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Counting on Trees: City's Urban Forest Crucial Part of Plans

City may offer utility credits for tree-owners.

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When Leigh Kelley began his internship with the city last year, little did he know that he'd been hired for “among other things” the strength of his counting skills. Or that those skills would be so thoroughly tested on the streets.

Now a land use administrative planner with the city's Department of Community Development, Kelley spent last summer completing a thorough census of Richmond's downtown tree population.

The tally? About 4,507 trees, he says — “and that's just in the Downtown Master Plan study area.” The census was performed as an ongoing part of that process, which determined, among other things, that Richmonders really care about trees.

The department's director, Rachel Flynn, says trees — and the idea of maintaining and enhancing the city's urban forest — kept coming up during the seemingly endless master-plan hearings. Sending Kelley to conduct a head — or canopy — count was the only solid way to get an idea of with what the city was working as it planned its future forestry.

“You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone,” Flynn says. Among the more surprising survey results was the number of trees the city didn't have, she says. Of nearly 5,000 tree wells, those planting areas built into the pavement, 10 percent were empty.

“Now we have a detailed map of those,” Flynn says. There's also a map of what kinds of trees there are, from short-lived Bradford pears and Zelkovas (1,225 total) to towering, shade-giving willow oaks (1,149). Flynn says there's a far clearer understanding of what's needed in this urban garden.

It may seem a petty thing, counting trees, but among modern urban planners, tree canopies are a critical part of maintaining a healthy city. A single tree, with its water-slurping roots, can gulp down dozens of gallons of water that otherwise would tax the city's storm water system. Summertime heating bills are lessened. The median temperature of the city — often five or more degrees hotter than suburban areas — may even be lowered by shade.

The city is even considering the details of a plan to provide a storm water utility credit to owners based on the number of trees on their property, Flynn says. Her department, along with Department of Public Works, also has applied for a grant that would pay to plant 500 additional trees downtown.

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