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Garden Club, City Plot Tree Revival

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Right tree, right place is a mantra among advocates of Richmond's urban canopy. On a recent, pollen-coated Tuesday afternoon, Boxwood Garden Club President Jane Cowles casts judgment on the sylvan scene at 14th and Main streets.

“Look at that. That's nice,” Cowles says, casting her eye toward a group of large, leafy shade trees hovering over the 1300 block of East Main. Cowles pivots, pointing toward a few windswept saplings running along a sun-baked sidewalk on 14th. “Look at that,” she says. “That's not nice.”

Cowles is here with six other women representing Richmond's four Garden Club of Virginia chapters — the Boxwood, James River, Three Chopt and Tuckahoe divisions — along with city arborist Luke McCall; Rachel Flynn, Richmond's director of development and planning review; and 6th District Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson.

The sidewalk meeting is the result of a partnership between the city and local chapters, which have raised $8,000 and applied for a $4,000 award from the state Garden Club to help reforest city blocks. “Let me know of anything I can do to help out,” says Robertson, who hails the women's efforts as a “prototype” for future partnerships.

“This is one of your first images of the city, and it's rather bleak,” Flynn says of the 14th and Main area. The city's Downtown Master Plan, crafted on Flynn's watch, calls for planting more shade trees, which keep surrounding areas significantly cooler and alleviate storm-water runoff by absorbing rain.

But a recent Flynn-directed inventory found 500 empty tree wells dotting downtown, and a 2009 survey of the urban canopy found that only 56 percent of Richmond's potential tree locations are filled. In 2008, according to documents obtained by Style Weekly under a Freedom of Information Act request, 746 replacement trees went unplanted.

The city has worked to respond to complaints. Now, notices are put up on trees slated for removal. City officials are working on a new tree policy and have established an urban forestry commission. Mayor Dwight C. Jones budgeted for 1,200 new trees in his 2011 recommendations.

In the meantime, the Garden Club of Virginia's donation may prove a model for how the city can work with private community groups for conscientious — and free — landscaping.

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