Lafayette's trees temper floods and heat but get few protections

Woman walks in the shade of a large oak tree.
“Trees are taken for granted a little bit in Lafayette,” says Abbie Judice, environmental coordinator and certified arborist at Moncus Park. Photo by Robin May

Lafayette grew up around its trees. UL Lafayette’s Century Oaks, originally planted in 1901 by the university’s first president, Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens, are a de-facto gateway to the city, setting the tone for the campus and the tree-lined neighborhoods around it.

This month, staff members from UL’s Office of Sustainability were busy planting new trees along the pedestrian paths at the intramural fields on Cajundome Boulevard.

“We know it’s important for the city, just like it’s important for UL,” says Gretchen Vanicor, director of sustainability at UL. “We’re an open campus and we’re part of a broader community. We’ve seen that when we provide shaded, safe places for people, they want to come here. Everyone appreciates it.”

Staff from UL's sustainability office plant trees near university's intramural fields. From left to right: Gretchen Vanicor, Director of Sustainability; Blair Begnaud, Assistant Director of Sustainability; Jonathan Brown, Sustainability Coordinator.

Lafayette’s urban forest is also a key line of defense against extreme heat, intense rainfall and the loss of native plants and animals. Native trees are especially efficient at warding off heat while soaking up stormwater, proving a useful tool in dealing with floods. But despite trees’ long list of community benefits, there are few local protections.

“Trees are taken for granted a little bit in Lafayette,” says Abbie Judice, environmental coordinator and certified arborist at Moncus Park. “It’s because we have such a wonderful climate for tree growth; a lot of other cities have to work a lot harder than we do to maintain this quality of canopy.”

Regulations begin and end with public rights-of-way, managed by agencies with Lafayette Consolidated Government. Private developments and public projects have cleared large swaths of Lafayette’s tree canopy, a trend that is not well documented.

“We don’t have great data on our total tree coverage,” says Cathie Gilbert, planning manager at LCG. “We do not have a tree protection ordinance.”

What protections do exist are enshrined in Lafayette’s development code. LCG’s Community Development & Planning and Public Works departments and LUS account for most tree-related government work, primarily code enforcement. They ensure the correct trees are planted along rights-of-way, growth doesn’t obstruct utilities and trees don’t impact sidewalks and sewage.

But there is little in the way of regulation or protection for trees on private land, and there are no protections if developers choose to clear-cut land to make it easier to build — unless they decide to plan around existing trees for their aesthetic and economic value.

Public projects have also taken their toll on Lafayette’s tree canopy. Construction of new roads and highways, projects to clean and expand drainage channels and other major capital improvements often clear out trees. LUS has faced blowback in the past for how its contractors trim the city’s oaks away from power lines during hurricane season.

Lafayette’s development code contains landscaping requirements for development and includes incentives to keep existing trees as credit toward those requirements.

Still, mostly treeless residential developments continue to spring up and go to market, leaving homeowners with plots of re-graded and compacted earth that creates a difficult environment for future plantings.

Housing development under construction with dirt covering sidewalks and no trees in sight
Homes on sites that have been clear-cut may be more expensive to cool, or be impacted by unchecked stormwater runoff.

Homes on sites that have been clear-cut may be more expensive to cool, or be impacted by unchecked stormwater runoff. But Judice says many property owners don’t fully understand the tradeoffs they are making when they plant certain trees, or choose to cut one down.

“After a storm event you’ll often see a reactive response. Have to cut or aggressively trim trees, everything’s scary, everything’s dangerous,” says Judice. “Or there’s choosing trees for ornamental aspects, which are often not native. We like to use [non-native] crepe myrtles like nobody’s business.”

Efforts to cultivate native trees have been spearheaded by tree-minded organizations like Moncus Park, and tree-planting groups like Trees Acadiana, which has planted up to 300 trees in Lafayette since 1997.

“We just decided we needed a group of people who would plant trees as fast as people would cut them down,” says Trees Acadiana President Sarah Schoeffler. “It’s a nightmare to see how developers will go in and clear out a spot.”

The group focuses on getting permission to plant in public areas, such as city-owned parks.

LCG’s Community Development & Planning Department has also identified opportunities to incorporate trees as part of its green infrastructure projects.

“We’ve worked really hard in this office to try to get the right trees in the right place,” says Gilbert. “We’ve said, let’s play ball with the engineers in LUS and Public Works, and let’s try to figure out how to do this — add beauty and shade to the community — but not damage our infrastructure. If we can get to the point that trees are always part of any roadway project, that would be a goal that we can really be proud of.”

The department plans to include street trees as part of its Congress Street streetscape project, which will run from University Avenue to the railroad tracks near S. Pierce Street.

Tree canopy covers the sky above a woman
Efforts to cultivate native trees have been spearheaded by tree-minded organizations like Moncus Park.

Planner Chris Adams says green infrastructure planning will be increasingly important for Lafayette’s flood mitigation efforts. “It’s an opportunity we’re starting to explore within LCG,” Adams says, “to understand where trees are appropriate and where we can incorporate them.”

Incorporating trees in green infrastructure projects allows for the reduction of surface water via the trees’ root system, which lets the water penetrate soil instead of trying to direct it all through storm drains.

“In the past street trees have not been designed with storm water in mind,” notes Adams. “This is an opportunity for the future, to design not just for shade but for water.”

Well over 100 years since UL planted the Century Oaks, the wider benefit of cultivating native trees is becoming better understood. They’re great for a sense of place. But those who have long recognized their value say they’re even more important as climate change reshapes environmental conditions and how we live.

“Trees are great for aesthetics, but the whole point is they have so many benefits beyond what we use them for in urban settings,” says Judice. “It’s habitat, it’s the biodiversity we need for resilience.”