Grab Some Shades

By Debbie Williams and Susan Kalish

Green is sprouting up and spreading all over Arlington County, Va. Hundreds of new trees are adding their foliage to the canopy. Residential properties are being converted into communal gardens. Indigenous plants, once crowded out by invasive species, are thriving. Fox, flowers, and frogs, thought gone from the area for good, are making a comeback.

These successes didn’t happen overnight, but took countless hours of planning, research, and manpower. Preserving and improving green space has been a challenging—and at times daunting—undertaking by the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), but the community has made it a top priority, and the commitment is paying off.

A Master Plan For Success
As with any large-scale endeavor, planning is the key. Touting sustainability as a priority is easy, but in a densely populated county with land at a development premium, a concrete plan is needed to keep green from turning into gray concrete.

Arlington County adopted an intensive and wide-reaching Natural Resources Master Plan (NRMP) in 2010. The plan was the result of a multi-year biotic inventory of the county’s plants, animals, and habitat areas. It outlines 19 specific recommendations. “These recommendations are my marching orders,” says DPR’s Natural Resources Manager Alonso Abugattas. “The plan gives specific goals and keeps us all on track.”

The first NRMP recommendation is a lofty one: “Adopt a general policy goal of ’Zero-Loss’ of county-owned natural lands.” Not only has the county stuck to this policy, but it’s managed to take it a step forward. A shining example is the restored Barcroft Magnolia Bog.

Fewer than two dozen magnolia bogs are known to exist in the Atlantic Coastal Plain area, and these are threatened by habitat destruction. Over a 10-year period, volunteers and staff have performed a number of ecological studies and inventories of the bog at Barcroft Park. They used these data as the basis for an ambitious, 5-year restoration effort. Volunteers, staff members, and contractors began to remove the invasive species, and as part of the zero-loss charge, converted an older soccer practice field into a meadow. As Abugattas explains, “We have so few meadows that we decided to keep this area open as a natural buffer.”

This is the final year of active project management, and the results are impressive. The bog is almost 90-percent clear of invasive plants. Spring peeper tree frogs and wood frogs were successfully transplanted and are thriving. Local residents report new and increased sightings of long-lost animals like the gray fox. Satyr butterflies and uncommon plants like bloodroot and wood anemone have been found in new locations and are expanding their range inside the park.

In The Fight for Green, Volunteers Are Gold
This project’s overwhelming success included an element that can’t be overlooked or underappreciated: volunteers.

Arlington County values its motivated and informed volunteers, and actively seeks their help and input. The county even created a new chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists state certification program, so that, through a variety of classes, community service, and professional development, volunteers can make a difference.  DPR also taps into volunteers to serve as Tree Stewards for its many programs, and frequently calls on local Master Gardeners for help and advice.

A dedicated volunteer base on the Barcroft Magnolia Bog project assisted with data collection, invasive species removal, and overall scope of work. The Remove Invasive Plants (RIP) volunteer group has made a huge difference on this project and others around the county. At the Barcroft site, volunteers showed up for monthly “invasive removal parties” to target certain species. “At other times, the volunteer groups followed the contractors and staff after they had done the larger removals to make sure that they didn’t leave anything,” says Abugattas. “[They] also helped with plantings and other projects after the invasives had been managed.”

Grow Your Own Solutions
Removing these invasive plants and replacing them with native ones are key NRMP recommendations. The use of regional plants provides the greatest opportunity for long-term plant survival and the highest ecological value. To be considered “locally native,” plant stock must originate from a site less than 60 miles from Arlington.

Unfortunately, these plants, propagated from locally collected seed, have limited commercial availability. Rather than struggle to find and purchase these native plants, the county decided to grow its own. The Parks and Natural Resource Division established a native-plant nursery, located near the county’s main landscaping facility. Construction began in fall of 2014, with the help of several Master Naturalist volunteers. In addition to the nursery, there is also a greenhouse that can be used for growing in winter months.

Staff and volunteers have been collecting seeds from Arlington and Fairfax counties at several park locations. The nursery is currently growing about 50 different species. DPR staff members hold weekly nursery work days and seasonal restoration-planting events. At a recent “DPR Digs In” event, staff and volunteers planted 450 plants from the nursery.

The department is working with the Master Gardeners and regional partners on a manual for native-plant propagation that can be used as a platform to share information and best practices.

Green Is Better Together: Share And Collaborate To Succeed
This sharing of information with and among regional partners is another way that Arlington’s DPR builds on and grows its successful programs. It formed a regional group of professionals, the Natural Resource Working Group, as a way for colleagues in neighboring counties to share ideas and collaborate on projects. Arlington also works with several other interagency groups for advice and sharing of resources. For example, one of the best botanists in the state happens to work for the nearby city of Alexandria, so Arlington DPR staff tapped into his expertise on the Magnolia Bog project.

DPR also relies on the National Resources Joint Advisory Group for guidance as well as oversight. The group was formed to oversee the implementation of the NRMP, and consists of members from Parks and Recreation, Urban Forestry and Environment, and Energy Conservation Commissions.

Sharing, collaborating, and working together were all hallmarks of the bog project. DPR sought support and volunteer assistance from Arlington Regional Master Naturalists, the nearby Windgate Townhome Community, Earth Sangha, the Virginia Native Plant Society, the RIP volunteer group, and an AmeriCorps Intern Team. This teamwork was crucial to the project’s success, and DPR received a 2016 Virginia Association of Counties Innovation Award as a result.

Education And Outreach
Public education and outreach is another key recommendation of the NRMP, and Arlington DPR is constantly seeking to engage and inform its residents. The county is currently in the process of updating its 2005 Public Spaces Master Plan. As part of the process, otherwise known as POPS—A Plan for our Places and Spaces—DPR introduced a speaker series called POPS UP to discuss a broad range of topics that relate to planning, designing, and programming public spaces. The first topic was Biophilic Cities (see sidebar).

The county also plans an Arbor Day celebration, encourages residents to nominate their trees for awards, hosts events at its nature centers, provides speakers at civic association meetings, libraries, and schools, and posts an online blog. “We want our residents to know we are working hard to not only maintain, but enhance our natural resources,” explains Jane Rudolph, the County’s Parks and Recreation director. “We have a ways to go, but our efforts are paying off, and we are definitely moving in the right direction.”

Debbie Williams is a freelance writer and editor based in Northern Virginia. Reach her at

Susan Kalish is director of public relations for Arlington County’s Parks and Recreation Department. Reach her at

What Are Biophilic Cities?
The Biophilic City movement believes that being surrounded by nature enhances people’s emotional and psychological well-being. Arlington’s DPR recently hosted its first POP UP speaker event to educate residents on this growing movement, featuring speakers Timothy Beatley, professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, and Stella Tarnay, urban planner and co-founder of Biophilic DC.

“We wanted to kick off the series with a discussion on Biophilic Cities because we believe that sustainability and environmental responsibility are essential to protecting our quality of life in Arlington,” explains Jane Rudolph, the County’s Parks and Recreation director. “Biophilic Cities is a movement based on the premise that humans are hard-wired to need connection with nature and other forms of life. Nature is not optional, it is essential to our modern life. The biophilic city lets its residents experience the natural world and as a result is a happier, more productive city.”

POPS UP attendees learned that biophilic cities:

  • Are cities of abundant nature in close proximity to large numbers of urbanites
  • Are biodiverse cities that value, protect, and actively restore this biodiversity
  • Are green and growing cities, organic and full of nature
  • Are cities that provide abundant opportunities to be outside and to enjoy nature through strolling, hiking, bicycling, and exploring
  • Are rich multisensory environments, where the sounds of nature (and other sensory experiences) are appreciated.

In biophilic cities, residents:

  • Feel a deep affinity with the unique flora, fauna, and fungi found in nature, and with the climate, topography, and other special qualities of place and environment that serve to define the urban home
  • Can easily recognize common species of trees, flowers, insects, and birds (and in turn care deeply about them).


Plan, Promote, And Preserve
Arlington County’s DPR is busy with green initiatives, both big and small, to enhance and restore its natural resources. The goal is not to merely reduce, reuse, and recycle. It’s to plan, promote, and preserve a greener way of living. Here are a few examples of recent initiatives:

In Parks:

Implemented a composting initiative as part of the July Fourth celebration at Long Bridge Park. This practice helps reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills.

Arlington’s first “smart” irrigation controller was installed in the diamond fields at Wakefield High School and Tuckahoe Park. These controllers actually note how much water is needed in each zone and adjusts the flow rate accordingly to run as efficiently as possible.

Parks staff improved its leaf collection/removal process so 80 to 95 percent of the leaves in our areas are chopped and composted. This process has resulted in improved health of grass areas, reduced the time spent removing leaves, and eliminated the use of the leaf-vacuum truck and the man-hours associated with driving and dumping.

In Gardens:

Partnered with Arlington Cultural Affairs, George Mason University, and the Library of Congress to host the Field School for Cultural Documentation. Students documented two Arlington Community Gardens by shadowing and interviewing gardeners to collect an oral history of the impact on the community of the garden experience. Their findings will be presented to the public and then be housed at the Virginia History Room of Arlington Library and the Library of Congress.

Bon Air Memorial Rose Garden management was expanded to include a nutrient-management program, newly integrated pest-management procedures, and a redefined maintenance protocol that has reduced the need for chemical use as well as decreased maintenance hours. In addition, a renovated irrigation system has enabled water conservation and resulted in healthier plants.

In Urban Forests:

The Urban Forestry Unit planted 704 trees on county property in 2016, which will contribute to the urban canopy, providing benefits such as energy savings through shading and cooling, stormwater-runoff reduction, air-pollution reduction, and wildlife habitat. An additional 98 trees were distributed through the Tree Canopy Fund Grant Program and planted on private property. Plus, 417 young tree “whips” were distributed to residents to plant on their own properties through DPR’s Tree Distribution Program. In 2016, Arlington County was recognized by the National Arbor Day Foundation as a “Tree City USA” for the 20th consecutive year. This award reflects Arlington’s continuing commitment to its urban forest.

Arlington County National Resources Management Plan Recommendations

1.       Adopt a general policy goal of “Zero-Loss” of county-owned natural lands.

2.       Establish a new administrative category of county-owned open space, known as Natural Resource Conservation Areas (NRCAs).

3.       Develop a new GIS-based, environmental review process to protect significant individual natural re-sources on county-owned open space from ongoing maintenance activities, redevelopment, or new construction on county-owned properties or private properties within 100 feet of a designated natural resource feature. Revise current Administrative Regulation 4.4 (Environmental Assessment Process) to incorporate the use of this GIS layer into the review process for all county-initiated land-disturbing activities. Explore expansion of current county-review processes to help ensure that land-disturbing activities on private property would not adversely impact documented natural resources on property owned and/or managed by Arlington County Government, Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, Arlington Public Schools, Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, or any other land trust. 

4.       Effectively manage Arlington’s natural resources by establishing a single-management unit with specialized skills in natural-lands preservation and natural-resources management.

5.       Develop an individual natural-resources management plan for each park designated as a Natural Resource Conservation Area, or containing NRCAs.

6.       Actively pursue opportunities to identify and preserve additional open space through conservation easements, voluntary dedications, partnerships, and fee-simple acquisition. Potential acquisitions with natural lands or significant natural resources present should be the highest priority. Parcels offering additional protection to surface streams or serving as green corridors between natural areas should also be considered for their environmental benefit. Citizens should be educated about opportunities for voluntary participation in these programs.

7.       Update and submit to the county board for approval a revised edition of the Resource Protection Area (RPA) Map and GIS Layer.

8.       Develop a strategy for the protection and preservation of seeps, springs, and first-order streams found on county-owned parkland or open space.

9.       Develop a clear objective-based methodology and process for the management of streams, artificial wetlands, and ponds located on county-owned open space.

10.    Amend Chapter VI of the Urban Forest Master Plan to reflect policy changes in forest-management practices for natural lands.

11.    Promote the use of native-plant species in county-sponsored plantings and enhance the ability to procure local ecotype-plant stock.

12.    Within Natural Resource Conservation Areas, restrict, to the maximum extent practicable, all vegetation plantings to those included in objective-based restoration plans reviewed or developed by the Natural Resources Management Unit.

13.    Develop a new, long-term, objective-based invasive-plant removal strategy, combining volunteers, county staff, and contractual services in order to maximize efforts and environmental benefit to Arlington’s natural resources. Seek Capital Improvement Project (CIP) funding to support large-scale invasive-plant removal and natural-land restoration and preservation efforts.

14.    Clarify the roles and responsibilities of county departments in relation to invasive-plant control efforts to identify leadership and foster cooperation.

15.    Include an invasive-plant monitoring and maintenance component in the design of all future stream-restoration projects (DES), new trail-side “no-mow and grow” zones (PRCR) and riparian buffer restoration and plantings (DES/PRCR).

16.    Inventory and prepare an analysis of existing riparian zones on county-managed open space in order to assess the feasibility of reestablishing natural vegetation along stream corridors in the future.

17.    Initiate the formation of a local inter-jurisdictional Natural Resources Working Group for the purpose of strengthening existing partnerships and developing cooperative working relationships.

18.    Establish a Natural Resources Advisory Group to enable board-appointed advisory commissions to advise more effectively on natural-resource issues.

19.    Arlington County staff should seek and embrace opportunities to educate residents and landowners of the importance of environmental sustainability, natural-resource protection, and habitat enhancement on private properties.