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Local libraries lead the way in creating green infrastructure

Plants sit outside the Broad Rock library
The James River Association's Justin Doyle says bio retention basins, like the one at Richmond’s Broad Rock Library, can divert and filter some stormwater runoff. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

Examples of green building practices can be found as close as the local library. 

Across the Richmond region, many libraries have — or are on the way to having — spaces devoted to helping ease issues affecting the environment.  

Where nondescript shrubs and plants once stood, now sit pollinator gardens, bee-bait boxes and native plants, surrounding soil laid carefully to absorb stormwater runoff. 

“It's such a different look than we've gotten used to for the past 20, 30 years of hiding all that infrastructure. You know, you don't want to see all that stormwater stuff,” said Carrie Webster, Henrico County’s energy manager. “And now, we're putting it right in the open and making it [an] almost artistic element. You should actually think about stormwater and what it's supposed to do when it falls on your site.” 

Stormwater management is designed to keep rainwater runoff from rooftops and parking lots on site and let it infiltrate into the soil in a more natural manner, Webster said. 

“Rather than what commercial construction has been unfortunately doing, [which] is just funneling all the stormwater from the roof and the parking lot straight into our receiving streams,” she said. 

Webster said our streams can’t accommodate that type of runoff.  

“It's led to all kinds of flooding and erosion and sedimentation of our bay, and issues like that,” she said. “Now, we're trying to go back and mitigate — and hopefully in such a fashion that we can kind of counteract some of the other negative impacts that we've experienced in our environment.” 

Local libraries play a pivotal role as locations to showcase and try out changes like this, according to American Library Association President Lessa Kanani'opua Pelayo-Lozada. 

“Libraries are uniquely positioned and essential to build the capacity of the communities they serve to become sustainable, resilient, and regenerative,” Pelayo-Lozada wrote in an email to VPM News. “As trusted hyperlocal institutions, libraries are constantly evolving to meet new needs and challenges.” 

Stormwater management at Broad Rock

In Richmond, the James River Association, in conjunction with RVAH2O and Four Winds Design, is installing environmentally minded landscaping that manages stormwater at library branches across the city. Justin Doyle, director of community conservation for the James River Association, said that helps prevent runoff from carrying pollutants into the James River and its tributaries. 

“It's a problem across the watershed [and] here in the city of Richmond,” Doyle said. “Runoff can carry nutrient pollution into the James. It can carry sediment, bacteria pollution from pet waste.” 

At the Broad Rock Library in Richmond’s Southside, Doyle pointed out a bio retention basin that was planted last spring. It funnels stormwater to plants that filter it.  

“In this bio retention basin, we've got a variety of different plants,” he said. “We've got sweetbay magnolia, river birch, rudbeckia ... . [And], I think we've got some irises and Virginia sweetspire.” 

Spaced out between many of these plants are carefully placed river rocks that resemble a miniature yellow brick road. Called conveyance channels, these paths begin at downspouts that carry stormwater from the roof, shoot water down onto the path and deposit it in the soil.  

Other features put in at the Broad Rock Library include more than 60 newly planted trees and shrubs to help mitigate the heat island effect, which according to the Environmental Protection Agency, can cause temperatures to increase by up to seven degrees in urban areas, compared to outlying areas with an abundance of trees, which tend to be wealthier. 

Doyle said his group, along with Four Winds Designs, also installed new outdoor seating options called pervious patios. 

“We created these seating areas that have these pervious pavers that allow stormwater to actually filter into the ground,” Doyle said.

Funding for the projects came from grants from the EPA and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. 

Henrico County infrastructure

Richmond public libraries aren’t the only buildings incorporating green infrastructure. In Henrico, energy manager Webster said the county has a range of efficiency projects underway at various buildings, including renewable energy programs. 

“We work on things like lighting and HVAC upgrades,” she said. “We do green building standards for all of our new construction. Our capital projects meet LEED, that's Leadership and Energy and Environmental Design, silver [standards] at a minimum.” 

Webster said the county has five libraries with LEED certification, a comprehensive measure of a building’s efficiency. 

“[It] looks at the location of your building, whether it's connected to things like public transportation, community services and other infrastructure,” Webster said. “It looks at stormwater and other site conditions and water efficiency in the building, energy efficiency, what type of materials you built the building from.” 

She said LEED also examines the inside of the buildings — looking at how daylight affects thermal comfort, how the air quality is indoors and “how a building might impact the environment and its occupants.” 

Henrico residents can track the county's energy use on its LEED dashboard.  

Webster said the county is also working with Sun Tribe Solar on adding solar panels to roofs where possible. 

“They actually own and maintain [the panels], and we purchase the electricity from them,” Webster said. “That way, we don't pay anything upfront for the solar systems. We actually purchased the electricity at a cost that is lower than what we would purchase grid electricity [for]. So, we actually save money and get free solar systems.” 

Some of the county buildings that got solar panels under this agreement include the Libbie Mill Library, the East Center location of Henrico Mental Health & Developmental Services, as well as its public safety building, Webster said. Systems are being installed at three schools that opened last fall as well. 

Many of these green infrastructure projects can be implemented on a smaller scale for homeowners, said the James River Association’s Doyle.  

“Rain barrels are a way for folks to capture and harvest rainwater off of their roofs. It not only reduces the amount of stormwater runoff leaving their property, but it gives them water for irrigation,” Doyle said. “In the city of Richmond, there's a stormwater credit that residents can get for installing a rain barrel on their home.”

Doyle said through library workshops, residents in the region can learn how to build their own bio retention basins and gardens.  

In Chesterfield County, only the North Courthouse Road Library is LEED certified, according to Jen Shepley, community services manager for the county’s libraries. She said many of the libraries have rain and butterfly gardens — or storm drain art to bring attention to runoff. The Bon Air Library has a bee-bait box, which helps attract bees to pollinate local flowers. And some of the buildings also have rain barrels. 

Shepley said green infrastructure is expected to be included in the rebuilt Midlothian Library. 

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.