Armed with shovels, wheelbarrows and passion, volunteers from Virginia Commonwealth University spent the first warm, sunny day of 2021 planting trees in partnership with Amelia Street School in Richmond’s Randolph neighborhood last week. The work was designed to add outdoor learning space to the school and reduce summertime heat within the city.
“This is our second tree-planting project,” said Wyatt Carpenter, sustainability projects and program coordinator in the VCU Office of Sustainability. “Our first one was in the Carver neighborhood. Our goal is to plant and maintain trees in the city to help mitigate urban heat island effects and help sequester carbon dioxide.”
The VCU Office of Sustainability and the School of Business organized the event. When the project is complete, over 100 trees will have been planted at the Amelia School and nearby Riverview Cemetery. Grants from the Virginia Department of Forestry and Altria funded the project.
The origins of the urban heat effect Carpenter describes can be identified by examining Richmond’s history. The city was not developed equally. In general, the west end of mostly white residents is more affluent while the east end and south side are predominantly populated by Black and lower-income residents. This divide can be traced to decisions made by the city planning department in the 1940s and ’50s and a process called redlining, where banks would not loan money for projects in certain areas of a city based on race and economic status. Bankers would literally draw a red line around certain sections of the city. Amelia School and neighboring Maymont Preschool are sandwiched between two formerly redlined neighborhoods.
The economic disparities also played out in the number of trees planted. More affluent areas of the city have large tree canopies and less affluent areas are full of asphalt and concrete and have fewer trees. In 2017, Jeremy S. Hoffman, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, and a team of volunteers that included VCU students from the College of Engineering and School of the Arts began looking at the correlation between tree canopies and the heat index. Through the work, he identified a 16-degree difference between the warmest and coolest places in the city.
Hoffman said there is a clear correlation between the redlined areas of the city and those with highest heat indexes because trees act as a natural coolant. He supports projects like the one at Amelia School.
“Trees cool local environments while sucking up rainfall like a sponge,” Hoffman said. “They also can help clean pollution out of the air and give us a mental health boost. They reduce traffic noise and can even calm down traffic. Tree planting projects are really positive things to do in our community.”
The trees planted at the school are native to Central Virginia, including oak, poplar and hickory. They are species that will create huge canopies when fully mature.
“We are trying to mimic a forest community that you would find in this part of Virginia naturally,” Carpenter said.
Alexis Spain, program manager for supply chain management in the School of Business, said the tree planting was the perfect opportunity for students, faculty and staff to give back. She expected around 40 people from the department would volunteer for the project, which will take place over several weeks.
There is a social aspect to the project as well. It provides volunteers a chance to bond with one another after a long pandemic winter. Spain met Carpenter for the first time during the event.
“It gave us an opportunity to get to the mission of supply chain and the Office of Sustainability and what Altria wanted to do and get outside in the sunshine during a time of COVID, where we can’t all be together,” Spain said.
Anthony Andriola, a VCU senior studying supply chain analytics, volunteered for the project. He believes that sustainability is important in the supply chain profession and was excited about the opportunity to increase the number of trees within the city.
“That is something that we take to heart,” Andriola said.
He said the event was a great opportunity for students and faculty to meet in person, as the learning environment has been very different over the past year. He and Spain met for the first time at the event.
“It was a blast,” Andriola said. “It is good that there are people at VCU who are trying to make our experience better during a time of COVID.”
VCU partnered with Amelia Street School for several reasons. It serves students with severe intellectual disabilities and the school’s administration wanted to create an educational environment. Students will be able to touch the trees and experience nature, and once the trees mature they will provide shade for outdoor learning space.
About a quarter of the trees planted for the project were grown by the Enrichmond Foundation, which operates a program called TreeLab to help increase the tree canopy in the city. A greenhouse located at Amelia School was underused so the foundation, an umbrella nonprofit for over 80 volunteer groups, recently took over the space.
Carpenter said he is hopeful that the work done through VCU will improve the environment for areas of the city that have been neglected.
“It has been a wonderful experience,” Carpenter said. “It’s a big shot of optimism for me certainly.”