, they pose a risk of falling on people or property and causing harm. When asked why the city doesn’t remove such trees, he said that removing a tree can cost up to $40,000, an expense the City isn’t in a rush to pay.
Despite the challenges of maintaining them, trees work wonders for city dwellers. They cast shade that cools buildings, pavement, and people. They create habitats for wildlife. They have also been shown to affect human health in subtler ways—studies have shown that people recover more quickly when they can see trees and other greenery from their hospital room windows. When the emerald ash borers struck, researchers found a correlation between the loss of trees and an increase in local occurrences of heart disease.
As the tour looped back to Clarendon Park, Samantha asked participants what they might do differently as a result of the tour. The group’s responses reflected a newfound understanding for the care needed to maintain their urban trees, coupled with a desire to make that care a reality.