Increasing Urban Green Spaces to Reduce Urban Heat Island Effect in Richmond

Author:  Shelly Barrick Parsons

While many of us are longing for cool fall breezes and the change of seasons, forecasters have been reporting record level heat in the Richmond region. Temperatures that exceed 90 degrees fall into the “extreme heat” category. When there’s inadequate shade available, temperatures of that level can be brutal and dangerous. This summer was the hottest on record across the world, and the number of annual extreme heat days in Richmond is expected to increase over the next decade.(1) Unfortunately, extreme heat impacts more than the temperature. Extreme heat events contribute to decreased air quality including “elevated levels of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants.” And even more unfortunate, extreme heat and poor air quality have a disproportionate impact on already vulnerable communities — aggravating many health conditions including asthma and pulmonary disease. Medical emergencies during extreme heat events are more prevalent in neighborhoods lacking adequate green spaces and tree canopy, and can include overheating, dehydration, heat stroke, and death.(2)

Lack of tree canopy exacerbates the negative impacts of extreme heat and poor air quality. Neighborhoods lacking adequate tree coverage or green space get hotter faster, stay hotter longer, and do not have the green infrastructure to improve air quality and reduce heat. This phenomenon is known as urban heat island effect.

“Heat islands are urbanized areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas. Structures such as buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies. Urban areas, where these structures are highly concentrated and greenery is limited, become “islands” of higher temperatures relative to outlying areas.”(3)

In Richmond, Virginia neighborhoods impacted by the urban heat island effect can be up to 10 degrees hotter during the day and 20 degrees hotter at night than areas with adequate tree canopy and green spaces. In addition, urban heat islands are disproportionately located in neighborhoods that have suffered redlining, continued disinvestment, and neglect. (4)

How can we help?

It’s not all bad news. There is a solution for mitigating the impact of extreme heat and poor air quality: increased tree canopy and green spaces. That’s because trees and plants can reduce the urban heat island effect by:

  • Shading buildings and structures
  • Deflecting and absorbing the sun’s rays
  • Releasing moisture into the air

Trees and plants also remove pollutants and particulate matter, acting as nature’s air filters. Building and maintaining quality green spaces with ample tree coverage can reduce the heat island effect and improve air quality.(5) 

Capital Trees understands that adding more green spaces to our community not only beautifies our city, but it can have a significant positive impact on the health of neighboring residents. We’re committed to increasing green space and tree canopy in Richmond. Our efforts include:

  • Transforming 5+ acres of urban public space into an urban green space (The Low Line), planting shade trees to add to the tree canopy, as well as native plants and shrubs
  • Practicing sustainable management practices on completed projects
  • Advocating for and advising on increased green space and tree canopy in Richmond
  • Collaborating on a tree canopy assessment and improvement project with Henrico County
  • Launching a green space improvement project at Hotchkiss Field and Community Center
  • Partnering with City Parks and Recreation and Keep Virginia Beautiful on a tree planting project this fall

How can you help?

Community members can do their part to help mitigate the urban heat island effect. Consider:

  • Planting trees on your property, and replacing hardscaping with trees, shrubs, gardens, and native plants.
  • Advocating for local parks to incorporate more green space and trees, instead of hardscaping like asphalt.
  • Advocating for green infrastructure to accompany all new building projects.
  • Participating in community tree planting events or community workdays to care for established trees and green spaces.
  • Working to plant and care for street trees.


Green spaces matter now more than ever. You can help build a greener, more livable, and cooler Richmond by supporting Capital Trees and our work. If you’re ready to get involved in this life-saving work, join Capital Trees and other greening organizations for RVA Arbor Day 2023. The event will be focused on increasing and improving tree canopies and green spaces in Richmond. Plus, there will be plenty of opportunities to volunteer. We hope to see you there!


  1. By Midcentury, Virginia Could See 30 Days Per Year With 100 Degree Heat Index; The world has just experienced the hottest summer on record – by a significant margin; Record shattering: Earth had its hottest July in 174 years
  2. Extreme Heat and Public Health, RVA Green 2050; Air quality and heat in Richmond: Air Quality Becomes Hot Topic During Summer Months
  3. Environmental Protection Agency/Heat Islands; American Forests/Urban Heat Island Effect, Read more about the Urban Heat Island Impact specific to Richmond ( and
  4. How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering; Heat Islands and Equity
  5. EPA/Reduce Urban Heat Island Effect; EPA/Using Trees and Vegetation to Reduce Heat Island Effect, EPA Heat Island Compendium Ch. 2: Reducing Urban Heat Island With Trees and Vegetation

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