The bead-covered live oak tree is a New Orleans icon, right up there with shotgun houses and second lines. Even unadorned, the massive trees stand for something. They say you’re in the South now.
As massive as the ancient oaks are, their value is even bigger. New Orleans’ oaks, magnolias, and palms make their neighborhoods better places to live in terms of both beauty and well-being. And where the city lacks trees—which not coincidentally are the places where people lack money—its people suffer.
The story of trees in New Orleans is as much about what happens when they’re taken away as it is about the benefits of having them. Along with Hurricane Katrina, the construction of I-10 over Claiborne Avenue in the late ‘60s is the starkest example. It was a tree massacre, and what was once a beautiful strip of air-cleaning greenery in a prospering Black business district became a continuous source of pollution.
Trees can remove pollutants from the air and reduce the strain on stormwater management systems. The shade that feels so nice on a hot day can also keep energy bills down by reducing the need for air conditioning. Trees even keep winter energy bills down by blocking the wind, reducing the need for heat.
There are also economic and social benefits. Trees are known to lower crime rates, improve mental health, encourage people to patronize businesses, increase productivity at work, and raise property values.
Cities like New Orleans can get all of this measured in dollars. A survey by certified arborists found that the total economic value of New Orleans’ public trees as of 2019 was $6,579,939. An urban forestry consulting firm and tree management software company called ArborPro, Inc. did the math. On January 9, 2018, arborists began collecting data on things like the condition, size, and species of New Orleans’ public trees. It cataloged 104,117 trees and 1,696 stumps. Trees in parks, on neutral grounds, and growing between sidewalks and streets all count toward that total. There were 98,610 in the streets and 7,203 in parks. (This doesn’t include City Park, Audubon Park, Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, or land owned by public entities like the Sewerage & Water Board.) Those tens of thousands of trees represent 352 distinct species, according to the report ArborPro published on August 20, 2019.
As in any city, the trees are not evenly distributed. ArborPro’s report provides a look at the number of trees in each zip code.
Some trends pop out when you look at each kind of value by zip code, though it’s not such a simple comparison because zip codes vary in size and makeup. Still, if you account for those factors, the disparities are clear. For example, 70115, which includes parts of Uptown, the Irish Channel, the Garden District, and Central City, fares best. At the time of the count, it had 13,757 public trees. There are less than half as many public trees in 70117, a zip code about 1.5 square miles bigger than 70115 containing the Lower 9th Ward, the Upper 9th Ward, St. Roch, and half of the Marigny. According to U.S. Census data, the median household income is nearly $80,000 in 70115 and about $33,300 in 70117. In general, trees Uptown are providing more value than those downtown and in the East.
The dollar amounts are a useful shorthand for value, but they don’t offer a clear picture of the complex relationship between trees and money. You don’t have to conduct a thorough survey to see that New Orleans’ wealthiest neighborhoods have the most trees and the biggest trees, while the poorest are relatively barren. It’s plain to see as you cross St. Charles Avenue from the Garden District into Central City, or cross St. Claude Avenue from the Bywater into the Upper 9th Ward. And as is too often the case, this resource lack only deepens other problems.
“Trees are interesting because they’re barometers of wealth here and all over the world,” Susannah Burley, executive director of Sustaining Our Urban Landscape (SOUL), said. “Studies show the areas with trees are areas with concentrated wealth. In this city, in the South, the treeless areas are also areas that were historically redlined and suffered racist housing policies. Those ended up being the areas that are now suffering the worst environmental injustice.”
Asked why trees are so important, representatives for SOUL, NOLA Tree Project, and the New Orleans Department of Parks and Parkways all said the same thing: The value is in fighting climate change, righting those environmental injustices.
“One-hundred percent: because we’re on the frontline of climate change, and we’re living that change every day,” Burley said. “We’ve lost our coastal forest, which is protection, and so we’re basically having to build a windbreak in the city. We’re building a gigantic, citywide sponge, we’re building a gigantic, citywide carbon sink.”
NOLA Tree Project was born in response to Hurricane Katrina—a harbinger of stronger storms to come and a case study in poor institutional preparedness. The city lost around 100,000 trees, and the nonprofit’s mission is to replace them all.
“As we evolve and kind of go down the road shooting for this goal, we also have transitioned into a more environmental mindset, not just recovery. We’re way past recovery,” NOLA Tree Project Director Connie Uddo said. “We’re still keeping our count going and shooting for that, but we’re way more focused on sustainability and environmental issues, and what trees can do to address those.”
Trees help cool the city down and lower energy bills, and they help with stormwater management—“two of our biggest issues,” Uddo said. Plus, studies have long shown that trees reduce local rates of asthma, and that tree-filled neighborhoods have less crime. A 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that a “10 percent increase in tree canopy was associated with a roughly 12 percent decrease in crime,” and that this was especially true when the trees were on public land. A 2015 USDA study that looked at trees in seven cities puts the truth plainly in the title: “Trees grow on money.”
Much of the tree-planting around the city focuses on public spaces. SOUL plants in public rights-of-way, and Parks and Parkways is responsible for about 100,000 trees in parks, playgrounds, neutral grounds, and the strip between the curb and sidewalk. The City works with any group that wants to plant trees. While SOUL and NOLA Tree Project plant the most, according to Parks and Parkways Director Michael Karam, they also work with Water Wise, Treemendus Love, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Through its urban forestry and Big TREEsy programs, NOLA Tree Project has planted or given away around 66,000 trees. Residents are welcome to plant the trees anywhere, while the urban forestry program plants in public green space, parks, neutral grounds, schools, and community centers. It’s planted about a dozen fruit orchards at public schools, though Uddo said that had to be put on pause during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, good reforestation isn’t as simple as planting more trees. There are challenges in paying for them, keeping them healthy, and teaching property owners how to keep them healthy. Burley said roadwork is also an issue.
“The nature of trees themselves is challenging. They grow and change shape over time,” Parks and Parkways Urban Forestry Manager Amanda Walker said. “Trees are a unique asset as far as City assets are concerned because it’s not a static thing. It’s not a fire hydrant. A tree is constantly growing. The environment around that tree is constantly changing.”
State Representative (District 97) Matthew Willard (left) and Bobby Palmer plant a Little Gem magnolia in Pontchartrain Park as part of SOUL’s community tree planting efforts. (Photo by Cheryl Gerber, courtesy of SOUL)
Karam said the biggest challenge is “managing our tree inventory and the city’s tree canopy because, unlike other areas where the majority of the trees are surrounded by permeable surfaces and open park space, the majority of our trees are in the public right-of-way.”
That means they’re subject to “challenging soil environments” and getting hit by cars, among other things. “We’re dealing with tree loss whether it’s from underground infrastructure, overhead utilities, or miscommunication with residents about protections of the trees,” Karam said.
Then there’s the money. SOUL’s recent planting project in Pontchartrain Park, for example, will cost around $550,000, “which is really cheap,” Burley said. That’s to plant 1,700 trees in a relatively small neighborhood. The group got funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Compared to installing new drainage, though, Burley said trees are a huge money-saver. “We don’t need cranes, we don’t need big fancy equipment,” she said. “We can do it with a bunch of volunteers on a Saturday morning.”
On a mild December Saturday in Pontchartrain Park, 111 volunteers with SOUL planted 106 trees—34 sweetbay magnolias, 26 live oaks, 15 Nuttall oaks, 11 Savannah hollies, 10 Dahoon hollies, seven red maples, two Little Gem magnolias, and one bald cypress. Meanwhile, at the Trinity Community Center in Hollygrove, NOLA Tree Project gave away 400 of 500 available trees to any Orleans Parish residents who wanted one. Magnolias, bald cypress, live oaks, and crape myrtles were among the 31 varieties up for grabs, along with a selection of fruit trees going for $35 to $55 a pop.
Once they finish up Saturdays in Pontchartrain Park and in Old Algiers/Riverview, where they’re planting 800 trees, SOUL will turn its attention to the Lower 9th Ward. (They’d also like to go to Hollygrove, and Burley said Hollygrove wants them to come, but “the roads are all a mess.”) The plan all comes back to correcting environmental inequity. “We really try to make a point to make sure we’re addressing environmental injustice with our tree plantings,” Burley said, “and try to work as much as possible as we can with those areas.”
NOLA Tree Project, when it does its own planting, has lately focused on New Orleans East and Gentilly, Uddo said. In Gentilly, they’re planting 150 30-gallon trees along three residence-lined boulevards with wide neutral grounds: Cameron, Pasteur, and Vermillion. Karam and Warner said the Parks and Parkways planting focuses on those less-forested areas too, but particularly the neutral grounds that have less of a canopy.
The ArborPro report was a jumping-off point for the City, which just released a master plan with the goal of planting 100,000 trees by 2040. With baseline data and areas of need identified, the City can keep a running report on its trees and their health. “We’re situated in a very precarious climate right now, and trees help in so many ways with all of those climate concerns,” Warner said. “There are so many benefits that are directly related to trees. It’s just kind of a no-brainer. They won’t solve all of our problems, but they certainly solve a lot of them.”
The stakes of maintaining a healthy urban canopy have never been higher. In Atlanta, known as the “city in a forest,” the canopy is shrinking and 85 acres of forest in a majority-Black suburban county are threatened by the development of a police training facility. An environmental activist, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, was just killed in a clash with police there, setting off nationwide protests. In Austin, which just had its hottest summer on record, researchers recently found the largest disparity in canopy coverage between high- and low-income neighborhoods in the country. Dr. Deidre Zoll, a postdoc fellow of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin, put it bluntly to the Austin Chronicle: “It is not an accident that we see huge discrepancies in the urban tree canopy between the predominantly white west side and predominantly Black and Latinx Eastside. The shortest answer is racism.”
Look at the ArborPro report to quantify all the ways New Orleanians suffer from the same disparity. It says trees in 2019 were providing New Orleanians over $1,000,000 in annual energy savings. Their stormwater interception was valued at around $2,000,000 a year, and the value of their carbon sequestration was estimated to be over $235,000 a year.
But so much of that value benefits the people who need it least. For the most part, New Orleans’ trees grow outside the homes of people who can better afford a bigger energy bill or flood damage repairs. They’re absent from neighborhoods where people can’t get their homes fixed before the next storm hits. Without the buffer against climate change that trees provide, living in New Orleans will only get harder—for everyone, but especially for the people who already have it the hardest.
Illustrations by Marcus Chapa Wilson