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Beautiful RVA Partnership Seeks to Expand Urban Greening

Thousands of daffodils bloom along Richmond's Dock Street
Thousands of daffodils bloom along Richmond's Dock Street following a greening project coordinated by Capital Trees. 

Cities across the country are realizing the social, environmental and economic benefits of increasing green space. Cost and bureaucracy can hinder these projects, but a new initiative in Richmond seeks to bring together existing resources and empower residents to improve their own neighborhoods. For Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp has more.

Learn more: Find information about past and upcoming Beautiful RVA meetings and the City's RVA Green program.


A few years ago, the City of Richmond prioritized more than 50 initiatives as part of its sustainability plan, RVA Green.

Alicia Zatcoff: And of one of those was creating a community-based beautification effort.

Alicia Zatcoff is the City’s Sustainability Manager.

Zatcoff: And that plan was unanimously adopted by our City Council in 2012 and so that’s the City’s interest in this we feel very strongly that beautification is a really important piece of making our community a better place for our citizens and it also ties into economic development (and) health of our residents.

Capital Trees rain garden at Shiplock Park.
Capital Trees rain garden at Shiplock Park.

In urban settings, there are many advantages to green spaces. Trees and plants absorb pollution, reduce stormwater runoff and provide habitat for birds and pollinators. The many shades, textures and scents of greenery enhance the beauty of a place, encouraging people to gather, reflect and engage. Green spaces promote physical activity and recent studies have linked them to improved mental health.

But the city of Richmond, like many local governments, doesn’t have the financial resources to put millions of dollars into urban greening. So Zatcoff joined forces with Meghan Gough, Professor of Urban Planning at VCU and Randee Humphrey, Director of Education at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. In an initiative dubbed Beautiful RVA, they’ve been bringing together civic leaders interested in urban greening.

Randee Humphrey: It’s been experimental to great degree but it’s also spawned some very interesting discussions.

Before the rain garden, water flowed directly into the storm drain.
Before the rain garden, water flowed directly into the storm drain.

Since they first met in January 2013, Humphrey says their group has grown from 40 to about 250 people including designers, landscape architects, urban planners, tree stewards, and community advocates.

Humphrey: In the case of relationship between Beautiful RVA and the City’s sustainability plan it has offered a means by which we can bring people together around the subject of how we create an enabling environment to launch a community-based beautification initiative.

Beautiful RVA isn’t about creating a new organization, but bringing together existing assets and pooling resources to make greening projects easier to carry out. This shift to more collaborative, community-driven models is happening in other cities too, says Professor Gough.

Meghan Gough: This is going to place Richmond in a much better setting for success and implementation, especially for this particular objective in their sustainability plan, because it is giving more voice to the community, to its organizations to identify these are our needs, these are our capacities to do this and if we’re asked to be part of it, we’ll help make this happen.

Humphrey facilitates a Beautiful RVA workgroup.
Humphrey facilitates a Beautiful RVA workgroup.

To realize their goal, Beautiful RVA collaborators are working on a big project: creating a Community Greening Toolkit. At a recent meeting at Lewis Ginter, several dozen people discussed ways to make green projects easier to accomplish, whether that’s planting trees, building a rain garden or installing a green roof.

Zatcoff: We just gave the group a set of charging orders and now they’re breaking up into their individual work groups to work on their pieces of our Green Toolkit.

Zatcoff joins six others at a table bearing the sign: “Demystifying the Beautification Process.” In other words, how to navigate city bureaucracy.

Zatcoff: In an ideal city, in an ideal world, what would be easy? Participants: Call somebody who’s done it before...But how do you know who to call?

Harnsberger wraps up the volunteer strategy session.
Harnsberger wraps up the volunteer strategy session.

There’s also a team working on a green asset map and interactive platform, to connect people to greening projects and chart successes. At another table, participants discuss how to collect and share planning and design resources, for example what native plants are best in an urban environment and cost estimates for various types of projects. The fourth group is brainstorming effective ways to recruit and train volunteers.

Working Group: I’m especially interested in the maintenance part….

Maintenance of green spaces arises as a shared concern. Some suggest better training, including creating how-to videos. Others recommend that maintenance be included in budget plans.

Working Group: What happens a lot of times people from outside the community go in and say we’re going to do this great thing for you...

Volunteers plant daffodils along Dock St. in Fall 2013.
Volunteers plant daffodils along Dock St. in Fall 2013.

And there’s agreement that projects driven by people within neighborhoods will have greater likelihood of long-term success. Giles Harnsberger, executive director for Groundwork RVA, is part of Beautiful RVA’s shared leadership team. Her organization is already working with neighborhoods on green projects and saw a natural fit with this initiative.

Giles Harnsberger: All of these leaders in this room bring to their organization the thing that they care about the most and I care the most about this city being connected in a healthy way and for me I realized that through experiences in parks and on trails. So that’s what I want the youth to understand and be a part of building and to feel proud about in their neighborhoods.

While there are larger green projects happening in the city, including a recent EPA award to help improve parks and open spaces along Jefferson Avenue, Beautiful RVA seeks to assist smaller, grassroots efforts to plan, design and carry out beautification projects.

Dock St. transformed in Spring 2014.
Dock St. transformed in Spring 2014.

Zatloff: One of the core pieces of what we’re doing with Beautiful RVA is to really bring to light these small successes and share that with the community to encourage folks to do more of that because it won’t always be these huge, big beautification projects, it’s really going to be the little ones and the more of the little ones we can get done, the better off we’re going to be.

One of those small projects emerged this past Spring, when thousands of yellow and white daffodils transformed an area along Dock Street, near downtown Richmond. That was a project of Capital Trees, also involved in Beautiful RVA, and made possibly by volunteer labor and donated materials. Organizers anticipate it will take months to complete the Community Greening Tookkit, but the project got a recent boost through a $50,000 grant from the Community Foundation. Once it’s complete, advocates hope the toolkit will be a valuable resource for the greater Richmond area as well as other communities. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.