Liam Heneghan’s latest project is a tad obsessive-compulsive: the professor in the Environmental Science Program and a handful of students are cataloging every tree in Lincoln Park, from Hollywood to North Avenue. In fact, they’ve already done the same for every tree in the neighborhood around DePaul, taking note of about 5,000 trees, on the parkway and in the park land, bounded by Armitage, Wrightwood, Racine, and the lakefront.
“This started off as a personal project,” he says. “In evening walks around my neighborhood in Evanston I would take notice of the trees; soon enough, I decided to map the trees on every street and alley. Well, I haven’t finished that yet, but I decided mapping was a good way to introduce students to the principles and practice of urban ecology, so we mapped the trees around the University.”
Then in a few conversations with the city, Heneghan hatched the idea of mapping Lincoln Park. “Chicago plans to plant millions of trees over the next decade, but the planners don’t really know enough about the current distribution and health of our urban forest,” he says about the city’s interests. “For me and four students, this project is a personal odyssey that will coincidently create data useful to Chicago.”
The data they’re collecting on the trees include species identity, location, size (measured as diameter at breast height), health, and canopy cover. Later, they’ll return and do soil quality assessments. Heneghan calls this work the DeepMap project.
A new view of urban landscapes
A "Deep Map" — a named coined by William Least Heat-Moon in PrairyErth —recognizes not just the natural history of an environment, but also its social and cultural realities,” Heneghan says. “As we move down through the park from north to south, we’re collecting data — but we’re also observing different communities using the park in different ways. We’re celebrating the park: Is there a tree under which your parents first kissed? Is there a tree your brother climbed as a kid? We want to know.”
Heneghan tells of one find that literally illustrates the intersection of nature and culture. “On the biggest tree we’ve found so far — a cottonwood — someone had shaved a bit of the surface and in the bark-free spot carved a text in Korean, a religious, apocalyptic text. The fact that he or she chose to put the message on this tree is meaningful.”
Down the road, the DeepMap project will draw on the expertise of other groups in the University. “We’ll be collaborating with Delores Wilbur in the Art department to talk about the cultural aspects of the park; David Wellman in Religious Studies is interested in the ways different communities think about open spaces,” says Heneghan.
Ecologists and social scientists, together
The DeepMap project shares qualities with the work Heneghan does as the co-chair of the science team of the Chicago Wilderness Association — a team that just won a four-year grant of $435,325 from the National Science Foundation to study how resource planning models translate into biodiversity outcomes and how these outcomes then affect people’s satisfaction with the nature surrounding them.
“The same themes resonate,” he says. “To study urban conservation without studying people doesn’t make any sense, so our research team includes social scientists as well as traditional ecologists. In planning an urban forest, people have intentions; then, nature exerts itself. We might plant a tree, but we can’t predict or control which creatures live in it. These creatures, in turn, have an impact on society, the economy, and people’s quality of life.”
Other institutions, including University of Illinois at Chicago, the USDA Forest Service North Central Research Station, the Field Museum, and the University of Illinois, are also participating in the research. Chicago Wilderness is a consortium of more than 240 institutions promoting conservation in 360,000 acres of open land in the greater Chicago area. The consortium includes federal, state, and local agencies; public land management agencies and conservation organizations; scientific and cultural institutions; municipalities, high schools, universities, homeowner associations, park districts, and corporate partners.
“Traditional ecology focuses on exotic locales, virtually ignoring the urban habitat,” Heneghan says, explaining the bigger context for his work. “Now, cities are being regarded as interesting habitats in their own right. And, we can’t study the urban habitat without studying people, the dominant creatures in the environment. The work of the Environmental Science Program — especially since it’s explicitly interdisciplinary — is the ‘new ecology’ that’s of great use as cities strive to become, and remain, hospitable to biological diversity.”