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‘Reforest Richmond’ Aims To Rebuild Urban Tree Canopy

Trees line the James River in Richmond
FILE PHOTO: Trees line the James River in Richmond. (Creative Commons License)

Over the last month, Reforest Richmond has distributed more than 8,000 Eastern Redbud tree saplings. 

Reforest Richmond is a campaign from the Richmond Tree Committee, an arm of the city council-created Green City Commission. The campaign mobilized more than 60 volunteers to hand out trees at dozens of distribution sites in November. Many of these sites were Richmond Public School facilities, intentionally picked because they’ve acted as free meal distribution sites during the pandemic.

Daniel Klein, the Green City Commission vice chair who heads the Reforest Richmond campaign, said their focus is “restoring the tree canopy with an equity lens.”

“So focusing on the communities that need tree canopy the most now, with the understanding that it will take time to rebuild,” Klein explained. “It takes time to plant trees, it takes time for trees to grow and actually provide the benefits we need.”

One of those benefits is reducing the temperature in neighborhoods. Research from the Science Museum of Virginia found that many of Richmond’s poorest neighborhoods, particularly  Southside and the East End, are heat islands. These areas have a lot of heat-attracting concrete, but not a lot of heat-reducing green.

The Reforest Richmond campaign received the saplings from Dominion Energy. The Richmond-based utility company normally runs a program called Project Plant It!, where they give public school students trees to take home and plant. Because of the pandemic, the company instead decided to distribute them to localities across Virginia, with Richmond receiving about 12,000 saplings. 

In addition to handing out tree seedlings to the public, some are being reserved for the city’s planting projects in parks and cemeteries. Another 1,000 or so don’t yet have a destination, Klein said. The initiative has been supported by grass roots community groups like Southside ReLeaf, Capital Trees, and the Richmond Tree Stewards

Sheri Shannon, a co-founder of Southside ReLeaf, said hundreds of trees that went to the group Groundwork RVA will be planted on school grounds, mainly in Southside.

“We are reforesting school campuses,” Shannon said. “A lot of them do not have shade on their playgrounds. A lot of our schools do not have any type of green infrastructure.”

Shannon added that tree plantings to address heat islands is only one of the ways that Southside ReLeaf and other groups are looking to address environmental racism in Richmond.

“It’s no coincidence that most toxic garbage incinerators, waste disposal facilities and industrial plants are in poor neighborhoods,” she said. “Quite often, those poor neighborhoods happen to be populated by Black and Latino and immigrant communities. Why is that? It was by choice,” she said, invoking the historic racism of redlining and urban renewal, up to contemporary decisions in placing high-polluting energy infrastructure.

Moving forward, Reforest Richmond plans to coordinate tree planting efforts by community groups and city hall. Their benchmark of success will be the tree canopy goal recently outlined in the Richmond 300 master plan: 60% tree coverage by 2037. The last tree canopy assessment for Richmond showed about 42% tree coverage, but that report was done in 2010 with 2008 aerial photography. Between disease, development and severe weather events, Richmond’s current tree coverage is probably even lower.

While restoring the city’s urban tree canopy will take even more tree plantings, Klein said it will also require coordinating efforts around tree preservation and sustainable development. He hopes that goal can be a rallying point for urbanists, public transit advocates and groups focused on racial justice.

“There’s definitely fertile ground here for more robust urban forestry, and our goal with the Richmond Tree Committee and Reforest Richmond will be to focus that energy and make clear what the needs really are so we can meet them.”

CORRECTION: Sheri Shannon's name was misspelled. It has been corrected.