More trees, parks needed

Published 10:39 pm Thursday, December 10, 2015

More trees and parks, river access and a “greenway” along Shingle Creek were among the recommendations for Suffolk made by a nonprofit and University of Virginia students this week.

About 100 people turned up to discuss how the city can improve its “green infrastructure” during the Wednesday evening forum at City Hall. The forum was one of the first steps by the Green Infrastructure Center, which is administering the project along with the Virginia Department of Forestry, with grant funding provided by the Southern Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

Three U.Va. students, all in the Master of Urban and Environmental Planning program, presented their research on what can be done to improve Suffolk’s green infrastructure.

Email newsletter signup

John Harbin said about 33 percent of the downtown area is covered in tree canopy, while 33 percent is non-tree vegetation — just grassy areas or shrubs.

“That actually isn’t too bad,” he said. “There are cities with a lot less than that.”

Still, he suggested a goal of 40 percent tree canopy for the downtown area. A preliminary step might be to reach for 35 percent by 2017, which would require an additional 400 acres covered by trees just in the downtown core.

“That’s a lot, but it’s doable,” he said, noting it will take a commitment from private landowners as well as local government.

More trees will help improve water quality in the Nansemond River, which is suffering. Trees catch some stormwater and allow it to evaporate before it ever hits the ground, while soaking up more water and conveying the rest to the groundwater table.

Paved surfaces, however, convey all the water that hits them directly to the river.

Karen Firehock, director of the Green Infrastructure Center, said more tree-lined streets in the downtown area would benefit the economy. Studies have shown shoppers spend more time and money in commercial districts with plenty of trees, she said.

More parks in the downtown area also would be beneficial, said Briana Bergstrom. While most of downtown is within walking distance to a park, the parts that aren’t are primarily black, low-income neighborhoods. New flood maps mean that vacant lots in the area may not be suitable for development.

“This might be a good opportunity for the city to create a park,” she said. Shingle Creek cuts through the park-less area and is ripe for the creation of a “greenway,” she added.

Access to the Nansemond River also is a concern, Bergstrom added. Though there are two points of public access — Constant’s Wharf and Sleepy Hole Park — “for a river that’s 20 miles long and serves a city with more than 80,000 people, that really might be inadequate,” she said.

There are about 126 vacant lots with access to the Nansemond River. Two are publicly owned — the Virginia Department of Transportation site and the Driver Radio Transmitter Facility.

Firehock said the end result of the project will be objectives for the city to accomplish and an integrated system that will show how multiple city departments and the citizens can work together to achieve them.

Citizens said they were excited by the meeting and gave more ideas, such as walking and biking trails and a concerted effort to save vacant land from development.

“We have a lot of good stuff going on in Suffolk by a lot of good volunteers,” said Karla Smith, founder of Suffolk River Heritage. “If we all work together and share our plans and ideas, I think we can make this happen.”

“I think the meeting was very successful,” said Monette Harrell. “We have an opportunity for all citizens to think about ways we can improve the city.”

Additional comments can be emailed to

The next meeting of the committee is set for Jan. 7, with the time and place to be announced.