New Orleans experiences the worst urban heat island effect in the country, with temperatures nearly 9 F° higher than nearby natural areas. The city also lost more than 200,000 trees from Hurricane Katrina, dropping its overall tree canopy to just 18.5 percent.
The non-profit organization Sustaining Our Urban Landscape (SOUL) partnered with landscape architects at Spackman Mossop Michaels (SMM) to create a highly accessible, equity-focused reforestation plan for the city that provides a roadmap for achieving a tree canopy of 24 percent by 2040.
But more importantly, the plan also seeks to equalize the canopy, so at least 10 percent of all 72 neighborhoods are covered in trees. Currently, more than half of neighborhoods are under the 10 percent goal.
Wes Michaels, ASLA, a founding partner at SMM, explained that some communities in the city are almost entirely concrete and asphalt and have canopies as low as 1 percent, while others, like the famous Garden District, have nearly 30 percent.
This causes an inequitable distribution of heat risks. “With Hurricane Ida, the foremost cause of death wasn’t flooding but heat. The storm knocked out electricity, so people were in their homes without air conditioning,” explained Emily Bullock, ASLA, a principal with SMM.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, trees and plants really do have a significant cooling benefit. “Trees and vegetation lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20–45°F (11–25°C) cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials. Evapotranspiration, alone or in combination with shading, can help reduce peak summer temperatures by 2–9°F (1–5°C).”
The New Orleans Reforestation Plan offers a new, more equitable model for reducing dangerous extreme heat — the number one climate killer — and flooding, while also lowering energy use.
“Conventional urban reforestation plans are focused on achieving an overall canopy percentage, and there is often an equity component. But this plan centers equity so that it frames all goals,” Bullock said.
“The plans we reviewed from other cities were all similar, kind of boilerplate. We needed a plan that recognizes the unique neighborhoods of New Orleans,” said Susannah Burley, executive director of SOUL. “We wanted to find a local firm that understood the context of our city.”
Burley, who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Louisiana State University (LSU), spearheaded the complex reforestation planning effort over the past two years.
With Traci Birch, a LSU professor and planner, SOUL organized four round table discussions with local stakeholders from the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and seven community meetings.
“Spackman Mossop Michaels was a stakeholder in those early conversations. We knew they were already invested in the plan and understood the steps taken,” Burley said.
The firm was then hired to analyze the complex GIS data gathered by SOUL, facilitate more meetings across the city, and develop the plan.
“Landscape architects know the challenges and how to intersect with utilities. We helped facilitate concrete conversations with stakeholders. We examined city regulations and came up with recommendations so that these systems can work a little better. The goal is to make planting trees a smoother, easier process,” Bullock said.
The firm’s community engagement experience also helped SOUL frame the conversations.
“Not everyone in the community is 100 percent behind planting more trees. Landscape architects know that trees = good, but we can also meet communities where they are. We heard concerns like: ‘what if a tree falls on my house or leaves clog up my gutters? What if their roots break up my driveway?'”, Michaels said.
Research shows that trees increase property values. But SMM didn’t hear concerns that more trees could lead to gentrification or displacement. “The questions were more about: ‘who will maintain the trees in rights of way? Where will the maintenance funds come from?,'” said Bullock.
In the historic Garden District, tree roots can transform sidewalks into jagged small hills, making them inaccessible. And in other older parts of the city, sidewalks are very narrow, leaving little room for trees. How will the city fit in more?
“We didn’t get into these kinds of issues, which were beyond the scope. We want to make sure we don’t repeat the current issues, including with overhead and underground utilities. The goal is to create a unified tree policy with stakeholders, including the utilities providing power, water, sewage. The idea is to create a new policy together,” Michaels explained.
The plan outlines detailed steps SOUL, other organizations, and the city can take to build capacity and ramp up tree planting to achieve the 2040 goal. But before scaling up, the plan calls for a full-year of community engagement. “This will help educate communities about the benefits of trees and lay the groundwork for the planting programs to come,” Michaels said.
In five diverse, underserved neighborhoods, pilot tree planting efforts will be rolled out over coming years. In some of these neighborhoods, planting more trees will be fairly straightforward given there are open green spaces available. In other more difficult neighborhoods, which already have lower tree canopies, additional funds and support will be needed to break up and remove concrete rights of way.
According to Burley, the biggest barrier to implementing the plan is lack of funding. “In New Orleans, the Department of Parks and Parkways is extremely underfunded. The plan is an advocacy tool — it shows what can be done with additional funds and how to make it happen.”
And this is why the team focused on making the plan so easy-to-understand. “Most reforestation plans I saw were missing the human component. Our plan is meant to be highly accessible, so it can be picked-up by any city government official or neighborhood association.”
This plan also offers an approach other landscape architects can apply. “Reforestation plans are in landscape architects’ wheelhouse. These plans are at the intersection of ecology, culture, and public health. It’s not just about overall tree canopy numbers. But how to plant the most trees in places where they are needed, and in the shortest amount of time, with limited resources,” Michaels said.