Florida cities ask: Are there too many palms? Tree experts say Florida communities preparing for climate change should plant more shade trees and fewer palms. Palm lovers are objecting.

Florida cities ask: Are there too many palms?

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For many, Florida means beaches, sunshine and palm trees. And as communities respond to climate change, palm lovers are being forced to face an inconvenient truth. You see, palms, which really aren't trees at all, don't do well in capturing carbon or in providing shade in overheated urban areas. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, communities are finding that replacing palms with shade trees can be a touchy issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE REVVING)

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: On 41st Street in Miami Beach, 251 royal palms line both sides of the street. They're more than 50 feet tall with dark green fronds - majestic sentries welcoming visitors on one of the city's major thoroughfares.

STEVEN MEINER: I literally had chills every time I would come over the causeway, and you see the palm trees and the sway. It's moving.

ALLEN: Miami Beach City Commissioner Steven Meiner has made protecting the palms part of his portfolio. He fought and downsized a plan to remove nearly a third of palms on the street for a sidewalk widening project. Miami Beach, like many cities in Florida, is already dealing with climate change. Rising sea levels flood streets even on sunny days. Among its green initiatives, the city is working to reduce its energy consumption by providing more shade, lowering what's called the heat island effect. Palms don't provide much shade, and they capture much less carbon than shade trees like maples or oaks. But in Miami Beach, palms make up nearly 60% of the urban tree canopy. Commissioner Meiner says the city recently adopted a plan to reduce that percentage to 25% over the next 30 years.

MEINER: That's where I started raising the alarm, so to speak, as to what could potentially be the phaseout of palm trees.

ALLEN: Meiner says he's all in favor of adding more shade trees, but not at the expense of palms. In West Palm Beach, the city has made a similar calculation and is working to add more shade trees to the urban canopy. It's so controversial, local officials refused requests to talk about it. Certified arborist Charles Marcus prepared an urban tree management plan for the city. He says replacing palms with shade trees was one of his recommendations.

CHARLES MARCUS: I just kind of heard through the grapevine that I might have stirred up maybe a little bit of a hornet's nest on that.

ALLEN: Marcus says he just pointed out that if you wanted cool urban areas, shade trees do a much better job than palms for a simple reason.

MARCUS: Palms have less leaf surface area per tree than other types of trees do.

ALLEN: Like Miami Beach, West Palm is working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, and increasing its tree canopy is part of that effort. David Nowak has spent 30 years analyzing urban forests and assessing which trees provide the most benefits. He's a research forester, now retired from the U.S. Forest Service. He says trees reduce air temperatures not just by providing shade but also by releasing water vapor.

DAVID NOWAK: So these trees are constantly evaporating water in the daytime. We get this - what's called an oasis effect when you're near parks. They tend to be five, maybe 10 degrees cooler. And that cool air blows through the canopy and then to surrounding neighborhoods for some distance.

ALLEN: In Miami Beach, Commissioner Meiner wants the city to change its policy and prevent palms from being removed from neighborhoods where they're an important part of the landscape.

MEINER: There's only a handful of climates in the United States that can have palm trees. And it's such a big part of our brand in Miami Beach. It's in our seal.

ALLEN: As they work to address climate change, local officials are hearing another message - add all the shade trees you want, but don't mess with the palms. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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