The power of trees in the fight against global warming, street flooding, and more

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Unloading trees to be planted by SOUL volunteers

Did you hear the one about the scientists who determined that planting trees is good for the Earth?

No, really. A recent study by Swiss scientists found that planting trees could revolutionize the way we combat Earth’s most pressing environmental issue — climate change. The solution is as simple as planting trees.

One trillion trees.

That’s the number scientists determined could be planted throughout the planet on existing open land, neutralizing 25 years’ worth of human-induced pollution. This particular study generated national attention, buffered by the continued growth in acceptance of the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change, as well as the global panic over the devastating fire in the Amazon Forest.

For those of us who care deeply about the Earth’s health, these stories can leave us with a sense of helplessness; even encouraging ones, like the trillion-tree study, seem overwhelming. How can we possibly plant one trillion trees?

Well, you can start with one tree – and there is an organization in New Orleans that wants to help you do that. Sustaining Our Urban Landscape (SOUL) is a New Orleans non-profit that works with neighborhood residents to plant trees and bring nature back to our city.

“We are the most deforested city in the country,” said SOUL founder Susannah Burley.  “When people learn that, they’re excited to be able to do something at the community level.”

Operating at the community level is just what SOUL has been doing in order to plant over 1,825 mature, 15- and 30-gallon trees in recent years. SOUL’s mission is to strategically improve the New Orleans tree canopy from one neighborhood to another. The organization started in Mid-City and quickly branched out to New Orleans East, Gentilly, Treme, 7th Ward, Broadmoor, Central City, St. Roch, Marigny, and Bywater. This year SOUL hopes to expand its efforts to the Lower 9th Ward and the Riverbend.

SOUL plants trees in a given neighborhood during the planting season (November to March), then volunteers return the following year to plant more trees in those same neighborhoods.

SOUL volunteer Matt Winterkorn says there’s a strategy behind bunching trees together. “Trees need other trees to be near each other, like in a forest, in order to manage healthy soil for roots, water, wind, air temperature and humidity,” Winterkorn says.

Burley emphasized the importance of planting trees in close proximity to one another.  ‘We want to cluster trees because if you put 20 trees in one block, then you can make a real impact on air temperatures, energy bills, storn-water management, and property values. Whereas, if you plant one tree here and one tree there it’s not going to do anything.”

For a non-profit like SOUL, planting in bunches serves another purpose — efficiency of resources. It allows the organization to load more trees into one truck which heads to one location, and volunteers work together within walking distance of each other.

Another strategy central to the organization’s success is the help of block captains. Block captains are residents of selected neighborhoods who make a commitment through SOUL to help re-forest New Orleans. “We want our work to be community-driven, and block captains know their communities better than we do,” said Burley. “Block captains receive training where they learn which species of trees we offer, the city’s permitting process, canvassing techniques, and which tree might be best in a certain spot. Then they talk to their neighbors and get people to sign up; it’s very grassroots.”

Jennifer Prout plants a tree during a Saturday volunteer event.

Grassroots strategies have led to a domino effect of engagement. “When neighbors see us planting trees they usually get excited about it,” said Winterkorn. “They see us in action and want in on the program for a free tree, too.”

And it’s not just neighbors who are taking notice. “I feel like our mission has really caught on like wildfire,” said Burley. “People in Jefferson Parish want us to work there. People in St. Bernard want us to work there. So I think we have the opportunity to be an example of how to reforest a city here in New Orleans.”

The goal? One million new trees.

SOUL’s efforts come at a time when the urban forest canopy in the United States continues to be sacrificed in favor of pavement and housing construction.  On a grander scale, the world today has half as many trees as when human civilization arose.  Humans have been removing trees to construct cities for thousands of years, with detrimental effects on climate, human health, and localized temperatures. Cities with more than 1 million people can see average temperatures that are 2°F to 5°F higher than surrounding areas. Or, considered in reverse, trees have the power to significantly reduce the temperatures of cities that take reforestation seriously.

What’s more, trees have an almost silver-bullet quality to address other societal problems that plague cities like New Orleans. For instance, did you know that trees have been shown to reduce crime?  Studies have shown that when neighborhoods of similar income level, housing stock, and density are compared, the more forested of the neighborhoods are strongly associated with lower crime rates. It turns out that trees provide shade which allows neighbors to come outside more often, providing more eyes on the street and strengthening ties among residents. Trees also reduce crime by helping people to relax, reducing overall aggression in the streets.

Trees are also a frontline force against street flooding. The average oak tree in New Orleans can soak up tens of thousands of gallons of water each year, thus reducing flood risks. Could planting thousands more trees in New Orleans help to relieve the stress on the stormwater management system in the city?

City councilperson Kristin Palmer thinks so. “Trees are the most affordable form of green infrastructure to install and maintain,” said Palmer. “Besides the beauty that they provide and the stormwater that they drink, they also cool our air and lower our energy bills and keep our water table recharged.”

SOUL has partnered with Palmer’s office to plant hundreds of trees in her district, which includes the French Quarter to Bywater area along with Algiers. This year SOUL plans to plant 275 trees in Algiers alone.

SOUL’s small army of volunteers spreads that message of the power of trees. As SOUL volunteer and block captain Matt Winterkorn says, “Trees equal life. They impact everything that matters for us. Trees protect our homes, our air, water, soil, mental state and so much more. The studies that have been done on tree impact on our health are numerous, and this is ever more important today in New Orleans.”

And in a world where it has become increasingly easy for adults to be isolated at home in a modern digital world, couldn’t we all benefit from the shade trees bring in order to help us avoid the emotional pitfalls associated with isolation?

Trees are beneficial to our mental, physical, emotional, local and global health. Join us in our fight for reforestation – from one tree in your neighborhood, to one million in New Orleans, to one trillion around the globe.

Kevin Fitzwilliam is an environmental entrepreneur who works on renewable energy and energy efficiency. SOUL will be hosting a Fall Treequinox Fundraiser at the First Presbyterian Church Ballroom on September 21 from 6:30-9:30 pm. To learn about volunteer options with SOUL, click here

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens Founder Karen Gadbois.

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