Pick any tree in Gentilly, and the chances are good that Connie Uddo had something to do with it.
Along boulevards of modest homes and well-kept lawns, she points to dozens of magnolias she put in the ground last month and lines of 30-foot-tall oaks she planted after Hurricane Katrina.
“After the storm, this was completely empty,” Uddo said. Across the city, more than 400,000 trees were torn away by wind or poisoned at the roots by salty floodwaters. “It should be such a beautiful, lush city. But it wasn’t green after Katrina. It was gray.”
Uddo’s group, the NOLA Tree Project, has planted or given away about 70,000 trees since the 2005 storm. The city of New Orleans and other nonprofit groups have added thousands more. Yet, a first-of-its-kind study reveals little progress in restoring the city’s depleted tree canopy.
The city has lost 4,000 acres of tree cover – equivalent to an almost 30% decrease – over the past 20 years, according to research led by Sustaining Our Urban Landscape, or SOUL, a nonprofit group focused on reforesting Orleans Parish.
The research, presented in SOUL’s New Orleans Reforestation Plan, found comparatively weak tree retention policies and low public spending on tree planting and maintenance in New Orleans, contributing to tree coverage that’s half the average of other large cities in the South.
One of the most striking findings was a close correlation between tree density and income levels, temperatures and flood risk, said SOUL Board Chairman Andreas Merkl.
“If you pick the most low-lying and flood-prone areas of the city, and also the hottest and poorest, they will also have the least trees,” he said.
That data matches City Council member Eugene Green’s own experience growing up in Pontchartain Park, a subdivision built for Black residents in the 1950s.
“It was devoid of trees,” he said. “There was no shade, no air conditioning. That was the price we paid for living in a segregated society.”
The plan, which took nearly three years to produce and endorsed by a City Council resolution on Thursday, contains one of the most comprehensive assessments of New Orleans’ trees, using satellite imagery to assess the leafy canopy of public and private property across the entire city.
City leaders said the plan will help the New Orleans reach Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s new climate action goals, which rely heavily on trees and other carbon offsets to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“This plan charts a clear path ahead for us,” said Greg Nichols, the city’s deputy chief resilience officer.
New Orleans’ lack of trees makes the city less able to cope with rising temperatures, heavier rainfall and other growing challenges from climate change. Trees offer shade, greatly reducing ambient air temperatures and air conditioning costs. They also reduce flood risk by soaking up water and altering the soil, making it more spongy and better able to absorb moisture.
“If you have thousands of water-loving trees, then you can absorb or mitigate millions of gallons of stormwater and really change how a neighborhood responds to a storm event,” SOUL Executive Director Susannah Burley said.
Despite being in desperate need of the services trees provide, New Orleans’ tree coverage ranked last among 10 southern cities, according to SOUL. Trees cover just over 18% of the city. But most of the cities analyzed by SOUL, including Memphis, Tenn., Atlanta, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla., had more than 30%. Charleston, S.C. led the pack with 63%.
New Orleans’ tree coverage rate would be even lower if it didn’t have two unusually large wooded areas: City Park and Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, which, at 30,000 acres, is the country’s second-largest urban refuge. Remove those two green spaces, which do little to reduce heat and flooding in other parts of the city, and New Orleans’ tree coverage falls closer to 10%.
Many neighborhoods, especially poor or predominantly Black neighborhoods, fall far lower. Neighborhoods that include former housing projects in the Treme, Florida, and St. Thomas areas have fewer than 1%.
“Trees are barometers for wealth and health here in New Orleans and all over the planet,” Burley said. “You almost always have a lack of trees where you have concentrated poverty.”
The plan urges the city to bring all neighborhoods up to at least 10% by 2040. That would require planting about 7,000 trees per year – a number Burley says is far beyond the current capacity of the city Department of Parks and Parkways, SOUL and the other mostly volunteer planting groups.
‘They lift you up’
Replanting efforts are making a difference in some neighborhoods.
Lifelong Gentilly resident Gloria DeCuir said the NOLA Tree Project has been transformative.
“The trees are so beautiful, they lift you up,” the 67-year-old said of plantings in the Fillmore and St. Anthony neighborhoods. “They bring people outside and they build back a sense of community.”
The recent sight of children climbing a tree made DeCuir realize how much Gentilly had lost since Katrina.
“I almost passed out, I was so excited,” she said. “You used to see that all the time – kids swinging from trees or building little wooden tree houses or playing games in the shade.”
The city has also stepped up its efforts, establishing a $250,000 grant program last year to support nonprofit tree-planting groups. Parks and Parkways announced a plan last month to spend $1.1 million on contractors who will plant an estimated 1,200 trees across the city.
Parks and Parkways Director Michael Karam knows these efforts are only a start.
“It’s clear we have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Money and policy
Despite investing an unusually large amount of money in tree services last year, only 0.1% of the municipal budget is devoted to tree services. The average for other cities is about four times larger, the plan said.
The plan lists 10 best practices many cities use to grow and retain tree canopies. Atlanta, considered a model for urban planting efforts, does them all, but New Orleans lacks three key measures: a tree preservation board, a heritage tree protection program, and specific protections on private properties.
SOUL urged New Orleans to follow the Metairie Ridge Tree Preservation District’s lead and require permits for the removal of large trees on private property. Jefferson Parish can charge $500 per day for each tree in Old Metairie that’s unlawfully removed, until a permit is obtained. New Orleans should also consider requiring the preservation of certain trees in front yards, parking lots and other areas that border public spaces, the plan says.
While New Orleans requires tree plantings at new housing developments with six or more units, SOUL recommended expanding the rule to all residential construction.
Merkl, the SOUL chairman, said city policies and volunteer muscle aren’t enough to get 10% of New Orleans’ neighborhoods under the shade of trees.
“We need city money; we need corporate money,” he said. “No one entity can plant 7,000 trees per year. We need all of us to get this done.”
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