The Greening Southside Richmond Project is looking to tackle the issues of extreme heat and socioeconomic disparities caused by racist, discriminatory housing practices in Richmond’s vulnerable neighborhoods — one tree at a time.
On a hot summer afternoon in Richmond, one may find plenty of shade to relax under at the Lombardy & Park Avenue Triangle, or while taking a stroll around The Fan or the Museum District.
That is not the case for all of Richmond. Immediately south of the James River, there is a noticeable absence of trees in parks and neighborhoods, and a sea of heat-absorbing asphalt blanketed throughout the area.
A new initiative, Greening Southside Richmond Project, is planning to plant more than 650 trees in Southside neighborhoods vulnerable to extreme heat — which is linked to decades of racist housing policies — by the end of 2023.
The project organizers, which is composed of local environmental groups, Richmond city officials, and other local partners, said in a press release that the trees will help cool down neighborhoods, reduce electricity bills, and decrease stress levels. The trees also can absorb polluted runoff when it rains, reducing risks of pollution and flooding.
Approximately 250 of the 650 trees will be planted throughout Southside, said Ann Jurcyzk, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia Director of Outreach and Advocacy. The rest of the trees will be distributed to residents to plant in their own backyards.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Chesapeake Bay, is one of the organizations leading the greening initiative. In past years, it has worked in Southside in efforts of improving water quality in neighborhoods such as Broad Rock.
Through these past initiatives, CBF developed relationships with local partners, Jurcyzk said, and wanted to further foster such relationships to ensure that the project will best meet the community’s needs.
“The hope is that residents, through the outreach that [the Greening project] is going to do, they’ll understand that trees reduce particulate matter, and reduce the asthma rates in the city,” Jurcyzk said.
As part of the Greening Southside initiative, Southside Releaf, a community organization that is dedicated to addressing environmental disparities in Richmond’s Southside, will work closely with Southside residents; it will hold free workshops on tree care and conservation landscaping.
Through Groundwork RVA’s Green Workforce Program — another partner of the Greening Southside project — local youth and high school graduates are able partake in hands-on training for environmental jobs through planting and landscaping, which Jurcyzk said is an important part of the outreach.
“I think that [kids] have this innate appreciation for things that are alive,” she said.“It just sparks their curiosity. We want to reach people with a message: trees are for healthy communities.”
The City of Richmond Department Parks, Recreation, and Community Facilities is helping identity sites to plant the 250 trees as well as monitor the growth of them.
The department has a number of recreation facilities and parks in mind, said Michael Gee, Operations and Labor Crew Chief for the Southern District. Some include Hickory Hill Community Center, Swansboro Playground, and T.B. Smith Community Center.
Facilities were prioritized based on its lack of tree canopy coverage. In addition to helping reduce extreme heat, the department’s goal is to increase these spaces’ aesthetic beauty.
“A football field can get pretty hot in September and October, especially in the city,” Gee said. “So giving folks a place to get a bit of a break from the heat was something that we’ve been talking about for a while.”
Gee’s role is to ensure the trees are suited for the sites and the surrounding area it is planted on, such as the right soil, sunshade, and soil moisture. It can be something as simple as making sure a tree with thorns is not next to a bench, or a tree that produces a lot of plant litter is not near a roadway.
As part of the Greening Southside project, CBF also is working with Branch’s Baptist Church to transform parts of its parking lot into greenery. This is not the first time the organization has worked with the church to remove its asphalt; in the past, CBF helped to reduce the stormwater runoff by planting trees.
Oscar Contreas, a deacon Branch’s Baptist Church, said he is excited to be working with CBF again because of the benefits it will bring to not only the church, but the surrounding community as well.
“One of the nice things about this project [is] that the community will come together,” he said. “When you plant a tree or make an area green, you’ll see the progress. So as you drive by [the church], you know you were a part of it, and I think that that creates community.”
Parts of the church’s parking lot as well as their unused basketball court will be turned into a green space to provide shade and to cool down the area.
The addition of a green space to the church, Contreas said, can be a model for other Southside churches and businesses to mitigate the long-term effects of historical racist policies.
These racist housing policies, such as redlining — a systemic practice of denying mortgage loans and other investment to areas deemed “declining” or “hazardous” — have led to racial socioeconomic disparities in neighborhoods, such as more heat-absorbing concrete and fewer trees, the project organizers said; these neighborhoods were majority-Black and Hispanic.
The act of negligence contributed to historical inequities and a cycle of divestment, as reported by the New York Times. White neighborhoods had the leverage to lobby city governments for green spaces, while Black neighborhoods were often targets for city planners to build industries and warehouses, often with a lot of asphalt and little vegetation.
Former redlined areas can be up to 13 degrees hotter than their non-redlined counterparts in the same city, according to a study by the Science Museum of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Portland State University.
Heat waves can be more dangerous for these hot neighborhoods, increasing heat-related illness. According to research by the Science Museum of Virginia, Richmond is an urban heat island, with the warmest ZIP codes having the highest rates of heat-related ambulance calls.
CBF received a small watershed grant of $227, 467 for the Greening Southside Richmond Project from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. It also received $80,000 in additional funds from local supporters. Jurczyk said the kickoff meeting for the project is planned for Dec. 2020.
Top Photo: Branch’s Baptist Church members plant an oak tree in the playground in 2018. (Photo by Kenny Fletcher)