The dogwood beside the lime green house in 10th & Page doesn’t look like much — yet.
Planted this past fall, the baby tree is still supported by a bamboo post and needs careful watering. But one day, decades from now, this tree will provide much needed shade to a yard in one of Charlottesville’s hottest residential neighborhoods.
“It’s just getting hotter and hotter each year,” said Rosa Key, whose yard sports the little dogwood tree.
The temperatures in 10th & Page are way above most residential areas and on par with shopping centers and other commercial places, according to the city’s new Heat Watch Report. Why? The 10th & Page neighborhood has the fewest trees of any primarily residential area in Charlottesville.
The situation is expected to get worse. According to a forthcoming study by Charlottesville’s Tree Commission, the entire city is losing trees. The tree canopy decreased some 35% over the last two decades. If the trend continues, the entire city will get hotter.
To combat this, the Tree Commission has recently proposed a handful of solutions for the city to consider. Suggestions include “strong ordinances” that require protection of existing trees in development or redevelopment projects through measures like setbacks on properties. They also suggest incentives for developers to plant new trees.
While the commission is proposing solutions for the city to ponder in its upcoming zoning rewrite, addressing the canopy issues in 10th & Page could prove more complex.
On an unseasonably warm February day, the sound of a chainsaw roared through the 10th & Page neighborhood. Edde Mendes was cutting down a tree on a rental property that he owns just down the road from Rosa Key’s house. This is the second tree he’s removed from the yard this year.
Its roots had been butting up against the home’s foundation, he said.
It’s a common occurrence in this area of town. The neighborhood is dense and primarily occupied by residential properties. The average sized lot in 10th & Page for a single family home parcel is about 5,000 square feet, while many of Charlottesville’s neighborhoods range between 10,000 and 20,000 for single family homes, said Planning Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg.
Because of this, property owners in 10th & Page are limited in the number and types of trees they can plant. On small properties, there just isn’t much room for wide roots or towering branches to grow.
A recent report by the city’s Tree Commission found that less than 20% of 10th & Page and the nearby Starr Hill neighborhood had tree coverage, while other areas like Barracks/Rugby and Greenbrier have canopies near 60%.
Starr Hill has more commercial properties and impervious surfaces like parking lots, while 10th & Page is residential — containing a mix of homeowners, renters and public housing residents. It’s also historically a majority-Black neighborhood.
This is not just an environmental issue, the lack of trees affects residents’ health and financial wellbeing. More than aesthetics, trees provide shade and they enhance air quality. Having fewer of them has contributed to more intense heat in summer months.
Local studies have identified 10th & Page as one of the city’s “urban heat islands” — meaning it absorbs and retains heat.
Heat islands pose a variety of problems like increased utility bills, air pollution levels and heat-related health issues.
“It impacts my life because I’m always outside,” said Eddie Howe, who has lived in 10th & Page for two years. “It’s hot.”
But he goes out anyway. Taking walks is important for his mental health, he said. Originally from New York City, he said that walking keeps him calm when his bipolar disorder is flaring up.
Because Howe is young and otherwise healthy, the heat is more of a discomfort than a danger, he said. But that is not the case for every 10th & Page resident.
“In areas with fewer trees, you may see problems with air quality,” said University of Maryland professor Sacoby Wilson, who leads teachings on environmental justice and health. “And during heat waves, there can be higher possibilities for heat strokes.”
He added that people with chronic health conditions — particularly lung or heart problems — are most susceptible to health issues during extreme heat.
In Baltimore, for example, a report called Code Red indicated that emergency medical calls for chronic health conditions increased during hotter months, and affected residents in its hottest neighborhood the most.
“When you think about climate action planning, you have to have an equity and justice focus,” Wilson said.
Hotter neighborhoods also mean residents spend more money to cool their homes.
About 30% of residents in 10th & Page are affected by “energy burdens,” according to a report by Community Climate Collaborative. An energy burden is when households spend a higher than average percentage of their income on utility bills.
In Charlottesville, the average household spends 3% of their income on utilities. But in 10th & Page, residents can spend 10% or more.
While factors like energy efficient appliances and insulation in homes contribute to the amount of energy a building uses, shade from trees can provide a natural cooling effect.
“The most efficient natural air conditioners are our biggest trees in cities right now,” said Jeremy Hoffman, a researcher at the Science Museum of Virginia.
‘Decisions that we make can reverberate’
Since moving to 10th & Page two years ago, Howe has been learning about the neighborhood in which he repeatedly walks.
The area has been historically Black since the 19th Century. An area sandwiched between University of Virginia and modern day 10th & Page used to be colloquially referred to as “Canada” in the 1800s. It was where free Black people who worked at UVA lived.
Modern day 10th & Page began taking shape in the late 1800s. It was built to be a Black neighborhood. Because of the racial covenants that were used in Charlottesville at that time, it was one of the few areas people of color could own homes.
“Being such a historical neighborhood as this, it should have more trees, too,” Howe said.
It’s not by accident that this neighborhood has fewer trees and smaller parcels, Hoffman said.
It’s the result of past land use decisions.
These decisions were made through processes like redlining or the use of racial covenants.
“Anywhere you look across the country, there tends to be an accumulation of heat in the formerly redlined or lower-income neighborhoods,” Hoffman said, who studies the intersection of urban planning and which areas are hottest. “What I think redlining and all of these nefarious urban planning decisions from the past show us is that decisions that we make can reverberate for a hundred years or more.”
By contrast, the properties that were previously designated for white people tend to have more trees and larger lots. Hoffman said it’s usually those formerly white-only properties that now have the robust tree canopies we see today.
This phenomenon is not unique to Charlottesville. Across the country, formerly redlined areas tend to have fewer trees and hotter temperatures.
At 66 years old, Key has lived in various homes in the 10th & Page neighborhood throughout much of her life. She has seen trees in poor health be removed from her neighbors’ yards or public spaces.
“There’s not as many here and the city needs to take better care of them,” she said.
But caring for and planting trees is not so simple, advocates say.
Seventy percent of the existing trees within city limits are on private property, according to the city’s tree commission. That makes planting new ones difficult.
To pull it off, city officials say they need help from residents, landlords and businesses.
So, in 2021, a small group of volunteers assembled to do just that.
Forming ReLeaf CVille, volunteers from a group called the Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards and members of the Tree Commission teamed up with the 10th & Page-based nonprofit City of Promise with the simple aim of getting new trees into people’s yards.
Since last fall, the group has planted 14 trees in 10th & Page. The group is primarily focused on that neighborhood at the moment. It planted the little dogwood in Key’s yard.
“We plan to plant more trees in the fall,” Van Yahres said. “10th and Page is the first neighborhood, but we plan to go into other low canopies after this first project.”
The group’s main challenge is convincing property owners to plant trees, members say. There’s not much publicly owned land in the neighborhood. A microcosm of the city at large, most of the spaces to plant in 10th & Page are on private property.
So, City of Promise is collaborating with ReLeaf to create an ambassador program where teens in the neighborhood go door to door to educate residents on the health and climate impact of trees and convince their neighbors to plant them.
Initial funding stemmed from the Virginia chapter of The Nature Conservancy. The public-private venture also includes the Van Yahres Tree Company.
ReLeaf plans to have a website up and running within the next month.
After ReLeaf plants a tree, members of the tree stewards follow up with residents during the first two years of a new tree’s life.
The volunteers also supply residents with a gauge to monitor rainfall in order to know when to water their new trees, said Kendra Hall, a volunteer with the stewards.
“After the first two years, the roots have settled in and they’re less like a baby. They don’t need as much tender care,” said Peggy Van Yahres, a co-chair of the city’s tree commission and member of the family-operated Van Yahres Tree Company.
The stewards encourage residents to plant the largest tree possible, as those can provide the most shade and carbon capture. But they work within the limitations of lot sizes and resident preference.
ReLeaf CVille is not alone in efforts to bolster green space.
Charlottesville’s utilities department has partnered with the Arbor Day Foundation, a national nonprofit, to offer 200 trees to customers on a first come first serve basis starting March 14.
To promote the opportunity, the department is sending postcards to customers and linking to a website where people can register for a tree through its newsletter. The website also guides people on where to strategically plant in their yards to yield energy-saving benefits.
This is the first time Charlottesville has offered the program, and it may not be the last.
“We’re going to try this out and see how it goes,” said Lauren Hildebrand, the director of Charlottesville’s utilities department.
Since both programs are in their infancy, it will be years before residents see much impact as the trees take time to grow.
But, if it is a success, the work ReLeaf is doing in 10th & Page could serve as a model for addressing other areas where the urban tree canopy is lacking, said Roxanne White, who previously served on the Tree Commission.
“It’s an overwhelming thing to take on climate change and reduce heat islands,” Hall, of the Tree Stewards said. “But we need to have people plant their own trees and prove that every single person can make a difference in their own back yard with their own tree.”