The Capital Trees project in downtown Richmond shows how public and private investment in urban canopy can advance strategic community goals like reducing storm water runoff and cleaning up the James River.

Capital Trees: a splash of green on a barren street, and less storm-water run-off.

by James A. Bacon

In November 2009, the Garden Club of Virginia invited Rachel Flynn, then the City of Richmond’s planning director, to speak at its Conservation Forum in Charlottesville. She described how trees played a critical role in defining city street scapes. Although the City of Richmond had funded an extensive planting program, she said, many trees had died. By her count, some 500 empty tree wells were scattered around town.

Intrigued by the presentation, Jeanette McKittrick, president of the Three Chopt Garden Club contacted Flynn and arranged for her to give the four Richmond-area garden club presidents a tour of the city. In that tour, she gave a running commentary about gateways, landscapes, parks and streetscapes and their importance to the city’s identity. That tour inspired a dialogue among the members of the Boxwood, James River, Three Chopt and Tuckahoe of Westhampton garden clubs. Trees, they realized, play a dual role. They are key components in beautification projects, and they are essential to the environment as well.

Over the years, the Garden Club of Virginia has been most closely identified with historic gardens, from Monticello to Maymont, from the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond to the grounds at the University of Virginia. Perhaps it was time to try something new – beautification with an environmental twist.

14th Street before the project.

The four Richmond-area chapters approached the city to join them in a major demonstration project – the landscaping of 14th Street between Bank and Main Streets in the heart of downtown. The goals: to soften a barren, concrete street scene and to reduce storm water overflow into Richmond’s antiquated sewer system.

“It was a concrete canyon. It was ugly,” recalls Susan Robertson, who at the time served as president of the James River Garden Club. Not only was the street an uninviting place to walk, it contributed to the city’s most pressing environmental problem. “There was a significant elevation drop,” she explains. “In heavy rains, water came down, drained into the sewer and ran straight into the river.”

While separate sewer and storm-water systems serve two-thirds of the city, the downtown area still has a combined sewer overflow system, parts of which date to the 19th century. Ages ago, it was state of the art. Today it’s a liability. In heavy rains, storm water merges with sewage to overwhelm the city’s sewage treatment plant, and raw effluent washes into the James River. Upgrading the system would cost roughly $500 million, and the city is under the gun from the State Water Control Board to make steady and demonstrable progress in reducing the overflow.

Planting more trees downtown won’t solve the problem by itself, but the Capital Trees project could make a contribution. “We’re looking at these pilot projects to see how green infrastructure can support the gray infrastructure,” says Michelle Virts, deputy director at the city’s Department of Public Utilities. “The potential exists to reduce the investment needed.”

“One mature shade tree deflects 13,000 gallons of water a year from entering neighboring streams,” says Robertson. Asa bonus, trees prevent silt from entering streams, filter carbon monoxide and other pollutants, trap airborne particulates, muffle urban noise, provide cooling shade in summer, act as windbreaks in winter, and function as carbon sinks.

After their tour with Flynn, the Garden Club ladies set about educating themselves about urban tree canopies. They drew heavily from the pioneering work of Casey Trees in Washington, D.C., which has the mission of restoring and protecting trees in the nation’s capital. Casey Trees had developed best practices for selecting trees appropriate for specific settings, for making sure they had sufficient soil and root space to thrive and for making sure someone watered them as they matured. Read More.

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  1. larryg Avatar

    at the heart of urban runoff, it’s a plain old numbers game. How much impervious surface verses what size storm event.

    Trees are good but trees can’t do much for anything but the most benign storm events.

    the rest of it is engineering.

    AND… it’s the direct impact of so-called “smart growth”.

    How can growth be “smart” when it causes the highest impacts of storm water runoff and the builders of Smart Growth say it’s not their job?

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Old or New?
    Thirty years ago when I worked for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Grace Street was a lovely garden of trees and plantings. When I returned in 2000, it was a dis GRACE. Hopefully, Richmond will get its grace back and follow the reminders of Southern cities such as tree-rich Charleston or Savannah (although not Charlotte or Atlanta).

  3. larryg Avatar

    If you REALLY want to know what is killing the bay – it’s not farming – it’s urban runoff with an assist from drugs/hormones from urban water treatment plants.

    And as long as we are more concerned about “beautification” than runoff.. it’s pretty hollow. We have pretty streets but a seriously degraded river and bay.

    In many ways.. we have not advanced much further than decades/centuries ago when we just dumped in open ditches.

    Now..we make sure they are pipes…

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      LarryG is wrong again, folks. Farming is the #1 problem for the Chesapeake Bay. Urban runoff is a problem but factory farming and fertilizer intensive farming do more harm than anything else.

  4. look at the Chesapeake Bay watershed and ask yourself if we are doing MORE farming than we did 100 years ago. Look at the number of non-productive “farms”. As t “factory farms”… show me where they are and show me the rivers that are impacted.

    you will find that virtually all rivers in Va are affected by impervious surfaces that have nothing to do with farming. Take a look at NoVa and ask yourself whether or not farms or storm water runoff is the problem?

    We are living in denial about this. We refuse to take responsibility for what we contribute with our “smart growth” which is far more intensive in terms of impervious surfaces than farming.

    DJ – take a look at your creeks in NoVa when it rains. Fertilizer, pet waste, motor oil, a toxic-brew of whatever sits on the asphalt goes directly to the Potomac every time it rains.

  5. By her count, some 500 empty tree wells were scattered around town.


    Trees are not designed to live in a well. Try giving them a little space.

  6. We are living in denial about this. We refuse to take responsibility for what we contribute with our “smart growth” which is far more intensive in terms of impervious surfaces than farming.


    Larry has a pint, but as usual he is in denial about the facts. I have a satellite photo poster of Chesapeake Bay, published by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It was taken under a crystal clea sky, yet in it, you can clearly see the sillt runoff from the aagricultural areas of the rivers fare south (or east) of the major urban areas.

    The vast majority of pollution in Chesapeake Bay is agricultural pollution, period, It is by far the larest part of the watershed. Simple as that.

    The second largest source is municipal sewage plants.

    Impervious surfaces have different chracteristics and do a difeent kind of harm. Water runs off more quickly, and carries with it more trash. All of the various sources of runnoff combine to suddenly dump a lot of water all at once into the streambeds, which causes local erosion and adds to the silt load. Paved surfaces also collect all the leakage from autos and trucks, and all of that petroleum based waste winds up in the water. That is not the fault of pavement, but rather the fault of crappily constructed autos, which are for some reason immune from waterborne pollution regulations. There is simply no reason for an engine or transmission to leak oil that is not captured, but so far as I know, no vehicle is equipped with the tools to do that.

  7. Larry is on his high horse about drugs and hormones. Sure enough, with the right tools I could detect pretty near everychemical imiaginable in urban runoff. At incredibly low concentrations.

    Absent hypesensitive GC – Mass Spectrometers, Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometers, and all the other hyper sensitive detection devices, we would be hard put to measure any actual harm produced by these compounds. At the parts per trillion level, you would have to drink a good part of the Potmac river to get a dose of antibiotic equal to what the dentist would give you to prevent infection from a tooth extraction.

    Get over it.

  8. Trees are good but trees can’t do much for anything but the most benign storm events.


    Actually, grass and other dense foliage is a lot better than trees. For trees to do the job you would nned a goodly buffer between the storm water outlets and their eventual entry into the streams. This is the kind of calculation that leads one to believe that overly compressing the cityscape through the usual smart growth initiatives buys you nothing: at the end of the day the urban footprint is what it is, so you may as well use it to live in and enjoy, rather than put the people in one place and the landscape in another.

    Instead of tree wells, which might as well be called tree prisons, Plant large and roomy treescapes and intersperse them with the cityscape so that they can do their job.

    Of course, that might lower the density, and the traffic congestion.

  9. Speaking of traffic congestion and trade-offs of one thing vs another, I heard a fascinating story today.

    A move is afoot to increase the availability of taxicabs, and lower the cost of taxi medallions, by adding 20,000 cabs to the fleet.

    It turns out, that one taxi causes more congestion than nine commuters. Far from taking more individual cars off the street, they just make the problem worse. And this will affect the 800,000 vehicles that drive into New York each day, delaying all of that traffic as well.

    If 20,000 cabs are added to the new york fleet, models predict that one will be able to hail a cab and get one, on averge one full minute sooner.
    But the end result will be that you spend four minutes more in the cab – with the meter running.

    Sometimes you just can’t win.

  10. The best thing the city could do for its treescape is to set about planting only the most valuable trees: Royal Pawlonia, Pecan, Kentucky Coffee trees, Pagoda Trees and other exotics.

    Then they should harvest the trees before they die and become power line hazards. But to do that, we have to get past the idea that it is ALWAYS a bad thing to cut down a tree.

  11. Let me add that trees are good but trees in a forest are not the same as a few tress surround by acres of asphalt. We talk about how much water a tree will use, well and good but calculate how my water comes off of impervious surfaces from a one or two inch rain … I do not object to the advocacy for the trees and I love having them in urban areas but lets also be honest and realitistic that in the density we are talking about they are not a major force.

    In terms of pollution contribution – Hydra identified the other major contributor – sewage treatment plans which have been the “easy” way to reduce phosphorous and nitrogen but we are reaching the limit of technology.

    In terms of farming – think about of the 3, farming, sewage treatment and stormwater runoff – which are shrinking and which are expanding?

    One of my grumps is that the Chesapeake Bay folks are using models and not measurements. Measurements would solve this argument and if you think about it – arbitrarily assigning farming as the top contributor makes no sense given the size and scope of places like NoVa.

    Finally drugs, hormones, and anti-bacterial products are getting into the rivers and bay and if you really want to think about why they are finding fish with sex changes don’t forget things like Estrogen and the like.

    It’s a problem but since we are so busy blaming farms, we are basically ignoring this. Should we?

    I’m a pragmatist and I think if we are serious about cleaning up the bay and the rivers – we have to be wiling to face the truth and stop fooling ourselves by thinking that farming is the problem.

  12. HardHatMommy Avatar

    I’m sitting in my office looking out at a parking lot made of pervious concrete. It won’t qualify as beautification, but it is an EPA best management practice because it captures stormwater and allows it to filter into the ground – reducing stormwater runoff and eliminating the need for retention ponds. The two arguments against it that I’ve heard is that it isn’t pretty and it costs more. I don’t really get the arguments. I never really thought asphalt was all that beautiful. And the cost part is a bunch of baloney. Pervious concrete is a little more expensive but you get that back by reducing the swales and retention ponds and all the sitework that goes into managing stormwater. It seems like a no-brainer for new developments to at least have pervious parking lots and perhaps even pervious secondary roads. You should see this stuff in a huge storm. It just swallows the water right up and recharges it into the soil. Pretty cool stuff. Again, not super pretty but I’d rather have a beautiful and healthy Chesapeake Bay than a beautiful parking lot.

  13. you’ve got in HHM.. Pervious pavement and underground storage and similar. Not cheap and certainly not “pretty” in the sense that a tree is but far more effective.

    I don’t have a problem with trees. I want more of them but if we want to posit that they will curb runoff – do the numbers – and one will soon find that for anything but the most simple short rain – a few trees amid a sea of concrete won’t come close to doing it.

    the other thing we tend to ignore is that “Smart Growth” for all the supposed benefits is the most unfriendly of development patterns when it comes to stormwater runoff unless you are going to make that commitment to pervious paving and the like.

  14. we have to be wiling to face the truth and stop fooling ourselves by thinking that farming is the problem.


    I hate to tell you this again, since you refuse to believe it: frming is the biggest problem – by far. And it is obvious: all you have to do is look around and then look at the maps.

    The other problems are serious, but the sewage reatment problem is easy to fix: we know hao to do it, and all we need is enough money. The problem then, as always, is determining if that is eally the most important and most valuable thing to spend your money on, or could you, if the situation was proerly analyzed, spend the money on something else that would prevent more deaths and more morbidity for the same money. As usual, the special interets that favor any particular effort, don;t care about anything else.

    As for the parking lots, I say put the park back in parking lots. Increase the tree canopy requirement for parking lots drastically (which will of course require more space and loawer density). If getting people to walk more is a healthy goal, the single most surefire way to do it is to make the parking lots bigger. Put more trees in them, and adequate walkways, and let them become more amenable to the (secondary) thing they already become, which is the public meeting space, where you run into friends and associates.

  15. arbitrarily assigning farming as the top contributor makes no sense given the size and scope of places like NoVa.

    It is not arbitrary. Even given the size and scope of NOVA, it pales by the size and scope of the farming area in the Bay watershed. Farms like mine that are nothing but grass are not much of a problem, but I can easily show you a number of farm operations that would be shut down in an instant if a developer allowed such things.

    What is your plan on estrogen? How many women are you willing to kill off in order to prevent this dangerous pollutant?

  16. Show me an urban area where anyone deliberately saturates a thousand acres with 100 lbs of nitrogen and 5 lbs of phosphorous per acre. I can show you dozens of such places: all you have to do is sit at the CO-OP and follow the nitrogen trucks and the chemical sprayers.

  17. re: farms and satellite photos – compare farming in 2012 with farming in 1912 and tell me which year had more farms.

    re: estrogen – septic tanks take care of it quite nicely. drugs, hormones,anti-biotics and the like will have to be dealt with if we are serious about the problem and accept it as a problem.

    but I admit there is no easy way to handle drugs and hormones in today’s sewage systems – but I do say this – knowing this to be true is not the same as ignoring it and saying it’s not a problem for the health of the rivers and bay.

  18. food for thought:

    ” Computer simulations tell us the average load from agricultural runoff is 11.7 pounds/acre/year of nitrogen versus urban/suburban runoff of 6.1 pounds/acre/year. The essential word here is “runoff.” If we only look at the average polluted runoff from a developed acre compared with a farm acre, agriculture is the clear culprit.

    But stormwater runoff is hardly the only pollution coming from developed land. Houses and businesses generate a lot of sewage that can also threaten the Bay. Human waste goes to a sewage treatment plant or a septic system. One must add in the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution loads generated by wastewater treatment plants and septic systems on developed lands for a fair comparison.

    Looking Baywide, the amount of nitrogen pollution that comes from the partial treatment of human waste adds up to about 70 million pounds per year. (All data comparisons are from 2004 information compiled by the Bay Program last year.) If ones averages this waste load to the 6.1 pounds per acre of polluted nitrogen runoff from developed lands, the equation flips. Developed lands generated a total of 14.8 pounds of nitrogen pollution per acre compared with the average agricultural rate of 11.7. Farms are the clear winner.”

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