What drinks 800 gallons of water a day, fights crime and obesity, protects wildlife, lowers electric bills and just might save New Orleans from rising stormwaters? The answer, according to Susannah Burley, is a tree: specifically a Live Oak or Bald Cypress. Burley is the founder/director of Sustaining Our Urban Landscape (SOUL), a non-profit that plans to restore the city's green infrastructure.
“The barometer of the health and wealth of a city can be calculated by the number of trees it has,” says Burley. “New Orleans is a very poor city. If you look at St. Charles, Ursuline or Esplanade you see what a city block should look like, but if you look at St. Claude or streets in the Upper 9th Ward you’ll see what needs to be improved. New Orleans is the most deforested city in the Unites States.”
Burley’s mother, an avid gardener, instilled the love of horticulture in her young daughter. But it was when Burley took a cooperative extension class at UCLA that she became passionate about how plants could help change the environment for the better. Burley now has a master’s of landscape architecture degree from Louisiana State University and from 2012 to 2016 she served as program director at Parkway Partners.
“We lost 100,000 trees due to Katrina,” she says. “But even before that, New Orleans did not have a functioning system of trees. We need water-loving trees on every street.”
SOUL is currently working in three neighborhoods: Algiers Point, Mid-City and Broadmoor and last year it planted 190 large native trees. This year it plans to plant 600 trees. The goal is to cluster trees in its partner communities until they are reforested, then they will expand to other neighborhoods.
“This way we can more quickly impact flooding, subsidence, pollution, rising temperatures and community health," she says.
According to Burley, adding trees may even help with crime, arguing that with the shade that the tree canopies creates, people are more likely to be outside exercising and thus maybe keeping a watchful eye on their neighbors’ homes.
SOUL’s master plan recommendations were recently accepted by the New Orelans City Council and SOUL is now working on proposing changes to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance around protecting valuable trees on private property and introducing heritage tree legislation.
“I’m excited everyday to wake up and get to work with homeowners and renters to improve this city,” she says. “It’s the easiest and cheapest and quickest way to manage stormwater. We’re not only planting for ourselves we are certainly planting for our children and grandchildren.”
After the city’s recent flooding and myriad deficiencies with the Sewer and Water Board you might feel a bit helpless. So…if you are interested in a long-term environmental plan of action you can contact Burley at soulnola.org and plant a tree. All you have to do is commit to watering your tree for one year, keep it mulched and round up some neighbors to do the same. Please note that tree planting season in New Orleans is November through March. If you’re not in one of the organization’s current neighborhoods, you can still apply and get on a waiting list.