Food Forests for Cool Communities
In recent years, cities across the United States have been identified as “heat islands” – places that experience extreme rising temperatures due to lack of greenery and green cover. The heat island effect occurs in populated areas with significant hard surface coverage – roads, buildings, and sidewalks – that absorbs heat that cannot effectively escape. Without trees, soil, and other vegetation to absorb and dissipate heat, temperatures are higher than surrounding areas with more green cover and less development.
These increases in temperature can be dangerous for human health, but shade from a tree's canopy can reduce temperatures by up to 20° F. It can also mean that residents put more resources toward safely cooling their homes, schools, and workplaces.
Luckily, scientists know how to reduce the heat island effect – the answer is trees. Planting trees and developing greenspace in neighborhoods helps to break up concentrated heat and mitigate rising temperatures. When communities invest in adding greenspace, they are ultimately investing in public health and reduction of energy costs for their community.
Southeastern Virginia – one of the most heavily developed regions in the state – is an area that received national attention for the heat island effect. Cities and municipalities here are reckoning with this reality and finding ways to address the issue.
Urban Orchards in Southeastern Virginia
One approach to mitigating the heat island effect is to install urban orchards – community trees and shrubs that provide food in addition to the benefits of shade and moisture retention. Fruit-bearing vegetation can provide great means for community involvement – people are encouraged to directly interact with the trees to pick fruits or berries. An urban orchard can serve as a highly visible demonstration of community care.
Communities can see a quicker return on their investment from fruit trees than from shade trees alone. It takes many years for shade trees to grow to their full potential – it’s more about planning for the future than instant gratification. Communities can get the more immediate benefits of fruit-bearing trees when they are planted in conjunction with larger specimens. Planting trees for a mix of functions best serves the community.
In South Norfolk, community members worked with the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) to install a rooftop garden and orchard at the new regional headquarters for the non-profit ForKids facility using community forest funding. The Center for Children and Families will house an education center as well as an expanded emergency shelter for children.
Alongside VDOF staff, volunteers installed potted trees and shrubs, bringing in fruits like blueberries, blackberries, figs, and even pineapple guava to this community orchard. Phase two of the ForKids project will include ornamental and shade trees in the parking lot and visitor area once the building opens later this year.
“So many of our families have gone through traumatic experiences before they come to us. We wanted to ensure they would have a beautiful and peaceful space while staying in emergency shelter,” says Thaler McCormick, CEO of ForKids.
As should be the case with all planting projects, the tree and shrub choices were intentional. Pineapple guava is not native to Virginia and may have a difficult time growing in most locations; but the community forestry team wanted to take advantage of the city’s warmer temperatures and open canopy that would make this sun- and heat-loving plant a possibility in South Norfolk. Berry plants and figs do quite well in pots (an easy addition to a rooftop garden) and can be prolific producers.
VDOF’s Community Forests Partnership Coordinator Molly O’Liddy says, “One idea behind installing urban orchards is to bring healthy foods into communities while also providing the other benefits of trees, like shade and aesthetics. Imagine kids playing at a park in the mid-summer heat – they take a break under the shade of a park tree and maybe even pick some blueberries as a snack from a nearby shrub.”
McCormick says, “Families living in poverty often lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In this rooftop garden, families will learn to grow and prepare their own food, and as they regain stability can carry this knowledge into their own homes.”
People might not realize how obtainable an urban food forest can be – it might seem too hard or like there’s not enough space. But it doesn’t have to be elaborate. “Projects like the orchard at ForKids demonstrate how doable it can be and will hopefully inspire others to participate, whether it’s at their home or elsewhere in their community,” says O’Liddy.
Other cities in Southeastern Virginia have committed to the urban orchard model to keep their communities cool, fed, and engaged. A food forest project in Newport News, Virginia, is planned for later this year.
Healthy Trees, Healthy Lives
Inspiration and education are critical components of the Healthy Trees, Healthy Lives initiative which aims to connect people with the direct benefits of trees. This becomes particularly important in urban heat islands, where the right tree in the right place can significantly improve quality of life.
VDOF has worked with the City of Chesapeake’s Health Department to promote visitation to trees and greenspaces around the city using content from the Healthy Trees, Healthy Lives toolkit. In addition to social media and awareness campaigns, community foresters have worked with park and city managers to demonstrate proper care of trees, ensuring they’re healthy and can provide the most benefits possible.
The principles and materials from the Healthy Trees, Healthy Lives campaign can be valuable tools for foresters working with communities to address the heat island effect. Projects like these urban food forests can help managers see the connections between healthy, abundant trees and the health of their community; hopefully, they demonstrate the investment is worthwhile.