Miami and LA Rethink Their Iconic Palm Trees

Image: Vincent Gerbouin/Pexels

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

Palm trees are the iconic imagery of warm coastal cities like Los Angeles and Miami. In fact, in Miami, palms make up over 55% of the city’s total tree population. Yet climate change and rising global temperatures are forcing city leaders to rethink the prominence of the palm.

Miami has started a 30-year plan to reduce its percentage of palm trees to one-quarter of its total canopy, by planting about 1,300 new shade trees. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ palm trees are dying due to a beetle — the South American palm weevil— and a fungus called Fusarium. LA officials don’t plan to replace these palms in order to support species that provide more shade and can better stand up to the threats of climate change.

Why This Matters: Trees can do a lot for a city — they can improve the air quality, store carbon, absorb rainfall, and reduce urban warming. Palm trees are not as effective as other trees in benefitting city denizens; for example, a sabal palmetto palm would absorb 2.7lb of carbon dioxide, 1.7oz of ozone and 81 gallons of rainfall per year, while an oak of the same dimensions would absorb 510lb of carbon dioxide, 20oz ozone, and 725 gallons of rainfall.

Trees with bigger canopies are also more adept at preventing cities from overheating. A lack of trees in the city causes a phenomenon called urban heat islands, where a dearth of shade causes concrete to absorb more heat, making the atmosphere around the concrete hotter as well. This could have dire consequences — heat has killed more people than any other type of weather event.

Even incremental efforts to reduce heat in these cities is important as by the middle of the century, LA is expected to get three to five degrees warmer and have triple the number of extreme heat days. Meanwhile, a study conducted in West Palm Beach this past August found a heat-index temperature of 122 degrees downtown.

Replacing the Palms: Planting new trees will not be easy, because there isn’t an infrastructure in place to support larger trees. West Palm Beach is spending over $9 million dollars making over three blocks on Clematis Street, and using part of the money to create planting structures that could allow shade trees to grow downtown. 

Meanwhile, Andy Lipkis, the president of TreePeople, an LA-based advocacy group, suggests that removing dead trees from Los Angeles over the next thirty years could cost $37bn

But there still is a place for palms in our cities. Elizabeth Wheaton, the environment and sustainability director for the City of Miami Beach, wrote in an email to the Miami Herald:Expanding shade canopy will enhance the city’s brand and quality of life. Palms will continue to be a focal point along the city’s roads, green spaces and parks.”

Ray Caranci, a landscape planner for West Palm Beach, told WUSF: “There will always be a place for palms; each site has to be looked at specifically. It’s not canopy trees at the expense of palms, it’s where can we find and provide more tree canopy.”


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