As cooler fall weather approaches a lot of people are expected to be eager for outdoor adventures. Travel to distant destinations may still be constrained by COVID-19 restrictions but there are plenty of opportunities for enjoying nature in our own counties. This week we were especially interested in two recent planning efforts addressing green infrastructure and trail systems.
On July 6 of this year, the Loudoun County, Virginia Board of Supervisors approved a Linear Parks and Trails System Plan. The plan offers a framework for a system that is interconnected, equitable, linear and accessible. The vision for the network is that it will provide multiple benefits: for water quality and wildlife, flood hazard mitigation, tourism, economic development, health and safety. Loudoun County’s plan prioritizes connectivity and recommends a framework where corridors would link larger natural areas together into a network. The vision for the network includes honoring Loudoun County’s unique sense of place, connecting residents to each other and to the county’s natural and cultural landscapes, community nodes (activity hubs or connectors) and destinations.
Perhaps borrowing from the father of American landscape architecture Frederick Law Olmstead’s concept for an emerald necklace of parks around Boston, the Loudoun County plan proposes a system of emerald ribbons. Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) staff worked closely in a small group of representatives of the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition to develop and promote the concept, in response to strong public input. The resulting Emerald Ribbons proposal envisioned stream valleys and other habitat corridors tied together in a cross-county trail system enabling people to easily move from existing neighborhood trails to natural environments near their homes and experience the wonder of Loudoun’s natural areas farther afield. These riparian trails would also serve as critical wildlife corridors and habitat. PEC produced the concept map and the Emerald Ribbons committee met with the Board and all the key decision-makers. Championed by board chair, Phyllis Randall, the vision was unanimously endorsed by the full board of supervisors.
Linear Parks & Trails Framework – Rural Loudoun: Loudoun County Linear Parks & Trails System Plan
Equitable and Inclusive
The plan also aspires to provide safe, equitable and inclusive access to linear parks and trails. The plan proposes to identify vulnerable or historically marginalized communities using a methodology developed with input from local stakeholders, to:
- Include demographic data that identifies car ownership rates, median household income, people of color, seniors, children and people with disabilities.
- Establish Level of Service standards that ensure high-quality linear park and trail access is provided in these communities.
- Establish prioritization criteria that ensure short-term implementation projects are built in these communities.
- Work with community organizations and the public to ensure that linear park and trail alignments, amenities and programming serve the needs of these communities.
Most of these trails would run through the properties of private developers. Landowners would need to proffer, or donate, a sliver of their property for a public-use trail. Most developers are expected to be receptive to donating land in floodplains that cannot be developed.
Fishing from a pond at Meadowkirk in Loudoun County, VA. Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program.
Harnessing Natural Solutions
Meanwhile, in Anne Arundel (AA) County, Maryland, work is in progress on a Green Infrastructure Master Plan that promises to deliver most of the benefits described in the Loudoun County Plan. In his introduction to the plan before a community meeting, County Executive Stewart Pittman described it as bold and equitable, highlighting a goal to preserve 5,000 acres to meet the target of 30 per cent conserved land in the county by 2030. Pittman made special note of the plan’s attention to disparities in access for some communities to both large natural areas and to smaller neighborhood parks. Rather than focus entirely on big parks, the definition of green infrastructure offered in the AA County plan includes stormwater management tools such as bioswales and rain gardens. In more urban contexts, small natural features such as street trees, pocket parks and community gardens are part of the plan.
The Loudoun County plan enlisted 77 volunteers to help map the trail system. The AA County plan used technology. Planners used the Chesapeake Conservancy’s high-resolution dataset, developed using aerial imagery from the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) along with lidar data, which uses pulsed lasers to measure the elevation of the earth’s surface and the height of buildings, trees and other vegetation. The data from the Conservancy’s Conservation Innovation Center sees land at one-meter resolution, replacing previous 30-meter data and enabling detailed mapping of habitat quality, sea-level rise and climate impacts for areas as small as individual land parcels.
2021 Draft Green Infrastructure Network: Anne Arundel Green Infrastructure Master Plan
The AA County plan also used the American Forests Tree Equity Score tool to identify underserved communities. Tree Equity Score is a composite indicator based on existing tree canopy, population density, poverty rate, unemployment rate, urban heat island effect, racial composition, age demographics and public health statistics. The tool identifies areas with low numbers of trees and high proportions of low-income households and people of color. These areas experience elevated summer temperatures and worse health outcomes than the rest of the county.
The equity mapping exercise documented that the areas with the most degraded environmental conditions are disproportionately African American or Latino and have lower median incomes and are primarily in the northern part of the county. The Green Infrastructure Master Plan supports environmental protection and enhancement in both urban and rural areas. It can lead to improving environmental conditions, in particular in the more developed parts of the county identified as underserved communities.
The AA County plan also seeks to address the impacts of climate change including:
- Tidal flooding caused by sea level rise
- Coastal flooding exacerbated by sea level rise and subsidence
- Increased extreme precipitation events
- Increased flooding as a result of more frequent and intense storms
- Longer heat waves, including more days above 90 degrees throughout the year
The Green Infrastructure Master Plan takes these issues into consideration by including forests, floodplains and coastal areas. The plan highlights that green infrastructure plays an important role in mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. Forests and wetlands capture and store carbon, acting as a sink for greenhouse gases. Shading from tree canopy reduces heat at a local scale.
A rainscaping park features native plants and trees in Highland Beach, MD.
Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program.
AA County’s plan would be implemented by continuing to allocate funds for greenways, parkland and open space projects in the County’s Capital Budget and Program. This project is primarily funded through Maryland’s Program Open Space. The plan identifies a dozen other potential sources of funding from federal, state and local programs that support acquisition and development. The draft AA County plan does not include a cost estimate.
The Loudoun County plan does include an estimate: $275 million for planning, design and construction over a 10-year period. These costs would be supported by a diversity of county, state, federal and private funding sources. The plan also recommends pursuing a transfer and purchase of development rights program and the creation of a Loudoun County Parks Foundation. No estimate for the cost of land acquisition is included and the plan anticipates that most or all of the land for trails will be donated or dedicated to public use as a condition of development approvals, especially in stream valleys.
Both of these plans offer creative ideas that can help inform similar work throughout the Chesapeake watershed.
Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.