GRTC honors VCU alumnus Nathan Burrell

James River Park superintendent credits community partnerships for success

Nathan Burrell at the James River, not far from the park system's offices.
<br>Photos by Pat Kan...
Nathan Burrell at the James River, not far from the park system's offices.
Photos by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs

Starting as an intern from Virginia Commonwealth University, Nathan Burrell has blazed a trail to oversee the 550-acre James River Park System, which draws 1.4 million visitors each year.

The park, which includes areas on both sides of the river, and islands in between, offers mountain biking and hiking trails, rock climbing, fishing spots, river rapids, beach access and more.

In his role as JRPS park manager, Burrell has focused on strengthening community ties and opportunities to embrace the river, including for VCU students and researchers.

“I have a leadership role here in the city, but it really is the community that supports and backs up everything I’ve done in my 15-year career here since I graduated from VCU,” he said.

This week, you can find Burrell’s name in LED lights all over town. The GRTC Transit System is honoring him as a local history-maker during Black History Month. Burrell is one of two VCU graduates to be recognized by the transit system. Alumnae Karen Payne-Woods, along with her two brothers, will be honored Feb. 19-25.

“GRTC Honors Nathan Burrell” is displayed on bus destination signs.

“It’s pretty awesome, it’s definitely not something I expected,” Burrell said. “Like my wife, said, ‘They put you up there with Maggie Walker!’ I’m humbled by it.”

A GRTC bus displays Burrell's name.
A GRTC bus displays Burrell's name.

From one river to another

Burrell grew up in Tappahannock, Virginia, along the Rappahannock River, where he developed a love of the outdoors.

“My brother and I were always down in the woods down by the river. The river’s a natural draw for me,” Burrell said.

A youth and high school athlete, Burrell spent several summers as a lifeguard. At VCU he started out as a sport management major.

“I thought, I want to be a sports agent and manage sports teams and athletes. I got a bit further, my sophomore year, and realized this might not be for me,” he said.

He transferred his credits into the closely related parks and recreation program.

“Belle Isle is a stone’s throw away from VCU, so it’s typically the natural place most VCU students gravitate toward. Ralph White, my predecessor, was a prominent figure here in the city from his role here in the park,” Burrell said.

After hearing White speak to classes and during field trips to the park, Burrell was hooked.

“I was like, ‘I want to know what that dude knows,’” he said. “I met Ralph a number of times and expressed my interest in doing an internship here.”

Burrell’s hours were split between a sustainable agriculture operation in Tennessee and the JRPS, which at that time had only three employees. After graduating in 2003, he was brought on seasonally. From there, Burrell accepted a trail management job within JRPS; then a city parks-wide trail management position; and, in spring 2013, was promoted to JRPS superintendent.

“It’s safe to say that we hoped that when a successor to Ralph was named, it would be Nathan,” said Victoria Shivy, Ph.D., associate professor of counseling psychology at VCU and longtime board member of Friends of the James River Park. “They did a national search and we’re all really lucky that Nathan was named the new park director.

“He’s got loads of people at VCU excited about collaborating.”

Expanding access

Burrell is hardly surprised by the recent national attention given to the JRPS.

Our parks are not cookie-cutter parks.

“There has been this explosion of interest in the park. I think it mirrors the interest in and rebirth of our city,” he said. “The rebirth of our city is taking place because of the type of amenities we have here in the city of Richmond, especially our parks. Our parks are not cookie-cutter parks.”

Burrell has focused on expanding opportunities for all Richmonders, including those from marginalized communities. Several JRPS staff are VCU grads. His team of seven now includes an environmental interpreter and an adventure program manager. Kayaking and rock climbing are among the activities Richmonders previously would travel to surrounding counties to learn as recently as a few years ago.

“We need more multimodal transportation not just to the parks, but the whole city,” Burrell said. “We need to be able to get more citizens to these areas and to these experiences. When it comes right down to it, life is about experiences and if you’re not exposed, you’re in the dark.”

In terms of the physical and built environment, there’s always a new project underway.

“A lot of trail users think some gnomes come out and, ‘Wow! There’s a new section of trail.’ The sweat equity that the community has in this park is unparalleled,” Burrell said, gesturing to the JRPS office, freshly painted by volunteers. “The community owns this park. It’s been this hand-in-glove relationship that we’ve enjoyed, and the community responds in kind, every time.”

Don’t think the boss is stuck behind a desk.

“I am not exempt. I was just down operating an excavator at Ancarrow’s Landing, because we need to dredge this thing,” he said.

VCU’s research in the park

Burrell maintains ties with several areas of VCU, tapping into campus talents for many projects.

“As soon as he took the reigns, Nathan brought some renewed energy to getting some actual research done in the park,” Shivy said. Her Experimental Methods in Psychology classes did field work in 2012 to estimate how many visitors came to the park. They stayed out from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer heat, counting 10,000 people and interviewing 1,000 over cups of ice water.

A system of infrared trail counters has since been installed at park entrances. In 2014, students returned to manually monitor the entrances and calibrate the system’s accuracy.

“We made visual counts and compared them to the data coming in through the trail counters, to show that they were counting properly,” Shivy said.

“The students, when you take them out to the park, it makes all the things I’m trying to each them in the classroom not only real, but fun,” she said. “The concepts I try to teach them about research methods come alive and I wind up not having to lecture nearly as much because we’re really using the terms and ideas from sciences.

“He’s super data driven,” Shivy said of Burrell, citing the Invasive Plant Task Force as another example of his work. The group trained citizen-scientists to survey park sites where invasive plants like tree of heaven and wintercreeper are displacing native, desirable plants.

“He did it very systematically and had a study conducted and now can go in with a [restoration] plan that is based on good science,” she said.

Masters of Urban and Regional Planning students are frequent contributors to JRPS, creating one to two projects a year. Their work often forms the backbone of proposals on big park improvements.

“In each one of those projects, I have them go to the community so they are vetting it with the [public],” Burrell said.

In addition, VCU Community Engagement directs many service hours to JRPS cleanups and related projects.

When Burrell is not working or serving on nonprofit boards, he and his family are often at a park.

You would have to go to Juneau, Alaska, to find what we have right here in Richmond, Virginia.

“We’re outside all of the time,” he said.

Burrell is also enjoying the James River’s remarkable return to health.

“Our community had turned its back on the river. Back before the Clean Water Act, the river was filthy. We were left with all this derelict land,” Burrell said. “The fact that we have this public space both north and south of the river is incredible. To find this mix that makes up this rich tapestry, you would have to go to Juneau, Alaska, to find what we have right here in Richmond, Virginia. And it’s right here at our fingertips.”


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