Miami Beach to Swap Out Palm Trees

Iconic palms will be replaced by trees better equipped to combat climate change.

Historic Art Deco District in South Beach, Miami, USA
Historic art deco district, Miami. Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

Several studies have shown that the climate crisis is changing the places we call home in ways both large and small: sea ice used for hunting is thinning and melting; trees are flowering in the wrong season; plants and animals are shifting their ranges. In fact, a 2018 study warned that without fast and effective emissions cuts, most ecosystems on the planet would shift into an entirely different biome. 

Less discussed is how the effort to combat and adapt to climate change may prompt humans to alter the look of their communities. This is the case in Miami Beach, where a new plan aims to shift the balance of the city's overall tree cover away from its iconic palms and towards shade-giving species that can offer more relief from rising temperatures and other climate effects.

“Palms will continue to be a focal point along our beaches, roads, parks and green spaces,” Elizabeth Wheaton, Miami Beach Director of Environment & Sustainability, said in an email to Treehugger. “However the number of shade trees will be increased to make our city more resilient, walkable and pleasant.”

Miami Beach’s Urban Forestry Master Plan (UFMP) was approved unanimously by the City Commission in October of 2020, as the Miami Herald reported. The plan outlines several strategies to work with the city’s trees to improve the urban environment and combat the effects of climate change. 

“The UFMP establishes best management practices to adapt the tree canopy to be resilient to urban threats such as disease, tree abuse and lack of space as well as climatic threats, including sea-level rise, saltwater intrusion and rising temperatures,” Wheaton explained. 

To achieve these goals, the plan sets a target to increase canopy coverage in the city from 17% of the total land area to 22% over the next 20 years. It also establishes guidelines for implementing a bond approved by 70% of Miami Beach voters in 2018 to spend $5 million planting more than 5,000 trees in the next five years. 

Part of guiding these plans means managing the overall makeup of Miami Beach’s canopy. 

“Palms, while an iconic part of Miami Beach’s landscape, have moved from being an accent plant to a major component of the city’s urban forest,” the plan notes. “A general guideline for species diversity, states that no family should make up more than 30% of a city’s tree population. Arecaceae, the family of landscape palms, makes up over 55% of the public tree population.”

The plan, therefore, includes a target of reducing the total percentage of palms from 57% to no more than 25% by 2050. 

Natural Solutions

The stakes of the Miami Beach master plan are unusually high for an urban tree planting guide, because the city is especially vulnerable to climate change. 

“The City of Miami Beach, as a barrier island off the coast of Florida, is witnessing first-hand the effects of climate change, sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, flooding, king tides, and extreme storm events,” the plan announces on its first page. 

But, for Miami Beach, necessity is the mother of invention, and the city has become a “pioneer” in climate adaptation, including working with natural solutions like trees. 

However, shade-bearing trees offer many more climate mitigation benefits than palms, the plan notes. For example, a live oak provides nearly seven times the yearly benefits of an average-sized cabbage or sabal palm. When compared to a palm, an oak does the following:

  • Removes 510 pounds of carbon dioxide yearly versus a palm's 2.71; and 3,214 pounds over its lifetime versus 26.
  • Intercepts 725 gallons of rainfall yearly versus 81.
  • Removes 20 ounces of ozone from the air yearly versus 1.70.
  • Saves 60 kilowatt hours in energy by shading air conditioning units versus 26.
  • Saves $10 in yearly energy costs versus $4.60.
  • Offers a total of $31 in benefits a year versus $6.48.

Wheaton said the city would focus on planting more native, salt-tolerant shade trees like sea grapes and green buttonwoods as well as flowering trees like royal poincianas and lignum vitaes.

miami beach palms
THEPALMER / Getty Images

Palm Removals?

Wheaton stressed that the city would not be mowing down palms in order to alter the overall arboreal balance. 

In a workshop about the plan held March 2, Interim City Manager Raul Aguila emphasized this point. 

“We’re not removing palm tress so much as adding shade trees to the tree canopy,” he said. “This is not a palm tree armageddon.” 

However, the possibility of palm tree removal has sparked some controversy. According to a memo shared at the March 2 workshop, the city currently has 22 capital projects underway that would require the removal or replanting of trees. According to the most up-to-date figures, these projects will mean the loss of 1,032 palms and 491 canopy trees, while 383 palms and 87 other trees will be reallocated. However, it also stands to gain 921 palms and 2,549 canopy trees, nearly double the total that will be lost. Overall, the city’s trees will increase by nearly 2,000 as a result of these projects, but its palm cover will decrease slightly, by around 100.

The fact of these palm removals has alarmed Commissioner Steven Meiner. 

“The removal of so many iconic beautiful palm trees, including royal palms, will have a negative impact on our historic, cultural and economic brand,” Meiner told Treehugger in an email. “There are only a handful of tropical climates in the United States where palm trees can grow. Our residents enjoy the beauty of palm trees. Millions of tourists throughout the U.S. and the world annually visit Miami Beach and palm trees are an integral part of our brand.”

Meiner approved the UFMP in October, but said the details of these removals were not included.

Wheaton explained that the tree removals are not ordained by the UFMP. They are being removed only because they are in the way of city construction projects. Rather, the plan is used to guide which species are planted to offset the loss. For example, during the March 2 workshop, Meiner raised the issue of palms that were cut down in North Beach Oceanside Park the day before. However, those trees ultimately were removed to make way for a new beach walk.

In Defense of the Palms

Still, the coincidence of the new UFMP and the capital projects has raised deeper questions about the future of Miami Beach’s tree cover, and revealed how much the city’s trees of all types mean to its residents.

Of the 19 public comments following the March 2 session, eight echoed Meiner’s concerns while seven spoke up strongly in favor of the UFMP. (An additional two were experts whom Meiner had invited, and two made more general comments.)

In addition to questioning the specific projects, Meiner and his supporters defended palm trees themselves. 

“The palms are part of our reality, and the beach needs them like we do,” North Beach resident Melissa Gabriel said.

One of the experts Meiner called, Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, argued that some of the city’s palms might be eligible for historic or cultural preservation. 

Meanwhile, Director of Advocacy at Audubon Florida Charles Lee said he did not believe the city’s plan was appropriate for the soil of a barrier island. He said that the city’s scientists should consider the energy for planting, watering, and fertilizing tree species that were not original to that habitat. 

“If you do a net benefit calculation you may find you’re spending more in the way of fossil fuels to create that canopy than you’re getting out of it in terms of the reduction of greenhouse gasses,” he said.

In an email, Meiner further noted that palms are drought and salt-resistant, and withstand hurricanes well. In addition, he argued that shade trees were not without their own environmental risks. Their leaves can get into the stormwater system and add excess nutrients to urban streams and lakes, causing algal blooms like those that have recently plagued Biscayne Bay.

However, there is also a clear desire in the city for more shade trees. A 2019 community survey found that less than half of Miami Beach residents were happy with the tree cover in their area, Wheaton said. 

David Doebler, the former chair of the City of Miami Beach Sustainability Committee, said his group had twice reviewed the plan. 

“The UFMP is an excellent guiding document which will create an exceptional experience for residents and tourists alike, especially in the summer when it's 100 degrees out and a palm tree isn’t going to do very much for you,” he said.

But, ultimately, the city’s plans do not need to pit shade and palm trees against each other. By 2050, the total number of both shade and palm trees will increase, Wheaton clarified during the workshop. It is only the relative proportion that will shift.

“There ought not be a palm tree caucus and a shade tree caucus in our city,” Mayor Dan Gelber said at the close of the meeting, “because honestly we can all just get along and agree that trees are great. I know my dog feels that way.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Shifting Habitats." Vol. 10, no. 5, 2020, pp. 377-377, doi:10.1038/s41558-020-0789-x

  2. Nolan, Connor, et al. "Past and Future Global Transformation of Terrestrial Ecosystems Under Climate Change." Science, vol. 361, no. 6405, 2018, pp. 920-923, doi:10.1126/science.aan5360