On Monday morning, Susannah Burley was in Algiers, working her way down the neutral ground on Nunez Street, individually watering newly planted live oaks with buckets she filled by hand from a nearby tap. (The tap’s owner had given her permission.)
Planting season has culminated for Burley’s SOUL organization — which stands for Sustaining Our Urban Landscape — but the hard work is far from over. Over the past year and a half, SOUL has planted 790 large, native trees, including bald cypress and live oaks, in Mid-City, Treme, Algiers, Algiers Point, Freret-Climana, along Tulane Avenue and in Broadmoor.
Now that this year’s planting season is over (the best time to plant trees in South Louisiana is from November through March), Burley and Scott Mayer, the only two staff members of the nonprofit organization, maintain all of the new trees with help from neighborhood volunteers, work on policy issues, and try to raise money to keep the plantings going. It’s a daunting job.
New Orleans lost an estimated 100,000 trees in Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed. In the years since then, several organizations have worked to reforest the city.
SOUL, which Burley founded nearly two years ago, is taking a systematic approach, targeting specific neighborhoods that are devoid of trees and creating a “natural system” to maximize the benefits to the community. “Trees clean our air, soil and water, lower air temperatures and electricity bills and slow subsidence,” Burley said in between emptying water buckets. “Here, where I am in Algiers, it’s sinking at .78 inches per year. So, it’s crucial that we plant trees, lots of them, in a concentrated area.”
To help that process, SOUL recruited 527 volunteers this year, who helped plant the trees in targeted neighborhoods. For the biggest impact, “spot planting doesn’t really work,” Burley said. “You have to cluster them and then allow them to function as a system. We’re planting, for example, 20 trees in an area together, so as they grow they will absorb more storm water, slow subsidence and clean pollutants. That’s why we keep going back to the same communities.”
Burley likened this tree “system” to a highway system. “If you’re driving down a road and it ends, that system doesn’t work. It doesn’t transport you from place to place. The goal is to have the trees to work together.”
“We don’t just give away trees. We oversee the planting and help ensure their successful growth,” she said, including providing guards to protect against weed-eating damage and providing mulch and water for the first year after planting.
So far, this approach has worked. Of the 790 trees planted by SOUL, only five trees have died. Of those, three died from being run over by cars, one died from vandalism, and one died from an injury during Aug. 5 flood. All of the other trees survived the harsh freezes this winter.
SOUL raises money for the tree plantings through sponsorship — to sponsor a tree costs $125 — and grants. Recent sponsors have included Parkway Bakery and Tavern, Whole Foods Market, The Sazerac Co., Broadmoor Improvement Association, Mid-City Rotary Club, Blue Orleans, Physicians Realty, Garden Study Club of New Orleans, GoodWood, Riverside Lumber, Doorman Designs, Climana Neighborhood Association, Waggoner and Ball, Cafe Degas, Algiers Development District, Keep America Beautiful/Keep Louisiana Beautiful and New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries.
Since most of its trees are planted on public rights of way, from the sidewalk to the street and on neutral grounds, SOUL works closely with the New Orleans Department of Parks and Parkways. “They are our biggest partner. We permit all of our trees through them,” said Burley, who grew up in Atlanta and earned a master’s of landscape architecture from Louisiana State University.
SOUL also is working to protect the city’s reforestation efforts from a policy standpoint. Mayer “has been doing case studies of other cities’ tree planting systems to see which ones are really successful,” Burley said. “This summer, we’re working on our strategy on how to scale up, and on public policy to protect trees. Currently, there is no heritage tree legislation, so we’re working on that. Right now, you could take down a 300-years-old live oak to put in a gas station.”
To learn more about SOUL, visit soulnola.org.
Like what we do? Donate today.