Measuring and Monitoring the Effects of Greening on the Urban Heat Island Effect, Water Uptake, and Social Challenges

New Orleans, Louisiana

Featured image for the project, Measuring and Monitoring the Effects of Greening on the Urban Heat Island Effect, Water Uptake, and Social Challenges

Photo courtesy of Healthy Community Services


The 7th Ward is an historically black neighborhood in New Orleans, home to over 10,000 residents, 87 percent of whom are African American. The 7th Ward plays an important role in the history and culture of New Orleans and its African American community, being a historical center for New Orleans Creoles, a working-class neighborhood that was especially known for skilled laborers in the building trades. The 7th Ward has rich cultural institutions such as social aid and pleasure clubs, St. Augustine High School, Mardi Gras Indian tribes, musicians and artists, as well as faith-based institutions. There are a large number of long-term residents and families in the neighborhood, and a growing population of new residents and Hispanic residents. The 7th Ward Healthy Community Services organization is committed to providing residents of vulnerable communities with the knowledge to improve their quality of life by reducing and/or eliminating the negative factors of the social determinants of health.

The 7th Ward neighborhood faces a number of challenges, including gun violence, repetitive flooding, drug proliferation, post-Katrina blight, gentrification, and access to quality housing. The 7th Ward has a 10-14 percent higher poverty rate than New Orleans as a whole. The residents and the 7th Ward Healthy Community Services (HCS) organization are particularly concerned about greening in the neighborhood, following studies that have shown, for example, that neighborhoods with trees have 35 percent less domestic violence. The “urban heat island effect” impacts the health of the vulnerable residents in the 7th Ward community, and the youth and elderly suffer from chronic illnesses such as diabetes and asthma. Communities of color and low-income/working class residents of the neighborhood are affected by lost wages from evacuation due to natural disasters and the interruption of daily life due to repetitive flooding. The HCS has existing tree-planting and rain barrel/rain garden programs in the 7th Ward neighborhood but wants more information about the effectiveness of these programs as well as the intersection between the environmental and social challenges facing the community. The HCS has identified an ongoing need for green infrastructure to reduce or mitigate repetitive flooding, for increased tree cover in the neighborhood to address the urban heat island effect, and for research that measures the success of these initiatives and links them with social change and wellbeing.


The Project

The HCS  is partnering with scientists to measure and monitor the effects of the placement of trees and rain gardens (for example, measure the water uptake of trees and rain gardens), as well as measure the effect of tree plantings on the heat island effect, to assess how the organization’s greening activities are improving the community. The HCS would also like to concurrently partner with a social scientist who can carry out research to help link these environmental programs to possible social outcomes. An important part of the project will be educating the community about these programs and their environmental and social effects. This work will inform the HCS’s greening activities and future efforts for tree plantings and rain garden placement. Involvement of the residents in this work will increase ownership and community engagement. Desired outcomes are reduction in the heat island effect, localized flooding, and crime, as well as improved air quality. The HCS envisions that the community will benefit from the project as they beautify and improve the health of their environment, learn about new data sources and resources for greening and green infrastructure.

Desired outputs of the project are:

  • A GIS database to track the efforts of tree-plantings and rain gardens
  • Precipitation and flooding analysis combined with water uptake analysis of trees and rain gardens
  • A methodology for continued mapping and monitoring
  • A time series of tree canopy and air temperature (and perhaps an interactive tool that can continue to be used by the community)

HCS will use this information to share with community members, other stakeholders, and will work with the city to further these neighborhood environmental programs.


Note from The Field: 7th Ward, New Orleans, LA

On July 20 and 24 our team carried out our first survey of residents of the 7th Ward. The survey asked residents their opinions about tree planting initiatives, rain gardens, neighborhood concerns such as crime and flooding, the effects of heat and hot weather, and other aspects of the physical and social environments in the 7th Ward.

Yasmin Davis, ISeeChange, speaks with a resident. Photo courtesy of ISeeChange.

The team consisted of TEX project lead Angela Chalk of 7th Ward Healthy Community Services; Tulane faculty member Amy Lesen; Julia Kumari Drapkin and Yasmin Davis of ISeeChange; a Tulane graduate student; a local high school student taking classes at Tulane; and six members of the Green Infrastructure Neighborhood Champion program.

We collected surveys from a 12 square block area that was designated by project lead Chalk as the target area of concern, and were able to collect over 47 completed surveys. It was a great opportunity for members of the TEX team and Neighborhood Champions to engage with residents of the neighborhood and hear their interest in green infrastructure and concerns about neighborhood issues.

Some residents reported health and other concerns related to heat. Residents are generally very enthusiastic about green infrastructure projects, and are concerned about flooding, neighborhood infrastructure, and crime. Many residents have lived in the area for many years and have multiple family members in the neighborhood, so there is a lot if deep personal investment in the neighborhood, and relationships between neighbors seem to be very close. The Neighborhood Champions felt that participating in the data collection was interesting and enjoyed the opportunity to hear from their fellow residents.

The data collected from the survey will provide evidence based measurements which demonstrate the need to reforest this area, help plan for future tree planting events, [and] reduce flooding by installing bioretention cells to assist with the uptake of water from the trees planted. Most importantly it will reduce urban heat island effects.

Julia and Amy speaking with some of the survey team (Photo courtesy of Angela Chalk)

In all, this first data collection enabled TEX project members to collaborate with community leaders and residents and to learn about the concerns of people living in the 7th Ward. Angela Chalk, Executive Director of Healthy Community Services, a non-profit organization stated, “It gave me a chance to meet more of my neighbors and to have a real impact to improve the health outcomes caused by repetitive flooding and extreme heat events. The cost of energy makes it impossible for folks to afford air conditioning, but we know that mature trees has health benefits and will cool down neighborhoods. I’m so very appreciative to all the collaborating partners for their time, technical assistance and commitment to the project.”

Notes from the field: March 2019

All updates for this project

Project Team

Community Lead

Angela M. Chalk is a 4th generation 7th Ward resident. As she puts it “I’m proud to say I live in a house that my Grandpa won in a card game in 1942.” The legacy her family instilled in her is to remain committed spiritually to God and to do right by her neighbors and the community.

Currently, she serves as President 2017-2018 for the Louisiana Public Health Association; former Secretary of the 5th District Police Community Advisory Board, (PCAB); a Foundation for Louisiana LEAD to the COAST Cohort Fellow; a Global Green Water Wise Champion Designee; and is Executive Director of Healthy Community Services, a non-profit organization she founded in order educate residents and improve health outcomes regarding the social determinants of health. Healthy Community Services is a community based outreach and health education provider.

Angela is a strong advocate and helps to teach neighbors about incorporating Green Infrastructure solutions to reduce street flooding. She works closely with Global Green, USA and Water Wise. Her goal is to improve the quality of life for the residents of her community by her desire to serve, whether it is informing neighbors and residents about Green Infrastructure, working with the homeless, reducing crime, providing access to healthy food sources or increasing awareness about public health issues that affect residents. Also, Ms. Chalk serves on the Board of the Treme’/7th Ward Cultural District.

Angela recently retired from the Louisiana Department of Health & Hospital after 31 years of service. In that role she determined Medicaid eligibility for uninsured populations within a 3 parish area. She was assigned the task as Team Leader for “Healthy Louisiana” (the Medicaid Expansion Program). In that role she oversaw and coordinated the efforts to enroll uninsured persons who reside in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes.
She previously served as the New Orleans Regional Medicaid Outreach Coordinator. In that capacity, she was responsible for outreach activities to enroll uninsured children to the Louisiana Children’s Health Insurance Program, (LaCHIP). The area of responsibility included Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. Angela developed an outreach training program used to provide guidelines for employees participating in outreach events.

In addition to her primary duties, Angela represented the LA DHH in conjunctions with the United States Department Housing and Urban Development as the liaison for Medicaid enrollment for homeless populations. The program, “New Orleans: Dedicated to Ending Homelessness” is a U. S. Presidential Initiative to end homelessness. In this capacity she attends “Homeless Court” to determine or retain Medicaid eligibility to qualified individuals in order to eliminate barriers to receiving health care services.


Scientific Partners

Brian Stone teaches in the areas of urban environmental planning, climate change, and planning history and theory. Stone’s program of research is focused on the spatial drivers of urban environmental phenomena and is supported through funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He is Director of the Urban Climate Lab at Georgia Tech. Stone’s work on urbanization and climate change has been featured on CNN and National Public Radio, and in print media outlets such as Forbes and The Washington Post. He is author of the recently published book, The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live (Cambridge University Press), which received a Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award for 2012. Stone holds degrees in environmental management and planning from Duke University and the Georgia Institute of Technology.


Derek Van Berkel is Assistant Professor of Data Science, Geovisualization and Design at the School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan. His research examines the human dimensions of land cover/use change and ecosystem services at diverse scales. It aims to use spatial analysis and geovisualizations of social and environmental data and spatial thinking to develop solutions for today’s most pressing environmental challenges. He obtained his PhD from VU University in Amsterdam, researching the spatial and human dimensions of land change under the direction of Dr. Peter Verburg. This was followed by a postdoc in the Department of Geography at The Ohio State University, where he worked with Dr. Darla Munroe on amenity landscapes and land change in forest communities. Following this Derek took a postdoctoral researcher position at the Center for Geospatial Analytics (CGA), North Carolina State University with Dr. Ross Meentemeyer examining urban areas as complex coupled natural and human systems. He has contributed to the EnviroAtlas Project in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


Amy E. Lesen is Research Associate Professor in the ByWater Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans. Lesen works on the coast and in urban estuaries. The overarching theme of her work is the interrelatedness between environmental and human social dynamics in coastal cities and coastal communities, and how those systems are influenced by climate and environmental change. Most of her current work focuses in New Orleans, Southeastern Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast. Lesen also does research and writing about the intersection between science and the arts, disaster resilience, informal science learning, scientific public engagement, science communication, participatory research, and interdisciplinarity. She uses both quantitative and qualitative methodologies in her work, including surveys and oral history. She was Associate Professor of Biology Dillard University, a small Historically Black College in New Orleans from 2007 until summer 2014. Lesen has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in Marine Fisheries Biology and a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in Integrative Biology with a concentration in biological oceanography and paleoceanography. She joined Tulane University in September 2014. Previously, she was an assistant professor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NYC from 2003 to 2007. Dr. Lesen was chair of the Biology Department at Dillard from 2009 to 2012.


Julia Kumari Drapkin is the executive producer and founder of She is a radio, television, and multimedia producer based in New Orleans with a passion for finding innovative ways to connect people to their environment and to each other. iSeeChange was born out of covering natural disasters and climate change science across the globe and in her own backyard. Drapkin has worked as the Senior Science Reporter for The Nature Conservancy; a foreign correspondent and environmental radio reporter for PRI’s The World and Global Post in South America; as a photojournalist for the Associated Press in South Asia and the St. Petersburg Times; and most recently as a multimedia producer for the Times Picayune.

Collaborating Organization(s)

ISeeChange is dedicated to empowering communities to document and understand their environment, weather and climate in order to increase resilience. ISeeChange mobilizes communities to share stories and micro-data about climate impacts to inform and improve climate adaptation and infrastructure design. Their platform, tools, and investigations provide equitable, iterative ways for residents to personalize, measure, and track climate change impacts and better participate in community adaptation decisions.

Each post is synced with weather and climate data and broadcast to the community to investigate bigger picture climate trends. Over time, community members can track how climate is changing, season to season, year to year, and understand the impacts on daily life.

ISeeChange is a strategic partner of Thriving Earth Exchange as community members use their platform and tools to better characterize, visualize, and communicate neighborhood-level climate trends and co-develop solutions to mitigate those risks.