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Community, Volunteers Kick Off Southside Greening Effort

tree in playground
A freshly-planted tree in Swansboro Park. (Photo: Patrick Larsen/VPM News)

Volunteers and community members planted 50 trees at Swansboro Park on Saturday. They dug holes, spread mulch and watered the new additions around the mostly empty field.

It was the first such event in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s ‘Greening Southside Richmond Project,’ which aims to vegetate neighborhoods long-term and provide green job training for young people. It includes more events like Saturday’s, as well as efforts to distribute new trees to community members and teach them proper care.

The Foundation is partnering with the City of Richmond and several local organizations for the program. Venus Pannell heads up one of those partner groups, Friends of Swansboro, and she grew up in the neighborhood. 

“Back then, the park was a little active - it fell off. A lot of little kids stopped coming,” Pannell said.

She hopes that planting new trees will help bring kids and families back out more often.

A Legacy of Heat

In 2017, Science Museum of Virginia research found parts of Richmond with low vegetation and high heat-trapping infrastructure - such as asphalt - were more prone to dangerously hot days than leafier areas. A more recent study bore out those findings in cities around the U.S.

In Richmond, many of those extra hot areas with little greenery are in formerly redlined parts of the city - making the heat a legacy of racist housing policy.

That research caught the Bay Foundation’s attention. They organized grant funding for  ‘Greening Southside’ with funds for bay preservation projects. Apart from providing shade, trees filter a lot of pollution out of runoff.

Ann Jurczyk, the Foundation’s outreach director, says Southside was in need of both heat and water protection, according to the Richmond Office of Sustainability’s Climate Equity Index. She says that made it a good location to target tree-planting efforts as heat and water mitigation.

There have also been efforts at the state level to allow localities to plant more trees in certain developments, including in formerly redlined areas. Del. Nancy Guy’s (D-Virginia Beach) HB 2042 was signed by Governor Ralph Northam last week. However, the bill must be reapproved next year following a stakeholder study in order to take effect. 

Taking a community approach

Jurczyk says the project doesn’t stop with planting events and handing out trees: “In addition to that, it’s about trying to educate the community about why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it.”

She says local partner Groundwork RVA is providing green job training for youth through the program, with the goal of fostering locally-grown talent capable of maintaining the new vegetation in years ahead.

“They can step into these roles as future arborists,” Jurczyk said.

Southside ReLeaf is another local organization that’s been involved with engaging the community. Co-founder Sheri Shannon says the project’s approach is to discuss and ask questions first.

“We have to build trust, and we have to build spaces for authentic conversations,” Shannon said. “That means actually listening to people when they talk about the challenges they face.”

What Pannell says is that Swansboro needed beautification, and some more nature. “I guess, bringing life back to the neighborhood,” she said.

The Greening Southside Richmond Project is set to conclude in early 2023. The Foundation says they’ll host several more tree planting events in that time - including one that will replace half an acre of concrete at Branch’s Baptist Church.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.