A map of Richmond, color coded dark green for areas with high tree canopy cover and lighter green for areas with low tree canopy cover.
VCU researchers studied tree canopy cover across the city of Richmond as part of the Urban Forestry Collaborative.

Taking root: Project to plant trees connects VCU and Carver

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A project to plant dozens of trees this month in Carver will make the neighborhood a greener and more walkable community, while offsetting the carbon footprint of Virginia Commonwealth University as the trees grow.

The Carver Tree Project, the pilot project of the Urban Forestry Collaborative, has brought together resources from VCU, nonprofits and state agencies to plant and maintain 75 trees in the neighborhood, located just north of VCU’s Monroe Park Campus. VCU will be the first university in Virginia, and one of the first in the nation, to claim carbon offset credits for the new trees under a peer-reviewed program developed at Duke University.

“This is a project that benefited the university as well as the neighborhood, because both parties learned from each other,” said Jerome Legions Jr., president of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League.

Following more than a year of planning and study, the trees will be planted Saturday, Nov. 17, and Sunday, Nov. 18. Volunteers are needed, with morning and afternoon slots open both days.


Volunteer with the Urban Forestry Collaborative

Dates: Saturday, Nov. 17 and Sunday, Nov. 18

Location: Smith-Peters Park, 904 Catherine St.

Details: Wear closed-toe shoes, long pants and weather-appropriate clothing. Lunch (regardless of your shift), water, tools and gloves will be provided.

Sign up URL

Quantifying the value of green

The value of mature urban trees goes beyond beauty. They provide shade, reduce energy bills, capture rainwater runoff and — key to this project — capture and sequester carbon dioxide as they create oxygen. A recent U.S. Forest Service study estimated $18 billion in annual benefits derived from urban trees.

Using aerial imagery and other geographic information system tools, the tree canopy across Richmond was examined. The collaborative found an overlap between street trees and income data. High-income neighborhoods have more street trees, while trees were sparse in other areas.

“Carver has some of the lowest tree canopy cover in the city,” said Wyatt Carpenter, sustainability projects and program coordinator in the VCU Office of Sustainability. The 144-acre neighborhood has less than 10 percent tree canopy cover, compared to a citywide average of 26 percent.

Students collected data on urban forests and the ecological benefits trees provide in both the Carver neighborhood and an urban neighborhood in Panama City, Panama (through a Panama avian ecology class).

Students in the Panama class were able to find connections between the benefits trees provide in two nations.

“It was a powerful lesson for our students to see our community partners, both here and abroad, making such a difference in their local communities through the seemingly small act of planting a tree,” said Catherine Viverette, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Sciences.

The students used the data to estimate how many trees they would need to plant to offset the carbon footprint of their international travel. VCU plans to apply the carbon credits of the new Carver trees to offset the impact of travel by university students, faculty and staff.

“I take students to Panama every year, and we talk a lot about how much carbon we use every year to do that, and how to offset that,” Viverette said.

Graphic reading: "Results - ecosystem services" "VCU Office of Sustainability" "Oxygen & Pollution 200 pounds air pollution removed each year! $640 annual value of air pollution removal 18,000 pounds oxygen produced each year" "Water & Energy 7,502 cubic feet of avoided runoff %501 annual value of avoided runoff $166 annual value of building energy savings" "Carbon dioxide 6,750 pounds carbon sequestered each year! $438 annual value of carbon sequestration 178,460 pounds of carbon stored in trees right now $11,600 value of carbon storage" "Structural value $769,000 Total Value $782,295"
VCU researchers found that existing trees in Carver provide $782,295 of ecological benefit to the neighborhood.


‘It’s a really intense process’

In Richmond, meanwhile, students in the urban ecology class offered by the VCU Center for Environmental Studies crisscrossed Carver last fall, visiting every street tree.

The researchers tallied 431 living trees and 190 empty tree wells — holes in sidewalks designed for plants — on city property. They gathered data about each tree, from a 30-foot-tall Chinese pistache on North Lombardy Street near Interstate 95 to an almost 55-foot-tall water oak on Belvidere Street.

“We dug deeper into the vacant tree wells to figure out which ones we could plant in,” Carpenter said. Not all empty wells can be used for new trees, some due to clearance issues with power lines or alleys, and some residents have declined the offer of trees near their homes.

The Richmond Tree Stewards volunteer group and the Virginia Department of Forestry worked to select trees from the city’s approved urban trees list. Species will vary by residents’ preferences, size of the tree well, overhead obstructions such as power lines and other factors.

“It’s different for every site,” Carpenter said. “We knew we wanted to prioritize native trees.”

Under the Urban Forestry Carbon Offset Protocol developed by Duke University, students from American University will come to Richmond in the future to verify the carbon capture provided by the new trees.

“It’s a really intense process,” said Erin Stanforth, director of sustainability at VCU. “There are not a lot of universities in this country that have done physical carbon offsetting based on tree planting.”


Community focus

A map showing dots representing trees.
The new Carver trees will be planted in four shifts the weekend of November 17 and 18.

The Carver Area Civic Improvement League aims to make Carver a better place to live, work and visit. The environmental, economic and health benefits of trees dovetail with those goals.

“It makes the neighborhood healthier because of carbon sequestration the trees will provide for the neighborhood,” Legions said.

The majority of new trees will line Carver’s main thoroughfares, he said, with others enhancing side streets.

“We can help [the Carver civic group] meet their mission and they can help us meet our mission for carbon reduction,” Carpenter said. VCU is a signatory to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

“Involving the community from the ground level means we all have a stake in the outcomes,” Viverette said.

The Carver tree project “is a long-term commitment,” Carpenter said.

“Our goal is to have an intensive maintenance program for at least the first three years of the trees' life. Trees live a long time. As the trees grow, they will continue to sequester carbon.”

The Richmond Tree Stewards and the nonprofit organization Capital Trees are providing training on urban forestry management. Office of Sustainability staff will handle watering and maintenance of the trees through next fall.

Funding sources for this project include the Carver Area Civil Improvement League, the VCU Division of Community Engagement Council for Community Engagement, the Virginia Department of Forestry, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the VCU Office of Sustainability.