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A Vision In Richmond: Sustainability With Style

Architects and planners are helping East End residents develop green infrastructure solutions for Jefferson Avenue. This drawing shows a proposed bioretention basin at the foot of Jefferson Park.

Richmond is one of five cities selected by the EPA for this year’s Greening America's Capitals program. The initiative develops solutions to improve air and water quality while also creating friendlier streets with social and economic benefits. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find out about the Greening America's Capitals program and what solutions other cities are implementing.


Jefferson Avenue is a short, but significant street. It connects two neighborhoods, Church Hill and Union Hill. It serves as a corridor to Shockoe Bottom and downtown Richmond. And it lines Jefferson Park, the multi-tiered green space with sweeping views of the city. But planners say, the Avenue has some design flaws.

Jakob Helmbolt: You have this street coming in on this angle, this little x of these two streets coming in together...

I’m standing with Richmond’s Pedestrian, Bicycle & Trails Coordinator Jakob Helmbolt on a triangle of asphalt called a pedestrian island. Six wide streets with two way traffic intersect here. There’s no stop signs or crosswalks and it’s not easy for anyone to navigate, cars included.

Helmbolt: There’s  a good example right there, this car had to race out of that side street because the sight triangle is very bad so you have to be creeping out. I saw a near collision myself the other day.

The Union Hill Civic Association had been working with the City on some traffic calming measures. With assistance from the EPA, there are now plans to improve the entire stretch of Jefferson Avenue, about five blocks long.

Melissa Kramer: The idea is that we go into communities that are looking to creating more walkable, bikeable, livable communities.

Melissa Kramer is with the EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities, which works with the cities selected for the Greening of America’s Capitals program.

Kramer: Part of the tool that we give communities to do that is helping them come together around a vision that the community can talk about their goals; we can work with designers to come up with solutions that will work with their goals; and to implement them, we give them a set of drawings that are beautiful that help get the community excited, to say this is what we could have, this is a realistic opportunity and then the community can go about trying to find implementation money to put the project in the ground.

The EPA, city officials and residents worked together to come up with solutions that address safety, altering the traffic flows, providing more space for pedestrians and cyclists and making the whole area more inviting. All this is designed using green infrastructure to improve air and water quality.

Dennis Carmichael: This is our bioretention basin, it’s at the foot of Jefferson Park.

At an open-house unveiling the designs, landscape architect Dennis Carmichael explains how marsh plants would be used to divert and filter stormwater runoff.

Carmichael: There’s a great set of steps here that goes up about 38 feet, so we’re proposing here’s bioretention facility, here’s sort of a grand ramp up to a mid-point here. We think this is a more grand and gracious entry to the park and to the neighborhood, but by the way we’re cleaning your water and reducing the amount of stormwater that flows downstream. So most people would look at this and never know the ecological services being provided, and we’re okay with that. What they’ll see is, wow, the park is really beautiful.

Carmichael calls that sustainability with style. It’s also part of a shift in how cities are thinking about stormwater.

Carmichael: The citizens want their cities to be greener and that doesn’t just mean the color green. Obviously it means more plants, more trees, more biological means by which you can solve drainage issues. So rather the traditional way is you catch water in a storm drain, you put it into a pipe and it races as quickly as it can into river with all the pollutants in it and all the overflow. What the biological methods of capturing the water do is they hold water for a period, they don’t release it as quickly so it reduces downstream flooding, but it also cleanses water. So as a consequence, the water that is delivered to the river or bay is cleaner.

The designs also propose using pervious pavement in parking spaces, which can still support the weight of cars while allowing water to seep back into the earth.

Carmichael: This particular block is at 23rd, again a sea of asphalt.

Carmichael, who works for the Alexandria-based landscape design firm Parker Rodreguez, says the streets are over-scaled, so you can easily insert a bike lane without changing the curb lines.

Carmichael: So you’re adding one whole other layer of mobility which is cyclists but in a safe way. This is six feet wide, it’s wide enough that you can get a buffer strip here so between the moving cars and the bicycles, cyclists will feel safe and secure whereas today, they’re just on their own and hoping for the best.

Mary Field: My name is Mary Field, I’m a Union Hill resident.

Field and her husband built a house just a couple blocks away. She’s involved with the Civic Association and the ongoing improvements to Jefferson Avenue.

Field: It’s our lifeline. It’s a scary place because there’s so much asphalt and going from one corner to the other is just terrifying. In spite of that, we do populate it, we use it a lot and now that we have such interesting restaurants and other kinds of things going on, Saturdays you see people walking up and down the streets.

Field says she wasn’t sure about the EPA process in the beginning, concerned their past work would be abandoned. But she says the process so far has been inclusive with planners listening to residents’ concerns and incorporating their ideas.

Field:  I think that having professional architectural engineers look at site and envision what it can be is such an exciting thing and it’s beautiful, it’s just lovely.

The complete designs and report are expected by the end of the year; then the City will need to look for funding to carry out the project. The EPA says the design concepts done for Jefferson Avenue could be used in other parts of Richmond and by other cities looking to integrate green infrastructure into their communities. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.