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New Orleans has a new goal for building a greener city: plant 100K trees in 20 years

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Cheryl Gerber
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Cheryl Gerber
A volunteer wheels a young magnolia tree out from the bed of a truck during a Sustaining Our Urban Landscape, or SOUL, planting in 7th Ward in 2021.

To combat flooding and extreme heat, a new master plan for rebuilding New Orleans’ urban forest calls for 100,000 new trees to be planted by 2040.

Released Friday, the Reforestation Plan calls for the city to craft its first comprehensive tree policy to start protecting the trees New Orleans already has and ramp up efforts to maintain the tree canopy as more are planted.

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans lost about a third of its tree canopy and has since remained one of the most deforested cities in the country — despite various replanting efforts launched by various community groups. In 2000, researchers found that trees cover about 27% of the average city. Now, just 18% of the city is covered by trees.

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Andrew Brenner, Nathaniel Morton and Christopher Potter
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NV5 Geospatial and CasaSystems
A mix of imagery and LiDAR paint a picture New Orleans' tree canopy. The denser the vegetation, the more green the area is on the map.

And the trees that exist aren’t distributed equally. Where some neighborhoods like Filmore, Audubon or Lakeview range from 14% to 20% coverage, others have less than 5% like Iberville and Central City.

Surface temperature data shows that the areas of the city with fewer trees are also the hottest. New Orleans experiences the worst heat island effect in the country. That’s a phenomenon where pockets of developed land absorb and retain heat, raising the temperature higher than greener areas.

Urban heat islands will only get worse as climate change exacerbates problems with extreme heat, in addition to more intense rainfall and hurricanes.

“Our culture is so unique — none of us wanna lose that. But when you look at the numbers, there is a possibility that our city might look really different in the future,” said Susannah Burley, the executive director of environmental nonprofit Sustaining Our Urban Landscape, or SOUL. Her group coordinated the plan’s creation. “We need to take that seriously and use trees and the tree canopy to our advantage and let it work for us.”

According to the reforestation plan, the strategic planting of 100,000 trees could increase the tree canopy in each New Orleans neighborhood to cover at least 10% of the area. That would require a concerted effort by both the city and nonprofit groups, as well as a steep increase in funding.

The city has had a longstanding partnership with tree groups and began providing funding to the nonprofits last year, awarding $250,000 to various organizations in the city to help the Parks and Parkways Department reach its own goal of planting 40,000 trees by 2030. That new fund for nonprofits was replenished in the latest 2023 budget for another round of awards.

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But, even with that boost, New Orleans still spends less than half the national average on its public trees per capita as of 2022. The plan recommends increasing spending by $1 million to $2 million annually to ensure the city has the capacity to provide proper care to trees growing in public spaces, like right-of-ways, like they would for any piece of infrastructure.

Burley said the largest concern brought up during a series of community meetings about the tree plan was management. Though trees can help blunt the effects of wind during storms, they can also send large limbs or topple entirely onto houses if they aren’t properly maintained or placed.

Parks and Parkways director Michael Karam said his department would need a dedicated budget line item for increased tree planting and more proactive maintenance. More staffing would also help his office enforce both existing policies and any new ordinances on the horizon.

“The Reforestation Plan will support our annual request for capital-funded tree planting initiatives such as this,” said Karam.

Urban Heat Island reforestation plan
Christopher Potter
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CasaSystems
A mix of different types of imagery depict the surface temperature across New Orleans in the month of August during 2019, 2020 and 2021.

More funding for the city’s Parks and Parkways Department would help with expanding the management of public trees, Burley said, but she noted more work would need to be done to promote trees on private property.

That’s what Burley hopes a city tree policy could also tackle. Other cities with burgeoning urban forests like Atlanta have policies that protect valuable trees – often older trees – and are determined by a designated tree board that requires permits for cutting trees down.

“We can't only focus on the city's trees and what the city maintains. We have to figure out a way to address trees on private property,” she said. “Right now we don't have any laws protecting trees on private property at all.”

Because the reforestation plan is just a guiding document, the next step will be turning its recommendations into law. Burley said other nonprofits like the Water Collaborative have begun working with the city to craft a tree policy.

On Thursday, the New Orleans City Council passed a resolution endorsing the reforestation plan, citing its support for the measures inside it.

The plan sets a deadline for 2028, though Burley hopes it can move forward sooner.

Meanwhile, SOUL, Parks and Parkways and other tree advocacy groups will look to start enacting the plan with five neighborhood pilot projects. They hope to increase the tree canopy in Hollygrove, St. Bernard Area, Algiers’ Whitney corridor, Central City and Little Woods to 10% in the next five years. The areas were selected based on need and a vocal desire for more trees.

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Cheryl Gerber
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Cheryl Gerber
A volunteer for Sustaining Our Urban Landscape, or SOUL, scoops dirt while planting a young magnolia tree in New Orleans' 7th Ward in 2021.

Altogether, preliminary estimates suggest it would cost $12.5 million to complete and plant around 25,000 new trees. For some neighborhoods, that means planting in open areas along streets and on neutral grounds, while others would require more trees on private property like homes, schools or hospitals.

“We have to think about the people and make sure that we have equitable tree canopy for everybody because trees are barometers of wealth,” Burley said. “This plan has the thread of environmental equity through it and the idea that every neighborhood is deserving of a tree canopy and all the benefits that come with it.”

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.

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