As new construction and redevelopment continue across Charlottesville, one group sees an opportunity to make sure the city stays green.
“There is a lot of empty space throughout the city where there are no large chunks of green,” said Andrew Walker, of the Green Infrastructure Center. “We want to find a way to thread green throughout the city.”
The Green Infrastructure Center was formed in 2006 to assist communities and local governments to document and preserve natural resources.
“We need these resources for clean air, for clean water and for recreation,” said Karen Firehock, the group’s executive director and an Albemarle County planning commissioner. “We need to plan for them just like we plan for developed landscapes.”
The group currently is assisting city departments with an inventory of Charlottesville’s natural assets in order to inform plans such as the Streets That Work initiative and the upcoming audit of the zoning code.
Their technical assistance has been funded through grants from the Virginia Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service.
Members of the city’s Planning Commission, Board of Architectural Review, Tree Commission and PLACE Design Task Force attended a meeting last week to get a glimpse of their work.
Walker said the group is looking at the city, street by street, to document how much each neighborhood is covered by a tree canopy.
“The Preston Avenue Corridor is about 12.1 percent covered by tree canopy,” Walker said. “That’s pretty low.”
In comparison, Barracks Road is up to 52.5 percent.
The Friendship Court apartment complex has a 9.5 percent tree canopy.
“A lot of that land is being used for gardens or open space and recreational use,” Walker said. “Still, there’s room to get more trees in there.”
Firehock said many cities ensure tall trees can grow by installing structural soils, permeable pavement and root barriers.
“Atlanta has planted some very tall trees in its downtown, but they have spent a lot of money on those structural components underneath so the tree has enough strength to stand up and grow tall,” Firehock said.
Recessed planting beds along city streets could help treat stormwater at the source, Firehock said. She also said the city must be mindful of underground utilities.
“We can’t just stick trees on top of everything and let them have at it because we have a lot of stuff going on underground,” Firehock said.
One of the outcomes will be a map that depicts possible areas where trees can be planted. The work also could give city staff more resources to help protect existing trees before sites are developed.
Firehock said the group’s work is about three-quarters completed. It will result in additional layers in the city’s Geographical Information Systems service.
“This is a huge step forward for us,” said former city councilor and current Tree Commission member Elizabeth “Bitsy” Waters. “We still have a lot of inherent conflicts and things we bump about, as well as not enough space to do what we want to.”
The chairman of the Tree Commission said he is looking forward to seeing the results of the Green Infrastructure Center’s work.
“We are optimistic that the outcome of the study will provide a clear guide for where the city can plant more shade trees in our neighborhoods and along our primary streets,” said Paul Josey.
Councilor Kathy Galvin attended the meeting and called it a good start. However, she said any discussion of green infrastructure must include a rethinking of how the city’s street network is configured.
“If we don’t have our block sizes right with alleys, then we’ve missed opportunities to have more new streets with trees and alleys to provide alternative locations for underground utilities as we retrofit our existing streets with trees and other plantings,” she said.
Woolen Mills neighborhood activist Bill Emory also participated in the event and said he hopes it will result in a more direct tie between the city’s budget and its ecological vision.
“The political leadership knows these things matter and that they contribute to our economy and overall wellbeing,” Emory said. “Why not quantify the dollars that flow into the city because of our natural environmental assets and establish a linkage to budget line items that help support and develop these natural assets?”