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Researchers urge policymakers to build pedestrian greenspaces

A group of bikes locked to a bike rack
Hawes Spencer
VPM News
Researchers have linked walkability to a greater sense of community.

Where you walk matters.

It’s a brisk, but sunny morning outside the Science Museum of Virginia in downtown Richmond, and chief scientist Jeremy Hoffman is walking to a pocket park behind the Branch Museum of Architecture on Monument Avenue.

“[It’s] certainly meant to be a calm, contemplative space,” Hoffman said. “It’s very quiet. The walls actually physically restrict noise from coming in. The vegetation, especially in the middle of the summer, would drastically reduce amount of traffic noise that’s coming into the space.”

Hoffman, who is also an affiliate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, is re-creating a recent experiment done in collaboration with researchers from Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia.

For the study, volunteers took a 20-30 minute walk in the heat of a Richmond summer. They were randomly assigned one of two routes.

One was through the tree-lined Fan neighborhood to the Branch Museum park — the kind of place you’d expect to find wide, shady sidewalks. The other route was along the four-lane, practically treeless Broad Street.

“If not one of the most busy, the busiest East-West corridor in the city,” Hoffman said.

The participants came back to complete the second route about a week after that first trial, so researchers could better compare data from the two routes. On their walks, participants wore sensors tracking their heart rate, the outside temperature, noise and levels of PM 2.5 — a harmful particulate that is small enough to lodge into lung fibers and can aggravate respiratory issues like asthma. Scientists are still studying its short and long-term effects. Walkers also reported how they were feeling once they returned.

When participants took the green, lower-traffic route, they experienced cooler temperatures and lower PM 2.5 levels. And, Hoffman said, “You see increased physiological and mental benefit from going on a walk.”

The results add to a growing body of work by Hoffman and other researchers in Virginia attempting to provide local policymakers with data to support green development. Hoffman’s work has shown that areas of the city with low or no vegetation are especially prone to dangerous levels of heat.

City leaders have committed to increasing Richmond’s tree canopy. The Richmond 300 master plan sets the goal of covering 60% of the city in trees by 2037, and the recently adopted Climate Equity Action Plan 2030 urges leaders to plant more trees on new and renovated sidewalks.

According to the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, 80% of Richmonders live within a 10-minute walk of a park.

But Hoffman says in order to experience the benefits of strolling through greenspaces you first need a place to walk.

“Let’s be real,” he said. “Large swaths of the city don’t even have sidewalks to begin with, let alone substantial and mature tree canopy.”

Making greenspace practical and accessible

Duron Chavis is at Sankofa Community Orchard in Southside Richmond, the city’s largest contiguous community garden plot.

“Our vision was like, ‘OK we want this space to be a space for mindfulness,’” Chavis said. “We also want it to be a demonstration of, you know, what you can do in the city.”

Chavis, through the nonprofit Happily Natural Day, is leading efforts in Southside to use greenspaces not just for their environmental and health benefits, but to build food systems in Black communities the city has historically failed to invest in.

“We see community greenspace as an opportunity for communities to build power,” Chavis said.

To that end, Happily Natural operates Sankofa, McDonough Community Garden, Broad Rock Community Garden and the 5th District Mini Farm — all south of the James River. They rely on volunteers to plant and tend to crops, build greenhouses and flower beds, and donate materials for the gardens.

But Chavis says working with volunteers in Southside presents some obstacles: “There’s no sidewalks to get here.”

Sankofa is located just off Midlothian Turnpike, along a winding road that drivers regularly speed through.

“I mean, we’ve been waiting for a daggone speed bump in front of the garden for like months now,” Chavis said. “This is dangerous.”

Chavis also questioned why the Turnpike, a major road in Southside, doesn’t have a bike lane. Currently, the city has about 70 miles of bike lanes, according to data from the nonprofit Sports Backers. That’s up from 26 miles in 2017; a big increase, but the gaps are still evident.

The 2030 Climate Equity plan noted that its community engagement process resulted in calls for more diverse transportation options. In an email to VPM News, Office of Sustainability director Laura Thomas said the plan encourages city leaders to invest in mixed-use paths and sidewalks with space for trees built in.

That would be in line with another Richmond 300 goal of establishing a network of greenways across the city. Council approved the purchase of a 1.8-mile former railroad corridor crossing Southside in November 2022, which is planned to become the James River Branch Trail.

Thomas also noted the potential public health benefits of reducing vehicle emissions. In 2018, the year of Richmond’s last greenhouse gas inventory, one-third of the city’s total emissions — equivalent to roughly 2.7 million metric tons of CO2 — came from vehicles. If the city focuses on expanding access to walking, biking and public transit, it can have a significant cleaning effect on the air we breathe.

As for the study, Hoffman admits it sounds like a bit of a no-brainer that walking in a comfortable environment is beneficial. But he said illustrating the results is important.

“If we want to design spaces that will actually improve the health of our residents, this is the kind of data we need in order to do it,” Hoffman said.

Richmond 300 and the climate action equity plan are nonbinding documents, meaning the city isn’t actually required to make any of these changes. With major development projects like the Diamond District on the horizon, Hoffman says it’s important to keep pressure on policymakers to follow the science.

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