The reforestation advocate
Written by Misty Milotto, New Orleans Living Magazine, published May 31, 2018
Originally from Atlanta — one of the most forested cities in the country — Susannah Burley took for granted the number of trees in the city. She moved to New Orleans in 1993 to attend Loyola University, and then moved to Los Angeles in 2000 for eight years. While she didn’t really care for Los Angeles in general, she says she learned how the other half lives, environmentally, and she embraced the city’s environmental consciousness. “I’ve been a big jazz fan since I was small, and I love the music and culture of [New Orleans], and the easy, casual way that people interact here,” she says. “I also love to cook, eat and garden, so I’m in the perfect place.”
Although Burley has found her home, she has been concerned with the lack of trees in the Crescent City. Burley, who has a master’s of landscape architecture degree from Louisiana State University, previously served as program director at Parkway Partners, where she oversaw the ReLeaf tree planting program. Then, in June 2016, she founded SOUL—a program of the non-profit organization Trust for Conservation Innovation. “When I attended graduate school for landscape architecture, we had systems and stormwater management drilled into us, and for good reason,” she says. “I came away with the understanding that thriving infrastructure must be implemented as systems to function properly, and also that nature can and should be utilized as systems and infrastructure.”
Although she loved her position at Parkway Partners, she wanted to focus on reforesting New Orleans and she had her own ideas about taking a different approach. “We lost 100,000 trees due to [Hurricane] Katrina, and the U.S. Forest Service declared New Orleans the most deforested city in the country,” Burley says. “But our canopy was nothing to write home about before the storm. Right now, according to our internal mapping, New Orleans needs 1 million trees. This matters. Trees are critical to our ability to absorb stormwater, one of the city’s most crucial issues. They help slow subsidence (land sinking); clean our air, soil and water; lower air temperatures and energy bills; and improve community health. But in order for them to make real impacts in these areas, trees must be planted strategically, as a system, at a meaningful scale and in tandem with traditional infrastructure.”
Burley stays busy as executive director of SOUL, typically working 10-hour days and six-day weeks. However, every day is different; sometimes, she’s outside all day, and, other days, she’s at her computer from morning ’til night. “There are just two of us at SOUL, and we are [always] slammed,” Burley says. “November to March is planting season, and a great deal of my time is spent making tree plantings happen, from training block captains, to permitting tree locations, to hand selecting trees from North Shore farms, to overseeing volunteer plantings on Saturdays, to coordinating with funders. During the rest of the year, we host educational programming, perform community outreach, fundraise, maintain trees and work on changing legislation around protecting trees.”
SOUL recently partnered with Whole Foods Market and the Rotary Club of Mid-City to plant 150 trees in the Mid-City, Treme and Lafitte neighborhoods in what was SOUL’s largest tree planting to date. “We have partnered with the Rotary Club of Mid-City since our launch,” Burley says. “They’re a group of young professionals with a majority female membership who are very action-oriented and environmentally focused. Our partnership with Whole Foods Market began in a very grassroots manner. Someone from Whole Foods Market’s marketing team volunteered with us as a block captain. (This means she rallies her neighbors to plant trees at their houses, and serves as the liaison between the community and SOUL.) [She] fell in love with our mission and work, and she shopped our cause up the ladder until she found the right person to fund us.”
Nearly 130 volunteers participated in the planting event. Burley says that SOUL always plants native water-loving trees including Live Oaks, Red Maples, Nuttall Oaks, Bald Cypress, Sweet Bay Magnolias, ‘Little Gem’ Magnolias, Savannah Hollies and Ironwoods. “We always have food and drink afterwards to thank our volunteers, but this was definitely the biggest event yet,” she says. “Whole Foods Market employees were grilling, and there was a sno-ball truck and a Cajun band from Lafayette. It was wonderful.”
As for future events, Burley says that while SOUL does not plant in the off-season, the organization always has a lot going on, such as mulch and maintenance events. SOUL’s Community Forestry Educational Series, funded by the Keller Family Foundation, will occur in August. “We partner with the LSU AgCenter on this event, and it’s an 11-hour intensive workshop that occurs over four evenings,” she says. “Local experts present on different topics related to New Orleans’ urban forest, what trees do for our environment, in particular stormwater and flooding, and how, as citizens, we can replant it. We’ll have info about this event up on our website soon.”
SOUL also will be hosting several block captain trainings this summer to teach citizens how to reforest their areas. These trainings consist of 1.5 hours of training, and a lot of follow-up and communication with SOUL. And on Sept. 29, the organization will hold its annual fundraiser—an elegant affair that also reflects the fun-loving spirit of SOUL. In the meantime, SOUL is always looking for volunteers and sponsors. For those interested in volunteering or receiving a sponsorship package, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. soulnola.org
On her short-term and long-term goals with SOUL: “Our big goal is to reforest New Orleans,” Burley says. “This is ambitious, but it’s absolutely doable. Our strategy is to plant neighborhood by neighborhood, starting with Mid-City, Broadmoor, Freret-Climana and Algiers. This means that we cluster trees in these communities. We’d rather plant 20 trees on one block than one tree on 20 blocks. Clustering allows us to more quickly impact flooding, pollution, air temperatures, subsidence and community health. If we are able to secure a DeltaCorps Member to work with us for the next year, we’ll be able to expand into one or two more communities and we would love for those to be Gentilly and New Orleans East.
Tips for those who are wanting to plant trees: “Before you consider what kind of tree you want to plant, first think about how big you want it to be, what you want it to do for you (lower energy bills, grow flower blooms, drink stormwater) and then select a tree based on that,” Burley says. “Do your research. Call LSU AgCenter, or an arborist, or SOUL, and plant the right tree in the right place.”
On the benefits of planting more trees: “Arguably the most important benefit to trees in New Orleans is their stormwater absorption power,” Burley says. “Live Oaks can drink over 1,000 gallons of water per day when it’s raining, while Bald Cypress can absorb 880 gallons. When clustered into systems, they can change how a community responds to a heavy rain. Aside from the other aforementioned benefits, trees are beautiful. They can alter our quality of life. There are numerous studies showing that areas with trees have lower crime levels.”
More trees mean less flooding, urban forestry advocate says
Susannah Burley was dealing with an insurance adjuster when I caught up with her to talk about green infrastructure in the aftermath of the most recent unexpected New Orleans flood.
“I live in the Fairgrounds Triangle neighborhood, and we got water inside of our rental property and both cars,” she lamented. “My husband’s car will be OK, but the adjuster wants to total mine.”
I met Burley a couple of years ago when she led the education program at Parkway Partners and I took the “Green Keepers” classes. Burley became so committed to the idea of using rain gardens, retention ponds and appropriate street plantings to reduce flooding that she left Parkway Partners and founded a new nonprofit, SOUL NOLA, in June 2016.
“It’s an acronym for Sustaining Our Urban Landscape, and the idea is to work neighborhood by neighborhood to help residents form a strategic plan to reduce dramatically the amount of stormwater that goes into catch basins and the drainage system,” said Burley, who also holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture from LSU.
“We had a lesson last weekend in the limits of what drainage systems can do … and we know it won’t stop flooding in the future. We need green infrastructure.”
The catastrophic flooding of last weekend appears to be the result of problems with the pumps and an abnormally large volume of rain in a short period of time. Yet Burley said that a robust approach to creating “green infrastructure” citywide might have reduced the flooding by keeping rain water out of the streets.
If the terms “green” and “infrastructure” don’t seem like they belong together, Burley says it’s because the idea is new to most cities.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the goal was to ensure that rainwater reached the drainage system as quickly as possible so it could be pumped to Lake Pontchartrain. Thinking has changed.
Now the idea is to deal with rainwater where it falls and to find ways to retain it or slow its path to the drainage system so the system won’t be overwhelmed and so rain can seep into the ground and replenish groundwater, important to reducing subsidence. Rain barrels, rain gardens and the like are some obvious ways to do it.
“At City Hall Tuesday, we learned what it would take to completely rebuild the drainage system to handle more water — it’s not going to happen,” Burley said, referring to the public meeting held to discuss the flood.
“So green infrastructure has to become part of the city’s plan for the future. As long as we pin our hopes on the drainage system and ignore the benefits of using green infrastructure to handle stormwater, we’re going to flood over and over again.”
SOUL is working with neighborhood leaders in Mid-City and Algiers and is in the planning phases with Broadmoor on a project aimed at reforesting the city, one neighborhood at a time.
Burley says trees are critical to helping manage storm water because they drink it up, thereby keeping it out of the vulnerable storm water drainage system. The bigger the tree, the greater the water storage capacity, she said.
Some of the thirstiest include Sweetbay magnolia, pond and bald cypress, and red maples.
A map on SOUL’s website shows the locations of trees planted to date. Every time volunteers and neighbors sink another one into the ground, its location is plotted on the map.
Click on a tree icon and see the address of the property where the tree was installed, the tree type and the container size. SOUL monitors tree health and condition after planting, but it is up to the residents and neighbors to keep the tree sufficiently watered the first year.
Live oaks, sweet bay and Little Gem magnolias, Drummond red maples, native fringe trees and Savannah hollies are a few of the tree types that appear on the map. Larger trees (live oaks) have been planted on neutral grounds and smaller trees (small magnolias, for example) on residential properties at the owner’s request.
Burley said, “We need to stop thinking of trees and greenery as merely ornamental and think of them for what they are — our front-line defense against flooding.”
Yesterday I served food to a woman who hadn’t eaten in nine days, and to another woman shaking from hypoglycemia. I was volunteering in Walker, Louisiana at a church, a temporary site where people can sign up for DSNAP benefits. These people are the working poor and most have lost their homes and jobs to the unprecedented flooding of Louisiana over the last two weeks. Seeing these people in person rather than on the news was a powerful experience, and it reminded me of why I’m doing this, why I’ve gone out on a limb, with a husband, a 3-year-old, and a house note, to start Sustaining Our Urban Landscape, SOUL, yet another NGO in New Orleans.
We have been hit hard for the second time in 12 years. And we’ll get hit again, likely soon. Hurricane Katrina was a 100-year-storm. The nameless floods that we are presently recovering from are 1,000-year-floods. The next one just may be a 2,000-year-event, and we must be prepared.
Our bodies and souls and bank accounts can’t keep doing this. We can’t continue losing our homes, and businesses and shirts, just to build it all back…. the same way.
We must take a step back, zoom out and strategically rebuild as a system. Then we can safely live through the floods and hurricanes that are a part of life here in Louisiana. Sure, we’ll have to take a week off and dust ourselves off. But if we rebuild so that we can live harmoniously with the forces of nature, and the manmade repercussions of climate change, then our future recoveries will be a lot swifter and easier on us.
We need a massive reforestation of Louisiana. Mature, native, water-loving trees like Live Oaks and Bald Cypress drink up to 1,000 gallons of water per day and should be as common and beloved a site in our urban and rural landscapes as Saints bumper stickers. One huge impetus behind founding SOUL is the very large goal of replanting New Orleans, the most deforested city in the U.S.! But rural Louisiana suffers from deforestation as well, largely due to short-sighted development of subdivisions and commercial areas that raze the forest and level the land before construction. Trees are essential to our resilience as they absorb stormwater into their root systems and transpire it back into the air. A mature tree produces enough oxygen for ten people, and can lower our air temperatures by up to two degrees. The benefits of trees are endless, and our futures rely on them.
It’s time to respect the gravity of gravity. It there’s one thing we can always count on, it’s that water will always travel downhill. Thus, it is vital that water has an unobstructed path to its nearest floodplain or basin. Rural Louisiana has many flood plains and small water bodies like creeks that are bisected by roads. During heavy rains these spots turn into dams and cause massive flooding as water seeks a lower point of gravity.
New construction should be raised to a level accommodating a 2,000-year storm. Considering how quickly our disasters are growing in intensity and frequency, it only makes sense that we should build new homes and businesses according to future storm levels. We’re recovering from a 1,000-year flood, so let’s rebuild to a 2,000-year disaster this time. Many of the structures that were damaged were built at grade on slab. Cities must stop allowing development that ignores our hydrology and natural history, for the sake of developers maximizing their profits.
We need to integrate “green infrastructure” into every aspect of our lives. If you’re not already familiar with this term, it refers to infrastructure that mimics natural systems and harnesses stormwater at its source. Essentially its goal is to get water back into the ground and into the water table.
Like grey infrastructure, such as canals and roads, green infrastructure must be built at a meaningful scale and properly integrated into the systems we call cities and parishes. This could mean a city repaving its streets with permeable asphalt, or grading streets so their water drains into a detention area, NOT toward homes and businesses. When we cover the earth with impermeable surfaces like concrete and rooftops, water can’t get back into the ground to the water table; eventually the water table shrinks and subsides, taking our topography down with it. If the water can’t permeate the ground, then it floods during large rain events.
Every new street, parking lot or sidewalk should be constructed of materials that water can penetrate. Every road should be part of a larger comprehensive drainage plan, eventually sending water back into the water table.
All of the above concepts are pretty simple. But they involve changing our consciousness around resilience from the citizen level to the Governor’s mansion; and they require the decision makers at the city, state and even regional levels sitting down to the same table to address our road, hydrology, and forestry systems as interconnected and reliant on one another.
One thing is for sure, we citizens of Louisiana want to stay in this strange, beautiful gumbo of a place we choose to call home. But we can’t keep crossing our fingers that we won’t have to shoulder another disaster that didn’t have to happen.