Who Will See the Canopy for the Trees?



Louisville, Kentucky is on Fodor’s 2015 travel “Go List.”  Forget about Antarctica and Iceland. You want a hot spot? My hometown is unquestionably the hot spot among the top 25 travel destinations.

Louisville ranks among the Top Five cities in the country with hottest urban heat islands. Some Louisvillians would rather the heat island distinction go unnoticed, particularly since the ambient temperature difference between the city center and the outlying countryside is rising faster than anywhere else in the nation.

There’s a way out of this, but it’s complicated.

Louisville has lost hundreds of thousands of trees over the last seven years, but 19 might soon be saved. Yes, 19.

Brownsboro Road trees waiting on a settlement with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
Brownsboro Road trees waiting on a settlement with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

Trees—lots of them—are a part of the discussion for cooling our city. Louisville’s tree deficit is worsening in spite of current tree planting in parks, along parkways, targeted public spaces and on private property.

Remnants of Hurricane Ike, followed by a devastating ice storm four months later, and general neglect have clobbered Louisville’s tree canopy since 2008.  The city has suffered an estimated 9% tree loss in parts of city while the emerald ash borer is assaulting all neighborhoods.

2009 ice storm on my Louisville street.
2009 ice storm on my Louisville street.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has not been making it easy. In early December they threatened to remove 19 newly planted zelkovas and oaks. They insisted that the trees were planted too closely to Brownsboro Road. (It must be easier to pick on young trees since there are mature trees all over town that are planted just as closely to roadways.) The highway department also argued that there was another worrisome hazard. Trees keep roadways wetter, longer. So if you’re following their logic: trees and rain are vehicular problems.

Trees close to the curb on Frankfort Avenue.
Trees close to the curb on Frankfort Avenue.

The mayor’s cautious spokesperson, Chris Poynter, who must drive to work on good rain tires, showed no willingness, to step up in defense of these trees. He said, “We completely respect the safety issue, and we do abide by their [state] rules.”

Contrary to prevailing highway department views, trees are not a major urban highway threat. Fewer than 1% of U.S. urban vehicular accidents involve a tree.

There was a glimmer of hope a few days before Christmas. The highway department agreed to a one-month delay in order to try to find a settlement on the trees.

Saving the trees could be a turning point in the continuing loss of Louisville’s tree canopy.

Much more is at stake.

Can Louisville change lanes and plant hundreds of thousands of trees, then provide for their care? How about a million or more?

Planting trees in the Parkland neighborhood. Mike Hayman photo.
Planting trees in the Parkland neighborhood. Mike Hayman photo.

Expanding and strengthening the urban tree canopy can produce cost savings and a healthier environment. Some will argue that parts of Louisville have a very high percentage tree canopy already. So will the noble justifications of carbon sequestration, reduction of storm water runoff and cooling the urban heat island, in other parts of Louisville, prove too complicated and expensive to sell to an uncertain public.

We can brag about Bourbon and basketball. Yet neither registers on what businesses considering a move to Louisville value most: our tree-filled parks are one of the top drawing cards.

Louisville has undaunted tree advocates who think big.

The Metro Parks landscape crew, led by Mesude Duyar Ozyurekoglu, has been planting a wide diversity of trees along the Olmsted-designed Parkways to replace old pin oaks.

Bert Eisenback of Louisville Metro Parks with newly planted tulip poplar on Eastern Parkway.
Bert Eisenback of Louisville Metro Parks with newly planted tulip poplar on Eastern Parkway.

The Olmsted Parks Conservancy, with continuing generous grants, from Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District, has added to Louisville’s tree canopy.

The Parklands of Floyds Fork has been planting trees and shrubs since breaking ground in 2011 on “the largest fully funded metropolitan parks project in the country.”

Valerie Magnuson and Louisville Grows have planted trees in the last two years.

So have Erin Thompson, Louisville’s urban tree forester, and Brightside.

Eco-Tech, the solid waste management company has pledged 10,000 trees, to be planted regionally, over ten years.

Mike Hayman, retired Courier-Journal photographer and tree activist, has planted trees on his own and with the collaboration of others throughout his Seneca Gardens neighborhood, in gardens, parks and along public rights of way. Hayman’s projects have engaged multiple ad hoc team members. Each tree planting has a different combination of donors and stakeholders.

Whitehall House and Gardens. Mike Hayman photo.
Whitehall House and Gardens. Mike Hayman photo.

Significantly increasing Louisville’s tree canopy will require even broader community involvement and political leadership.

Sacramento, California, has found a way. The Sacramento Tree Foundation has established a bold mission to plant 5 million new trees in the Sacramento region by 2025. One million new plantings will replace trees in decline, and 4 million will be new additions. The Sacramento Tree Foundation’s ambitious goal will account for half of the 5 million total. Homeowners and businesses would plant the balance of 2.5 million trees.

Planting trees in the Portland neighborhood. Mike Hayman photo.
Planting trees in the Portland neighborhood. Mike Hayman photo.

A shortage of money and political leadership are persistent Louisville problems. We have historic parks, but the can has been kicked around the parks and down our parkways for a long time. John Charles Olmsted, nephew and adopted son of Frederick Law Olmsted, complained in 1915 that Louisville’s parkways were “inadequate.” He blamed it on a “lack of power and money to do what should have been done.”

Louisville’s mayor, Greg Fischer, since forming a Metro Tree Advisory Commission and hiring Erin Thompson as the Urban Tree Forester, has taken little active leadership toward promoting an increase in the city’s tree canopy.

The mayor has been waiting while the Metro Tree Advisory Commission talks to stakeholders and compiles information. He won’t be able hide in the shade much longer.

A comprehensive tree study conducted with public and private funds will be released soon. It is not hard to anticipate what will be recommended: more trees.

A large scale tree planting will require political capital. The city can’t do it alone. Mayor Fisher will need to go out on a limb and help raise money and lead a coordinated public-private effort.

But Mayor Fischer is not sending out promising signs. He is hampered by budget restraints and political ambitions. The mayor must decide whether it makes sense to do some heavy lifting.

Louisville was officially designated a “Compassionate City” in 2013, so perhaps this is where hope and prayer figure in.

If we have any hope of cooling down, Louisville’s trails, roadways, landscapes and barren spaces can’t be planted at the current rate. A strong, coordinated, well-funded effort will be needed to plant and maintain new trees.

Mayor Fisher will weigh the political cost-benefits of leading a bold initiative for increasing Louisville’s tree canopy. I hope the mayor refuses to kick the can down the parkway for another 100 years.

Allen Bush is on the Board of Trustees of Louisville’s Olmsted Parks Conservancy.


  1. In Atlanta we have an organization , Trees Atlanta, that has been very successful in planting tens of thousands of trees over the last 15 years or so. They are also instrumental in tree policy decisions and work closely with local government and businesses. We are very proud of them here. Check them out and maybe have a conversation? This is something that CAN change!

    • Georgia Tech’s Brain Stone conducted Louisville’s tree study that is due to be released very soon. No doubt, he’s well aware of Atlanta’s good work.

  2. One of the reasons I bought my current home, is because of the mature trees in my neighbourhood. Some of them have had to come down in recent years because they were diseased. You can definitely tell the difference in temperature. I run from tree shade to tree shade on my walk to work in the summer.

    I hope this article sparks some action in the correct direction.

  3. Thanks for speaking up for your trees.

    You don’t mention the percent of tree canopy in Louisville. San Francisco has one of the smallest tree canopies of all cities in the country, according to the US Forest Service. Only 13% of the city is covered by tree canopy. How does that compare to Louisville?

    San Francisco is aggressively reducing its tree canopy because the trees are not native. There were virtually no trees in pre-settlement San Francisco, so the city has adopted policies that will return the city to grassland and dune scrub.

    Count your blessings.

    • I didn’t mention canopy percentage since Louisville’s tree study is due to be released in the next few weeks. But previous estimates have put it in the 27-30% range. Not bad compared to San Francisco, but it’s hot here in the summers. We need the shade.

  4. In the book Traffic, the author described how trees reduce accidents. People drive more slowly along a street lined with trees, and excess speed is a big factor in accidents.

  5. The city of Seattle has a program called reLeaf (http://www.seattle.gov/trees/). The city gives residents up to four trees of various kinds to plant on their property or hellstrip, and treegator bags for watering. One is instructed on planting when one picks them up. Emails are sent periodically to remind one to water and on tree care. There are only so many city employees. there are far more residents. Getting them involved in planting and maintenance makes sense.

  6. Austin is one of the fastest growing cities. One of the primary reasons people give for moving here is that they appreciate our urban forest. Here’s to more trees and fewer roads please.

  7. Great article! In Greensboro we have a similar organization ‘Greensboro Beautiful’ which partners with local leaders and companies to add beauty and functional landscape additions to area parks and roadways. In Burlington, about 40 minutes down the road, it is the New Leaf Society. It is organizations such as these that will aid urban areas to reforest cleared areas, and provide needed ‘green’ solutions to challenges they are facing. Thanks for bringing this to the forefront of discussion!

  8. I moved to a well-established, older neighborhood 15 years ago–my grandchildren called it the neighborhood of big trees. Unfortunately, many of those big trees were White Ash and, of course, they are all gone–including mine. The city had a program to replant trees, but they weren’t all shade trees. My next door neighbor planted a Serviceberry; the person next to her planted a Japanese Lilac. Neither one will ever grow big enough to shade either the sidewalk or the street.

  9. I am pulling for you and your work, Allen. It is so important.
    Whenever a tree blows down in a storm I just feel people saying, “trees are dangerous” thus giving an excuse why they won’t plant them on their property. So, I’d just add that beyond just planting trees, we need to plant for longevity (a topic so eloquently conveyed by Hannah Mathers at the Iowa Shade Tree Short Course).
    It matters HOW they are planted… and incidentally, the best ways are the easiest and least expensive: seed grown and bare root. I know you know all of this, Allen, so I’m just reminding you that perhaps these simpler ways can result in more trees planted. The money may be more aptly apportioned to the watering and ongoing maintenance.
    Thanks for allowing my input. I love your writing style.

  10. Allan, Great post. Eleven years ago before we moved to Tennessee; we visited our son who was playing in a Louisville blues club. We stayed in a downtown motel & had the opportunity to walk some of Louisville’s streets near the metro area. I was most impressed with the variety of trees that we saw particularly the ginkos.
    Since moving to Portland ,TN & building our garden here, I have been a proponent of the use of a mix of trees in the Tennessee landscape above & beyond the standard fare available in the local nursery trade. This includes trees such as Parrotias, Ginkos, Zelkovas, Cryptomerias & various species maples. As I’m sure you are aware, it is a daunting task to get landscapers & customers interested in something “new” or “different”. Fortunately there is some interest among the younger generation of landscapers. The trick now is getting the nurserymen to grow & promote these trees.
    I hope that the planting/rejuvenation of Louisville’s trees will be successful & will include a wide variety of tree species.

  11. Here in the DC area, we are lucky to have several great programs and organizations, top among them is Casey Trees – http://caseytrees.org/. I had the pleasure of working with them on a Community Tree Planting and we were able to plant 18 trees at no cost to our neighborhood with their help (most of them were shade trees, but it also included a couple of fruit and flowering trees). To see the extent of their work, check out their tree planting map – http://caseytrees.org/resources/maps/casey-trees-plantings/

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