Planting Trees in Suspended Pavement

Lincoln Center's London Plane Trees, installed in a Silva Cell system in 2008, in summer 2013.  image: DeepRoot Green Infrastructure, LLC

Lincoln Center’s Barclay Capital Grove, installed in a Silva Cell system in 2008, in summer 2013.
image: DeepRoot Green Infrastructure, LLC

This article on suspended pavement, by Leda Marritz, ISA, of DeepRoot Green Infrastructure, is based on a comprehensive, multi-year literature search she conducted for the blog Green Infrastructure for Your Community. Green Infrastructure for Your Community addresses topics related to trees, soils, and stormwater in the built environment. Leda has written, edited, and run the blog, producing hundreds of articles in the past 4 years. I am very pleased to introduce Leda to write a blog post for The Field.
–L. Peter MacDonagh, FASLA, ISA, Director of Science & Design at the Kestrel Design Group and Adjunct Faculty, Practice Professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design

When we talk about low-impact development and design today, the term “suspended pavement” comes up a lot, but it occurred to me recently that this term is rarely defined. Here is my attempt to do that by walking through suspended pavement’s history, uses, composition, and case studies.

Suspended pavement (also known as cantilevered sidewalks) is a general term for any technology that supports the weight of paving and creates a subsurface void space that is filled with soil for root growth. The soil that is used to fill the system can either be native, from the excavation area itself (if appropriate), or a specified mix. In this respect, suspended pavements are essentially soil-delivery systems, creating a rooting area composed of lightly compacted, high-quality soils for tree roots in cities and other heavily paved environments. In addition to aiding urban tree growth, the soil can also be used for on-site stormwater management, maintaining pre-development hydrology, minimizing non-point source pollution and flooding, and recharging watersheds.

Suspended pavements are ideal low-impact development design solutions for the long term co-existence of trees and streets, parking lots/lanes, roofs, promenades, plazas, green walls, and light-rail platforms.

History

The first use of the term “suspended pavement” that we are aware of is from a study published in Arboriculture & Urban Forestry in July 2006 by E. Thomas Smiley, Lisa Calfee, Bruce R. Fraedrich, and Emma J. Smiley titled “Comparison of Structural and Noncompacted Soils for Trees Surrounded by Pavement.” In that study, the authors set up a plot of trees – a mix of Snowgoose cherry (Prunus serrulata) and Bosque lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia) – growing in 5.4 cubic meters (189 cubic feet) of five different soil treatments: compacted soil, gravel/soil mixture, Stalite, Stalite/soil mixture, and suspended pavement.

The Bartlett growing media study at 14 months. Note the size of the trees growing in suspended pavement relative to other treatment types.  image: E. Tom Smiley.

The Bartlett growing media study at 14 months. Note the size of the trees growing in suspended pavement relative to other treatment types.
image: E. Tom Smiley

After 14 months, the suspended pavement over uncompacted soil treatment outperformed all the others in terms of trunk diameter growth, twig growth, chlorophyll rating, and root growth (root growth outperformance was observed in the Elms only). The authors concluded that “suspended pavement over noncompacted soil provided the greatest amount of tree growth and health and should be considered when designing urban planting sites for trees.” Furthermore, “The trees in the noncompacted/suspended pavement treatment were larger, faster growing, had better color, and more root growth than most other treatments.”

Nine years later, the difference in performance between trees planted in suspended pavement and trees planted in the other treatments remained very apparent.

The Bartlett growing media in 2013, after nine growing seasons. Note the size of the trees growing in suspended pavement relative to other treatment types.  image: E. Tom Smiley

The Bartlett growing media in 2013, after nine growing seasons.
image: E. Tom Smiley

This study is discussed in more detail in the “Where is Suspended Pavement Being Used?” section below. You can also view photos of the study over the last nine years here.

Benefits of Trees Growing in Suspended Pavements:

Suspended pavements facilitate the growth of healthy trees in urban spaces. Healthy trees have high social and ecological value, including:

  • Offering cooling effects via shading and evapotranspiration from the canopy
  • Improving air quality by mitigating carbon emissions
  • Improving aesthetics and quality of place
  • Improving health and well-being
  • Encouraging biodiversity due to provision of habitats.

Access to usable soil is the most limiting factor for urban tree growth, and few street trees have access to soil beyond what is provided in their opening. This is a common reason why street trees often do not grow to maturity, or simply fail to thrive. Rooting space becomes limited due to soil compaction that results from paved surfaces/high pedestrian traffic

Suspended pavement addresses this problem by functioning as a soil-delivery system for trees, allowing lightly compacted, high-quality soils to be stored and made available for tree roots in cities and other heavily paved environments. With access to adequate amounts of high quality soil, growing mature, healthy, long-lived trees in heavily paved environments becomes possible. Properly designed, this technology enables us to grow forest size and quality trees even in urban areas.

Healthy, mature trees also provide significant stormwater benefits, and suspended pavement systems provide opportunities for integrated stormwater/soil benefits.

If suspended pavement systems are filled with a bioretention soil mix, about 20 percent of their volume can be used for stormwater storage (in 1,000 cubic feet, 200 cubic feet of water can be stored). Rainwater can be directed into suspended pavement systems in order to keep it on-site, making it available for plant growth and preventing it from overflowing sewer systems or polluting nearby watersheds. There are many ways to direct water in to the system, including pervious pavers, curb cuts, catch basins, slot drains, and more. A typical tree in this amount of soil can hold a significant amount of rainwater, preventing overflow into the impervious surface area, not just under the tree canopy but far beyond the canopy’s edge as well.

In a bioretention soil mix, about 20 percent of the total soil volume can be used to hold stormwater. image: DeepRoot Green Infrastructure, LLC

In a bioretention soil mix, about 20 percent of the total soil volume can be used to hold stormwater.
image: DeepRoot Green Infrastructure, LLC

The three processes that allow trees in lightly compacted soil to provide stormwater quantity and rate control benefits are:

  1. Soil Storage: Soil stores rainwater during and after a storm, making it available for plant growth. Stormwater runoff from nearby impervious surfaces can be directed into soil under suspended pavement using a number of different techniques, such as, for example, through pervious pavement installed over the cells, or via a perforated pipe off a trench drain or manhole.
  2. Interception: Interception is the amount of rainfall temporarily held on tree leaves and stem surfaces. This rain then drips from leaf surfaces and flows down the stem surface to the ground or evaporates. Since larger trees have more leaves to intercept rain, they intercept significantly more rain than small trees, with interception increasing at a faster rate than tree age.
  3. Evapotranspiration: Evapotranspiration (ET) is the sum of water evaporated from soil and plant surfaces and the water lost as a result of transpiration, a process in which trees absorb water through their roots and transfer it up to the leaves, where it evaporates into the environment through leaf pore transpiration. Evapotranspiration continues to reduce stormwater volume stored in the soil long after a rainfall event ends.

Where is Suspended Pavement Being Used?

1. Bartlett Urban Tree Plaza Study (Charlotte, NC)

This independent study (also discussed above) was set up by Dr. Tom Smiley at the Bartlett Tree Laboratory to test how well trees fare in different growing media. The trees are monitored and tracked from year to year to measure their branch extensions, height, diameter at breast height (DBH), leaf count, and more.

Trees growing in suspended pavement outperform those in other growing media in height.  image: E. Tom Smiley

Trees growing in suspended pavement outperform those in other growing media in height.
image: E. Tom Smiley

The research plots were set up with 12 trees planted in each of the following growing media: a suspended pavement system, a stalite/soil mix, compacted soil, pure stalite, and a gravel/soil mix. All trees had access to 189 cubic feet of growing medium.

By all measurements, the trees in the suspended pavement treatment are outperforming all the others in size, color, and root growth. This study is now entering its tenth year, and we expect Dr. Smiley will publish an updated paper sharing the results in the coming years.

2. Christian Science Center (Boston, MA)

The Christian Science Center, on Huntington Avenue between Massachusetts Avenue and Belvidere Street in Boston, is the oldest suspended pavement installation that we know of in the United States. These trees were planted in 1968, making them 46 years old.

The trees growing in suspended pavement at the Christian Science Center are 46 years old.  image: Wally Gobetz via Flickr

The trees growing in suspended pavement at the Christian Science Center are 46 years old.
image: Wally Gobetz via Flickr

The trees in suspended pavement at the Christian Science Center form a calm and cooling canopy.  image: walkn via Flickr

The trees in suspended pavement at the Christian Science Center form a calm and cooling canopy.
image: walknboston via Flickr

Sasaki & Associates designed this suspended pavement system as a long soil trench made up of structural slabs resting on grade beams over a garage roof. Each tree has access to around 800 cubic feet (22.6 cubic meters) of soil. In 2011 this plaza was designated with Landmark status by the Boston Landmark Commission.

3. Downtown Charlotte – Tryon & Trade (Charlotte, NC)

In 1985 Charlotte, NC City Arborist Don McSween conceived of a major renovation project along 10 blocks of Tryon Street and two blocks of Trade Street, two of the major thoroughfares in downtown Charlotte.

Almost 170 street trees were planted in 700 cubic feet of soil in a suspended pavement system.  image: Google Maps

Almost 170 street trees were planted in 700 cubic feet of soil in a suspended pavement system.
image: Google Maps

McSween wanted each new tree to have 1,000 cubic feet (28 cubic meters) of good, usable soil. In order to supply the trees with that quantity, the City needed to create a custom suspended system using precast concrete pavement supported by concrete piers. The whole system was topped by pavers (not pervious). Almost 170 trees were planted.

These trees planted in over 750 cubic feet of soil in a suspended pavement system are nearly 30 years old, and huge.  image: L. Peter MacDonagh

These trees planted in over 750 cubic feet of soil in a suspended pavement system are nearly 30 years old, and huge.
image: L. Peter MacDonagh

The trees flourished. In 2009, while investigating some trees that weren’t doing so well, Tom Smiley with the Bartlett Tree Lab discovered that the contractor had actually only installed about 700 cubic feet (20 cubic meters) of soil per tree. However, since the tree pits connected along the length of a block with multiple trees in each pit, they had the benefit of sharing soil. Today, the Willow Oaks (Quercus phellos) have an average DBH of 19 inches (48.3 cm) and an average height of 71 feet (21.64 meters). Measurements by Tom Smiley, 2013; MacDonagh & Smiley 2013 ISA Proceedings.

4. Lincoln Center Barclay Capital Grove (New York, NY)

The Barclay Capital Grove at Lincoln Center, installed in 2009, uses Silva Cells (generically known as soil cells), a modular suspended pavement system composed of structural units that form a skeletal matrix. In this project, the cells cover the entire area of the grove where the trees are planted, although in other cases the depth and layout of the soil volume can cover irregular areas and depths. This increases flexibility in terms of creating appropriate tree habitat in constrained areas.

Silva Cells were installed on a parking garage roof at Lincoln Center in 2008.  image: DeepRoot Green Infrastructure, LLC

Silva Cells were installed on a parking garage roof at Lincoln Center in 2008.
image: DeepRoot Green Infrastructure, LLC

About 30 London Plane Trees were installed in the Silva Cell system in spring 2009.  image: DeepRoot Green Infrastructure, LLC

About 30 London Plane Trees were installed in the Silva Cell system in spring 2009.
image: DeepRoot Green Infrastructure, LLC

These trees are planted in a large, shared, subsurface planter that rests on an underground parking garage. As of 2013, these trees look wonderful, providing a popular refuge from the elements in the heart of New York City.

Conclusion

There is ample evidence that suspended pavement is an excellent tool for growing trees in paved environments. At a time when complete streets and sustainable development appear more necessary and have more popular support than ever before, this approach to growing trees – not just planting them – seems especially important. In Dr. Smiley’s words from his 2006 article, “The differences in tree growth among treatments was dramatic; trees growing in the noncompacted soil suspended pavement treatment are visually healthier in appearance and provide more shade more quickly than any of the other treatments.”

The trees from all of these projects – and there are others – are a powerful example of how much soil it takes to grow a mature tree, and a reminder that with planning and commitment, we can have trees like this in all of our cities.

This post was originally published January 7, 2013 on the Green Infrastructure for Your Community blog.

References

Green Infrastructure for Your Community:
What is Suspended Pavement?
Trees in Hard Landscapes
Touch the Soil: Healthy Soils for Healthy Trees
Charlotte, NC Trees in Suspended Pavement 25 Years Later
Suspended Pavement at the Bartlett Tree Lab, Year 9
Stormwater Quantity and Rate Control Benefits of Trees
How Much Soil to Grow a Big Tree?

Clean Air Partnership‘s “A Street Tree Survival Strategy in Toronto” report

Landscape Architecture Resource:
Soil and Stormwater: Top of the List for Sustainable Design
Toronto Ahead of the Curve on Tree Growth and Stormwater Management”

Pacific Northwest Research Station’s Science Findings

Craul, P.J. 1992. Urban Soil in Landscape Design. John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY.

Smiley, E. Thomas, et al. July. 2006. “Comparison of Structural and Noncompacted Soils for Trees Surrounded by Pavement.” Arboriculture & Urban Forestry.

Interviews with L. Peter MacDonagh, FASLA, RLA, ISA, and James Urban, FASLA

Webinars:
Using Trees and Soils in Urban Stormwater Management
Debunking Myths about Urban Trees and Soils

by Leda Marritz, ISA, DeepRoot Green Infrastructure, LLC

2 Responses to “Planting Trees in Suspended Pavement”

  1. A Brief History of Trees in Suspended Pavement | DeepRoot Blog Says:

    […] This was originally published on the landscape architecture blog The Field. […]

  2. Denver’s 16th Street Mall: Custom Suspended Pavement System Turns 32 | DeepRoot Blog Says:

    […] Arapahoe to Tremont, and it is these trees – honeylocuts – that were planted in custom concrete suspended pavement planters. Each planter has cutouts on three sides, to provide channels for further root expansion. […]


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