Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Tag Archives: Norfolk

Norfolk’s Elizabeth River Trail, while off to a good start, needs revisioning

This blog post will continually be updated and edited as needed.  

In a country growing in its urban population, it can be said that the idea of parks and trails has become less of a luxury or recreational entity and more of an apparatus for biodiversity protection and sustained economic vitality.  Not only is there more of a demand for parks and trails, but connectivity between different parks and different trails has become the goal of numerous land management agencies across the United States.  For example, the Greater Cleveland area of Ohio has a system of parks and trails known as the “Emerald Necklace” which consists of large nature parks connected by parkways and trails that meander in and out of the city and its suburbs.  These “greenway corridors” allow seamless hiking and biking opportunities for area residents.  They also create a continuous stretch of protected naturalized land for birds and wildlife.  Having a continuous stretch of protected natural resources may potentially increase resistance to ecological decay as habitats that are connected are less vulnerable to degradation since there is a higher quality ecosystem in place by which plants and animals can move through and evolve.  While much controversy remains among scientists over whether a system of parks and designated natural areas will be effective in biodiversity conservation (as outlined by Akcaya et. al., 2007), one thing is becoming increasingly clear: A large complex of parks, trails, and passive recreational areas is good for people and good for local economies.

Cities all across the nation have caught on to these facts, and even major metropolitan areas, including  megapolises such as New York City, are enhancing and expanding the scope of their environmental areas and recreational amenities by creating and maintaining larger networks of trails, parks, and greenways with a natural feature (e.g. a river, meadow, forest, etc.) as the central figure of the facility ( see Figure 1 for a glance at an urban nature trail).

Figure 1: Even large metropolitan communities are developing trails and greenways that help protect a natural feature. This photo shows a segment of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh looking towards a downtown area. Urban trails like these help connect urbanites with the natural features of an otherwise fully developed area, and they help to protect native plants and animals along the way.

Yet the city of Norfolk, Virginia and other communities around Hampton Roads have yet to catch on to the need and importance of trails and greenways in urbanized areas.  Nearly 100% of the land in Norfolk is densely developed.  Open space in the region is limited to scattered “postage-stamp” parks, often less than 10 acres in size.  These small parks modestly frequently feature a few picnic shelters, some recreational fields, and sometimes a small playground, but are scant in trail space, natural areas, and other outdoor exploration opportunities (Figure 2).  In addition, their isolated location and small size make it unlikely that these parks provide enough open space for the high population density of the city.

Figure 2: While Norfolk does have some small parks with playgrounds and open lawns, the community severely lacks large, publicly accessible natural areas. This photo shows one of the few tracts of land along the Elizabeth River that can be accessed publicly. Notice the lack of natural buffers such as trees, marshes, and naturalized habitat.

The scarcity of large open spaces is problematic for wildlife.  The Hampton Roads region is on a vital migratory bird path, and various sensitive birds need not only adequate cover for protection from weather and predators, but also need diverse and well-structured natural habitats to retrieve from which to retrieve nourishment.  Large crumbling buildings and an enigma of concrete, rubble, and high-speed interstates provide little to no habitat where native plants and animals can establish themselves.  The resulting overdevelopment of the land  also impacts the quality of the aquatic habitats of Norfolk’s numerous tidal rivers, bays, and creeks via amplification of shoreline erosion and water pollution.  Subsequently there is a reduction of submerged aquatic plants and other marine life.

The intense urbanization of Norfolk’s landscape also creates problems for people.  The natural features still present within the city are overshadowed by the rush of cars and trucks, the congestion of shopping malls and parking lots, and the unappealing substrate of broken glass and fractured concrete.  Land values in areas with urban blight as just described often suffer, and the overall look and feel of a neighborhood is often estranged and threatening.  Water quality in any nearby waterways is volatile, and land and buildings can quickly become damaged during rain events.  Toxic chemicals not only leach into the soil, but also into the air and water – need I say more?

Norfolk, however, has in fact begun creating and restoring parks and greenspace.  Perhaps one of the better projects has been the Elizabeth River Trail, an urban hike and bike path that passes through industrial shipyards, historic buildings, and a reclaimed tidal basin with reestablished native plants (Figure 3).  The trail also passes by a former sediment disposal site now managed as wildlife habitat and a historic point-of-interest (see Figures 4 and 5).  This trail and park also provides a refuge for birds and wildlife in an otherwise densely industrialized area.

Figure 3: The Elizabeth River Trail (Atlantic City Spur) as it passes by an office complex and shipyard in the Midtown area of Norfolk.

Figure 4: Plum point park is a reclaimed sediment disposal site along the Elizabeth River channel restored with native plants and naturalized habitats.

Figure 5: Plum Point Park also features historical-viewing areas.

The trail allows for safe passage of bicyclists and pedestrians (see Figure 6) and can make travel and recreation within the city more appealing and pleasant.

Figure 6: This photo of the Midtown Tunnel, a busy commuter traveler highway, was taken from the Elizabeth River Trail, which takes pedestrians over the busy right-of-way.

There are problems, though, holistically with the current state of the Elizabeth River Trail.  For one thing, the segment that passes through the Midtown area of Norfolk is only about 2 miles long.  The rest of the trail is primarily along roads it frequently follows busy and congested streets, or it is in the form of a slim asphalt bike path next to a major highway (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Most sections of the Elizabeth River Trail are along busy routes or on narrow sidewalks .

The fact that Elizabeth River Trail mostly follows busy and noisy areas of the city draws into question whether or not the city’s project is truly centered upon creating a recreational trail or just a random, approximated pedestrian travel route.  Conceps that seem city planners are missing from the project is a clear definition of a trail.  Generally speaking, a trail is a hiking or biking route that passes through a natural or cultural area.  Trails are meant to offer a gateway into a park, nature preserve, or some other natural or cultural complex.  Trails  along canals, former rail-roads, mor other narrow corridors of public land are often considered greenways or linear parks.  Greenways frequently connect larger parks and natural areas to other public and conservation lands.  Figure 8 shows a trail through an urban area and how the trail corridor provides a linear greenspace for passive recreation a natural habitat corridor.

Figure 8: A linear park/greenway provides a connection between different parks and natural areas for both people and wildlife. This trail passes through an urban area yet still provides a naturalized, park-like setting.

A trail or greenway differs from that of a bike path or a bike route.  A bike path is often nothing more than a modified sidewalk that is widened to accommodate bicycle traffic.  Bike paths most frequently provide a more convenient means of pedestrian transit, and they often parallel a major road or highway.  While nothing is inherently wrong with bike paths, they cannot truly be considered bike trails since environmental protection and access to open parkland is limited.  For example, bike paths do not usually feature a river or bay as its scenic component nor a culturally significant feature.

bike route is usually just a network of roads – some with designated bike lanes and some without, that although may pass through significant cultural or natural resources areas, cannot in itself be considered a trail.  Bike routes are not always located on low-traffic side streets, and bike routes do not provide safe means pedestrian travel nor adequate protection of natural and cultural resources (again, see Figure 7 versus Figure 8).  .

With respect to the Elizabeth River Trail, many sections currently cannot be classified as a trail or greenway.   Besides lacking a streamlined park connection, the Elizabeth River Trail does not allow hikers and bikers to adequately navigate the trail route overall. For example, when going to a state park, there is often a kiosk  or information board that introduces visitors to the natural and cultural features of a park, as well what facilities are available and what trails they can access (Figure 9).  Perhaps a great way to enhance the consideration that the Elizabeth River Trail is a park in linear form is to post signs and kiosks along various intersections and trailheads (places to park and jump on to the trail)

Figure 9: The Elizabeth River Trail can - and should - have kiosks at trailheads that introduce visitors to the natural and cultural features of the trail corridor, as well as guidelines for trail usage. This sign is at the very start of the Chesapeake Beach Railway Trail in Maryland.

Besides the actual trail features itself needing improvement, many sections of the “trail” need rerouting in order to create an off-road bike and hike route (and preferably one that is not a narrow sidewalk next to a busy street like that shown in Figure 7).  This would be an especially challenging endeavor for the Elizabeth River Trail since there are few corridors or areas of open space as options for a trail corridor.  Hence, a high level of creativity will be needed in order to determine a location and proper construction design for a new trail or trail segment.

For example, the section of the trail near the Midtown area of Norfolk passes through a tight corridor of undeveloped land (Map 1).  It then dead ends at a street corner.  A look at that street corner (shown where the green line meets the red line in Map 1) shows that there is potential land to create a trail connection to another nearby park.

Map 1: The Elizabeth River Trail passes through a densely urbanized area, making trail enhancements challenging due to the lack of undeveloped land. That being said, a little creativity and careful planning could extend the current trail (outlined in green) over to another park and public area (red line), with bridges that cross over railroad tracks and other obstructions. Click this map to enlarge. Image Source: Google Maps

Map 1 shows just one possible example of the level of planning travel Improvements would involve:

  • acquiring new land and corridor space,
  • designing the trail so that it comfortably accommodates hikers and hikers, and
  • the creation of a park and neighborhood connection.

There are also some other consideration to take into account for this urban trail.  One of those is protection of exiting naturalized land (e.g. forest patches, shrubby areas, wetlands, sandy shorelines, etc).  While they may not be large in size, these habitat fragments are in need of protection and stewardship. In areas where there is some open space, such as a large unused lawn or a wide shoulder between the trail and a nearby building complex, the creation of naturalized habitats could be established where feasible.  (In fact, habitat restoration work has already begun along the Elizabeth River Trail, including the restoration of an oyster reef and salt marsh in an otherwise fully industrialized cove, as shown in Figure 10).  For smaller plots of land not used for recreation (such as for sports or lawn space), native plant displays, rain gardens, and bio retention ponds could be created depending upon the size and topography of the plot of land.  Rain gardens are native plant gardens that are designed to soak up water that runs off from nearby houses, gutters, and pavement  This helps slow surface runoff and filter pollutants(University of Wisconsin-Extension, 2002).  Bio-retention ponds are ponds that are designed to capture storm water and runoff from nearby parking lots and buildings, which is then allowed to sit (or be retained) for filtering by natural processes.  Both rain gardens and bio-retention ponds incorporate native landscaping, which creates urban wildlife habitat, particularly for birds and beneficial insects (University of Minnesota Extension, 2008).  These environmental restoration project ideas can easily be tailored to urban environments with limited open space or in areas with a scarcity of undeveloped land.  Figure 10 shows how an urban waterway along the Elizabeth River Trail is being enhanced with native plants to restore its ecological integrity, provide wildlife habitat, and improve the aesthetics of the area.

Figure 10: Restoration of salt marsh and oyster reef habitat in a small harbor near the Midtown Tunnel of Norfolk, Virginia, adjacent to the Elizabeth River Trail and Plum Point Park.

In areas where projects like these are unfeasible, or where there is a limited amount of funding, planting groves of native trees and shrubs that parallel the trail or that are in between the trail and a natural feature (such as a body of water or a forest patch) can be an acceptable alternative (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Native loblolly pines (Pinus taeda) line this segment of the Elizabeth River Trail as it passes between an industrial area and a residential neighborhood in West Ghent.

One segment of the Elizabeth River Trail in particular that should be considered an environmental restoration site is the section east of the Berkeley Bridge near the Harbor Park Stadium (Map 2).  The land between the trail and the river consists of former industrial land overgrown with weeds and toppled with debris. Despite the grim appearance of this stand of trail, there exists tremendous potential for a large environmental restoration project.

In fact, the city of Milwaukee, WI took a similar area of land – an industrial washout zone adjacent to an urban river – and constructed a trail and replanted the area with native plants/  They also recreated naturalized river bluffs and shoreline (see Figure 12).  Despite being only a 5 minute walk from downtown Milwaukee, trail users can see and hear birds and wildlife, and native plants help ensure clean air and water via natural ecosystem processes.

Figure 12: The Milwaukee River valley, as seen from the Oak Leaf Recreation Trail. Norfolk's urban riverfront near the Harbor Park Stadium (see Map 2) could incorporate a similar theme of "nature in the city."

Map 2: The orange-filled area of land along a section of the Elizabeth River Trail between the Berkeley Bridge and the Harbor Park Stadium could be revitalized by reestablishing habitats native to the Tiidewater region of Virginia.

What sort of “nature-in-the-city” should be created along the somewhat marginal land located along Harbor Park Stadium section of trail?  A full detail of what can be done is, of course, beyond the scope of this blog post.  Nevertheless, I will provide a list of native plants and plant communities that could be reestablished in this area.  The following list of plants that I selected out of Lippson and Lippson’s (2006) overview of vegetation communities in the Chesapeake Bay region are of the hardier variety that should be able to become established in the tract of land near the Harbor Park Stadium

Wet areas:

  • Saltmarsh Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora)
Areas that are occasionally flooded:
  • Black Needlerush (Juncus roemerianus)
  • Saltmarsh Aster (Aster tenufolius)
  • Saltmarsh Fleabane (Pluchea purpurascens)
  • Sea Oxeye (Borrichia frutescens)
  • Salt Meadow Hay (Spartina patens)
  • Salt Grass (Distichlis spicata)
  • Marsh elder (Iva frutescens)
  • Groundsel Tree (Baccharis halimfolia)
Areas that are seldom flooded:
  • Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera)
  • Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda)
In addition, a fishing pier extending from the trail could be constructed, as well as a restored oyster reef.  Interpretive signage could be placed along various points of this section of trail that overview the history of the restored land parcel and overview of the environmental restoration work that took place.  Next boxes for swallows, martins, and other cavity-nesting near-shore birds could be placed in open fields along the trail corridor.
A final consideration may be to alter the name of the trail itself.  Currently, the National Park Service in collaboration with Hampton Roads communities, is developing the Elizabeth River Water Trail as part of the newly established Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.  This trail will be entirely on water, and it would therefore help with publicity to modify the name of the Elizabeth River Trail so that it can be distinguished as a land trail.  I suggest considering titles such as the Elizabeth River Greenway Trail, the Elizabeth River Trail Park, the Elizabeth River Hike and Bike Trail, or the Elizabeth River Land Trail.
Some may wonder why all the effort would be needed to enhance and create new segments of the Elizabeth River bike trail.  Besides, Norfolk is an older city without much open space, and it would be challenging to establish a larger system of parks and greenways like other cities have done.
Perhaps, though, an improved trail could in fact offer many benefits to and old and industrialized city such as Norfolk. I have already mentioned that ample access to parks and recreation improves the quality of life and boosts local economies and land values.  In a time where obesity is on the rise, the convenience of a multiuse trail could encourage people to get outside more often and move!  The various natural areas along the trail would help protect wetlands and biodiversity, which time and time again have proven worthy for our protection for both aesthetic reasons and economic ones.  Additionally, we would help reconnect local citizens and visitors to the natural and cultural history of one of America’s first cities.


Akcakaya, H. R., Mills, G., & Doncaster, C. P. (2007). The role of metapopulations in conservation. In D. Macdonald & K. Service (Eds.), Key Topics in Conservation Biology (pp. 64-84).

Lippson, A. J., & Lippson, R. L. (2006). Life in the Chesapeake Bay.  Johns Hopkins University Press.

University of Minnesota Extension. Communication and Educational Training Services, University of Minnesota Extension. (2008). Native plants for sustainable landscapes: Establishment and management of lakeshores and gardens (BU-07447). Retrieved from website:

University of Wisconsin-Extension. Board Regents of the University of Wisconsin System , University of Wisconsin-Extension. (2002). Rain gardens: A household way to improve water quality in your community (GWQ 034 1-01-02-5M-5O-S). Madison, WI: UW-Extension Publications.

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