Louisville has been a hub for news as the backdrop against which millions said goodbye to Muhammad Ali. But it’s also been in the news a lot in the past year in less positive ways. More specifically, as one of the nation’s hottest cities. To be specific, the 5th hottest U.S. city based on NASA satellite data.
But Louisville is taking action. The city established an Office of Sustainability that’s as much about economic development as it is about environmental issues. Intertwining the two into a vision for the region and quality of life is forward thinking. Companies want to locate in regions where they can attract the right kind of employees.
The office focuses on smart development and creating interagency/interdepartmental connectivity so that multiple perspectives may be accounted for as projects are considered. “Let’s all develop smartly together,” said Erin Thompson, the city’s Urban Forester, when we recently caught up with her.
The Sustainability office hired Erin as the city’s first urban forester about three years ago. The first order of business, “Let’s get our house [public trees] in order and, hopefully, Louisville citizens will, too,” Erin explained.
Erin and city leadership know based on their Urban Forest Assessment (see below) that one of the keys to Louisville’s urban forest future is developing policies and programs to preserve and maintain trees on private property. But the city can show citizens the way through example by better managing the 30% of tree canopy that’s located on public property.
An urban forest assessment was completed and published in March 2015. It’s an important piece to move policy forward in addressing Louisville’s heat island. About 12% of the city (31,000 acres) is heat stressed/has ”hot spots.” This area is two-thirds impervious surfaces and bare soil cover. Only 8% is covered with tree canopy. Most of this space is taken up in industrial and multi-family residential uses.
More recently, the Louisville Urban Heat Management Study (see below), currently in draft form out for comment, recommends planting 450,000 trees. That’s a tall order for a new urban forestry program.
Erin’s efforts are not the only efforts at boosting Louisville’s tree canopy. The Municipal Sewer District (MSD) is under consent decree with EPA. As part of the agreement, the MSD is spending $100 million over 10 years for reforestation on public and private property.
Louisville’s Metro Parks and Recreation Department has their own nursery to grow plants for the city’s 120 parks that cover more than 13,000 acres. Louisville is home to five parks that were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. Park trees and vegetation is an important piece of the city’s green infrastructure.
To achieve the Urban Forestry Assessment plan on how to obtain a 40% or 45% canopy cover while curbing net loss, there’s lots more work to do. For example, positioning trees and sustainability into transportation corridors by working with public works engineers to examine code specifications. Erin explained that making small adjustments of 1 or 2 ft. could widen the green verge in the right of way enough to accommodate trees, which could potentially unleash a lot of new tree planting space.
Creating awareness of trees throughout and within relevant departments and divisions is ongoing, she said. For instance ensuring trees are considered in routine work, such as sewer line installation. Third party contractors hired for projects that are unaware of sustainability priorities may cut down trees that could remain simply because the tree was located in an easement. Cross communication is critical, she said.
When it comes to purchasing trees for planting, Erin prefers to source as locally as possible. When she does travel, it’s to areas a bit north (St. Louis, Indianapolis, Illinois) to get trees that are more cold hardy. She leans heavily on native trees, but also adapted species in harsh urban situations where they’re good. Erin says that most plantings are 80/20 native/introduced species.
It isn’t always feasible or economically viable to put in large caliper balled and burlaped trees. She is looking at experimenting with bareroot trees in a couple of neighborhoods that tend to have first-time homeowners. There, the residents are more adamant for the neighborhood to look good, she says, and appreciate and care for trees planted in the right of way.
Lately, it’s been challenging finding nursery stock, especially locally, as neighborhood associations and other cities like Indianapolis undertake large tree planting initiatives, so supply becomes more limited. Some nurseries specializing in local provenance native trees routinely sell out.
Having an urban forester may be new for the city of Louisville, but Erin has resources and governmental infrastructure to leverage to move urban trees into the spotlight.
NewTerrain June 15, 2016.