Preserving Norwalk’s Trees: Norwalk, CT's Street Canopy Project

Street tree canopy in Norwalk, CT Trees provide habitats and improve the air we breathe. They help mitigate storm water, give us shade and project a sense of calmness in the world. Trees beautify both suburban and urban areas and can help reduce the heat island effect.  Many states and cities are looking at ways to protect their trees by coming up with a more enlightened approach to preserving current trees and planting new ones. The question is, how can cities continue to develop and maintain the tree cover in the process?   In Norwalk’s Citywide Plan, the City is tasked with protecting the natural environment. This entails not only protecting the open spaces and parks, but also its urban forestry by balancing growth and preservation. Allocating roadside space to street trees and landscaping helps improve the aesthetics of the streetscape, provides a buffer between the roadway and sidewalk to improve pedestrian comfort, and can facilitate stormwater management through bioretention features such as planters and swales.   Below we take a look at how Norwalk, CT is working to enhance its tree canopy with a tree ordinance and other actions.

Norwalk's History of Tree Planting

Keeping Norwalk a tree-laden city has long been important to Norwalk. The city has had a tree planting program and a tree management plan in place for over 18 years. Key to this plan is  working with liaisons from neighborhood associations. The liaisons keep an eye on all things tree-related in their area and suggest tree plantings in an effort to increase the number of trees in the city.  This approach ensures that the public has oversight and input into keeping a tree canopy alive and vital in their neighborhoods. Since 2004, about 1,200 trees have been planted in the city.

Norwalk Tree Ordinance

In Norwalk, like most cities, the more urban neighborhoods have fewer trees. Consequently, low-income neighborhoods have less tree canopy coverage, resulting in health and environmental problems such as high asthma rates.   To protect the City’s existing trees, and increase Norwalk's tree canopy equitably, the Common Council approved an updated Tree Ordinance in 2021. It gave the city's tree warden expanded powers and established a legacy tree program.  The tree warden is tasked with assessing or overseeing the evaluation of the city's tree canopy. This evaluation helps determine whether or not a tree may be removed or altered when it’s on public property. To do so, requires a permit from the warden. The warden may also require a tree or shrub be replaced. The warden keeps a record of the city's existing trees, creating a catalog of the important legacy trees according to their size, age, and species.  The ordinance requires developers to protect a tree’s root zone during construction. The developer will also pay a bond before any work begins. Fines and penalties aim to discourage the unnecessary removal of trees.  Another important change brought about by the Tree Ordinance is the establishment of a Norwalk Tree Account. This account helps fund tree planting with the use of tree-related fines and fees, and other payments as well as public and private grants. Since its establishment, grants to this account have increased, allowing the City to expand its tree planting. For example, since the Tree Ordinance was passed, tree plantings increased from 56 in the fall of 2020 to 171 in the spring of 2022. 

The Tree Advisory Committee

In the 2021 Tree Ordinance, the duties of the Tree Advisory Committee expanded. The Committee works closely with the tree warden to recommend the types of trees to plant. They also encourage Norwalk residents to volunteer to help plant trees as part of the ongoing tree planting program.  The Committee will oversee the creation of a Master Tree Plan which will include any studies made by the tree warden. The plan will assess Norwalk’s current tree canopy along with the relevant environmental, social and public health benefits, and develop strategies and actions to increase tree cover with primarily native and hybrid species of trees. 

Norwalk, CT's Environmental Projects

Concerns about environmental protection in Norwalk have led to the commitment to protect and increase Norwalk's tree canopy including urban trees throughout the city. The city is also undertaking a heat sensor study to track temperatures in various parts of the city to identify areas that may be vulnerable to extreme heat events. The results from this study will help inform tree planting and illustrate the benefits of a tree canopy. In addition, Norwalk is in the process of adopting Complete Streets legislation and design manual. These will provide guidance for designing and reconstructing our streets with the principles of safety, sustainability, and vitality.  This comprehensive and cross-functional approach to maintaining and designing the public right of way will take into consideration new tree installations.  Environmental projects like the Norwalk Tree Plan and Tree Ordinance recognize that trees are an integral part of a healthy ecosystem, sequestering carbon, reducing stormwater, and improving the health and well being of residents.

The Best Features of Successful Public Spaces

designing public spacesIt’s not easy to design a public space. There’s pressure to meet the expectations of everyone and people often have different tastes. Factoring in sustainability to aesthetics can further complicate the process.  However, there are some basic key features in public spaces that can make them a desirable place to visit for everyone. Here’s a quick highlight of some successful public spaces and their best features around Norwalk, CT. 

Multiple Uses of the Space

Different activities attract different folks. Having multiple things to do—playgrounds, grills, park benches, sports courts, or grassy fields—will attract more visitors. The most important thing is that people can come to a public space and be able to take their minds off their day to day.  Veteran’s Park and Marina is a good example of a public space that offers many options, from waterfront fields, including baseball diamonds, amazing outdoor artwork, boat slips and seemingly endless walking paths, plus so much more. When you visit, whether you’re coming off the water or i-95, you get to take in the scenic Norwalk Harbor, which makes it the perfect place for family fun, a romantic rendezvous, or a socially distanced get together.

Simple Works Best

You don't need to go over the top to create a place for people to enjoy. Walkways, bike trails, and places to sit and convene without fanfare are all wonderful placemaking tools. Oyster Shell Park in Norwalk, which runs along the western side of the Norwalk River, is a prime example of simplicity in public space making. At Oyster Shell Park, there are a variety of walking paths and seating areas to take in the view of the River.


Another major consideration to ensure that a public space is successful is to make sure it's accessible to everyone. The more people can get to and around the space safely, the more it will be used. The use of signage is important to make finding your way there easier, as well as from one place to another with the space. Providing handicap accessible pathways and features can allow those with disabilities and the elderly to enjoy the park fully. 

Secure and Safe 

A major criteria for the success of any public space is for people to feel safe there. The space should include good lighting and well-maintained walkways and grounds. The city should keep the space clean and monitored by security so people feel free to gather without fear or worry.  Placing trash receptacles throughout the space and making sure they are emptied regularly can make a space feel clean and comfortable for all users.

Green Spaces to Enjoy the Outdoors

Sometimes there's nothing better than just enjoying the outdoors. Public spaces should have plenty of green space to do so. At Norwalk’s Calf Pasture and Shady Beach, one can simply sit on a beach in the sun all day long. But, in keeping with the multiple use criteria above, the variety of active spaces on site ensures that everyone can enjoy themselves. Along with plenty of passive open space, the following active open space amenities are available:
  • Baseball/softball field
  • Volleyball court
  • Skate park
  • Playground
  • Refreshing splash pad
  • Picnic areas
  • Basketball courts
  • Concert area
  • Food stands

Social Participation

When designing a public space, one way to ensure it will be well used is to involve residents of the city throughout the planning process. Every community has different needs and desires for their public spaces. It’s essential to get feedback on the design and ideas on how to use the space from the community.  Having public spaces that residents and visitors can enjoy is integral to a thriving, vital city. Norwalk’s 10-year Citywide Plan puts great emphasis on the City’s open spaces, seeing them as some of Norwalk’s greatest assets. The plan lays out an integrated approach to open space and recreation that will strengthen the public park system to serve all residents and enhance their environmental value. To read more, see Norwalk’s CityWide Plan on “Enhancing Open Space, Park, Trail & Recreation Systems” starting on page 115.  CLICK HERE

Surveying Norwalkers on Industrial Zones

Norwalk's Industrial ZonesIndustrial zones have been integral parts of cities for decades, allowing certain areas to be designated for industrial and commercial use. Following the  2019-2029  Citywide Plan, Norwalk is assessing its industrial zones to see if these areas are still appropriate for industrial uses, as well as taking a look at how to better use these zones for economic diversification and growth.  As part of this effort, the City recently conducted a survey for stakeholders across the City, including residents and business owners, to gauge their opinions about Norwalk’s industrial zones.

Industrial Zone Survey Results

Out of a total of 434 respondents, two major opinion groups emerged, based on their votes and statements submitted.  One group of about one-third of those who responded had generally a pro-industry stance, with strong support for additional industrial development across the City, as well as a healthy mix of both commercial and industrial uses. Their opinions were generally:
  • More supportive of industrial growth, especially for job creation
  • Support for a balance of land use
  • Sensitive to the location of industrial uses and their relationship to residential neighborhoods
A second group, representing about two-thirds of participants, had more of an anti-industry attitude. Many in this group expressed a desire to see industry be placed elsewhere in Fairfield County, and many pointed to the noise and harm  that industry causes to residential neighbors.  Their opinions included:
  • Less support for industrial growth
  • Norwalk should not bear the regional burden of industrial development
  • Industry in Norwalk is not well located and should not be near residential areas
Despite the gap in opinions on industrial zones in general, there were areas of consensus across both of the groups. Whether pro-industry or anti-industry, there was wide agreement on:
  • Industry should respect the needs of its residential neighbors
  • Traffic and infrastructure are serious issues in many of the zones
  • There should be a clear distinction between heavy and light industry
  • Waterfront is a valuable asset for the City that should be considered separately from the other industrial zones

Industrial Zone Planning - Next Steps

Based on both the survey results and the above consensus points, the industrial zone planning team will look further into several questions that arose, including:
  • While Norwalk is well positioned for a regional advantage with regard to industry, should it be the main industrial district for Fairfield County?
  • What are emerging industrial trends and how should they inform the future of industrial development in Norwalk?
  • How to balance the future of marine industrial and commercial uses with recreational uses such as boating and public access along the waterfront?
  • How can Norwalk’s planning and policy mitigate conflicts between industrial uses and abutting residential and commercial areas?
With these in mind, the committee will undergo further planning analysis to develop urban design scenarios related to the various zones.

For a full discussion, watch the Industrial Zones Oversight Committee Special Meeting, 1-12-2021

  Read more about Norwalk's Industrial Zone Planning Effort

Top Tips for Bike and Pedestrian Safety

biking and walking safety tips Getting around any city like Norwalk by bicycle  or walking can be challenging as the vast majority of people travel by car. In 2017, the Norwalk Bike/Walk Commission was established to support bicycling and walking as safe, accessible and sustainable forms of transportation and recreation. Norwalk’s 10-year Citywide Plan envisions making city streets safer by implementing policies that provide safe transit for all moving vehicles as well as pedestrians (Read more here), such as investment in new bicycle and walking facilities distributed equally throughout the city. As Norwalkers gear up for more biking and walking, the Bike/Walk Commission shares some tips for safely getting around the city on a bike or on foot.

Safe Bicycling Guidelines

When biking around town, it’s important to remember that bicycles are vehicles. When on a bike, you need to follow the rules of the road, just like a car. This means riding with traffic, always stopping at red lights, and making a full stop at stop signs. When biking with another person, you can ride two abreast (no more than that), but need to ride single file when there is car traffic coming from behind you in order to let cars pass. Here are some tips for staying safe on your bike:
  1. Wear a helmet that fits properly (this is mandatory for those under 15-years old, including infants and toddlers in a bicycle seat)
  2. Adjust your bicycle to fit you: 
    • When standing over your bicycle, there should be 1- to 2-inches between you and the top bar if using a road bike, and 3- to 4-inches if using a mountain bike 
    • The seat should be level from front to back
    • The seat height should allow a slight bend at the knee when the leg is fully extended
    • The handlebar height should be at the same level with the seat
  3. Make sure your tires are properly inflated and brakes work
  4. Ride with at least one hand on the handlebars. Don’t hold items- carry them in a bicycle carrier or backpack.
  5. Be on the lookout for hazards that can cause a crash such as potholes, broken glass, gravel, puddles, leaves, and dogs. If you are riding with friends and you are in the lead, yell out and point to the hazard to alert the riders behind you.
  6. Be visible by wearing bright clothing and using lights and reflectors at dusk and at night 

Walking Safety Tips

In 2007, the Connecticut legislature stiffened the law regarding pedestrians and crosswalks requiring that drivers grant the right-of-way when a pedestrian has stepped “off the curb or into the crosswalk”. In other words, drivers must yield, slow, or stop when pedestrians are in crosswalks. When there are no crosswalks, drivers have the right of way. Despite the crosswalk law, and since there are many places around town with no crosswalks, you can’t be too cautious or careful when walking. Here are some guidelines to keep you safe when walking in town:
  1. Use a sidewalk- if there is one. When on a sidewalk, you can walk with or against traffic
  2. Walk single file against the traffic If there is no sidewalk 
  3. Cross streets at crosswalks, and when the signal gives you the “green light”
  4. Watch for cars and bicycles entering or exiting driveways or backing up in parking lots
  5.  Be visible. Just like on a bike, it’s important that drivers can see you. Wear bright colored clothes and consider wearing a safety vest and a light at dusk or when it’s dark
  6. Stay tuned in to the environment around you. Don’t wear ear buds or text while walking
  7. Practice “defensive” walking by assuming it’s your job to stay safe. For example, establish eye contact with drivers
Walking and biking around town can be a great alternative to driving. They are not only healthier for you, they are also better for the environment. As Norwalk works to make it easier to get around town by bike or on foot, keep in mind the tips above. Stay safe!

Making Norwalk Streets Safer with Vision Zero and Complete Streets

Vision Zero & Complete Streets in Norwalk, CTAccommodating all moving vehicles and pedestrians on a town or city’s streets so they can all transit safely can be difficult, but it’s necessary as more and more people use alternative methods of transportation such as biking or public transportation. Norwalk’s 10-year Citywide Plan (Plan of Conservation and Development) envisions adopting Complete Streets and Vision Zero Initiatives to make its streets safer. Vision Zero is a different way of approaching traffic planning and policies with the goal of improving road safety so there are no deaths or serious injuries. Complete Streets is an approach to city street design and policies that promotes safe, convenient, and equitable mobility and forms of transportation for everyone, especially children, people with disabilities, and older adults. Below we take a closer look at these two initiatives.

What is Vision Zero?

The Vision Zero movement considers traffic safety as a public health issue, believing that traffic accidents, deaths, and injuries can be prevented through design, engineering, policies, enforcement, community engagement, and education. Vision Zero plans bring together a wide variety of stakeholders, with collaboration among local traffic planners and engineers, policymakers, and public health professionals to work on the many factors that go into making roadways safe including roadway design, speeds, behaviors, technology, and policies. The movement, which began in Sweden in 1997, has grown across Europe and in the United States. Cities that have implemented Vision Zero in the U.S. include New York City, Boston, Charlotte, North Carolina, Denver Colorado, Tempe Arizona, and Bellevue, Washington, among others.

What is Complete Streets?

Complete Streets complements Vision Zero with the goal of having streets that are safe for everyone, from motorists to public transportation riders, bicyclists to pedestrians. Some ways to do this is to integrate better roadway design with safe access in mind for all different types of mobility through the city when improving existing streets and designing new ones. What this looks like depends on the city or town, but could include adding sidewalks, bike lanes, special bus lanes, safe public transportation stops, clearly marked and accessible crosswalks, median islands and pedestrian-designated signals.

Vision Zero & Complete Streets for Norwalk

The new Norwalk 10-year Citywide Plan contains details about adopting both Vision Zero and Complete Streets initiatives. Vision Zero will be used as an added safety layer on top of Complete Streets to establish equitable mobility for all kinds of people throughout all city operated roadways. The initiatives will include community engagement to identify concerns and discuss options before changes are made. Key city departments involved will include, the Mayor’s office, Common Council, Transportation, Mobility, and Parking, Planning and Zoning, Public Health, the Bike-Walk Commission, as well as the Fire and Police Departments. Some of the plans to reach the Vision Zero and Complete Streets goals include developing long-range transportation plans with an eye to safety that include many modes of transportation (motor vehicles, buses, bicyclists, pedestrians, and mobility devices , such as senior scooters), and giving other transportation options, such as biking and walking, a high priority. Specific steps may include creating safe pedestrian access to bus and transit stops as well as to new commercial and mixed-use development areas, allocating space for pick-up/drop-off and vehicular and bicycle parking in busy urban areas, and investing in new sidewalks as well as bicycle and walking facilities throughout the city.

Read About Vision Zero and Complete Streets on pages 183-206 of the Citywide Plan

Final Plan of Conservation & Development (POCD)

Promenades in Cities: Unique Public Spaces

Building Promenades in Norwalk | Norwalk TomorrowPromenades are public spaces designed for a leisurely walk. They are popular in seaside cities or those with waterfronts, think historic promenades in Nice and the Côte d'Azur in France, or in Brighton, England, as well as those closer to home in the U.S., Coney Island in Brooklyn or the Riverwalk in San Antonio. But even when they aren’t situated near the water, promenades in urban areas have a lot of positive features and are popular with residents and tourists alike.

Promenades as Vibrant Public Spaces

Promenades are prime public resources, providing a path for exercise and recreation as well as social interaction. They are most often conveniently located near a main street of a city, a park, or by a waterfront. Usually flat and of a certain length, promenades are ideal for walking, running, or biking. Located in picturesque areas, they are also places for social gatherings. The best promenades are welcoming and accessible to many kinds of users.

Promenades Fuel Urban Renewal

Promenades can revitalize urban spaces. By creating public access walkways and open spaces, adding attractive landscaping and design, and encouraging mixed private uses alongside, a city can enliven an area with a new public space that offers a mix of commercial, cultural, and leisure activities. This new lively urban promenade will attract city residents and tourists.

Promenades and the Environment

Because many promenades are situated adjacent to waterfronts or in green spaces, they cause people to think about and appreciate nature. Likewise, as important resources for cities, promenades factor into city planning, encouraging them to put in place environmental management systems to protect and preserve the natural spaces around them.

Considering Promenades for Norwalk

Promenades in Public Spaces | Norwalk Tomorrow In Norwalk, under consideration for the Transit-Oriented Development Plan for East Norwalk is a promenade along Seaview Avenue adjacent to Veteran’s Park and leading into East Norwalk along the Norwalk River. This promenade would have a number of functions; allowing a safe path for pedestrians and bicyclists, and providing sitting and other areas for recreational uses. Promenades in cities are an important part of the fabric of public life, providing a place for people to congregate, exercise and enjoy the outdoors away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Their connection to nature, as well as the opportunities for other commercial uses around them make them unique. Perhaps Norwalk too, will soon have a promenade that residents and visitors can enjoy.

The Importance of Preserving and Promoting Historic Buildings

An important part of what gives a city character and a sense of community is its history. One way of acknowledging this history is by preserving historic buildings and structures. They may be an example of a particular style of architecture, or represent a significant era, or a milestone in the city’s history. These historic buildings are worth preserving for a number of reasons.  

Preserving History Through Buildings

Old buildings are witnesses to the aesthetic and cultural history of a city, helping to give people a sense of place and connection to the past. Historic buildings often represent something famous or important to people who live in a city or those visiting.  Recognizing the importance of old buildings to the public and to the country’s heritage, Congress enacted the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. This act works to save historic buildings, explaining, “preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.”

Economic Benefits Of Historic Preservation

Older buildings especially those built prior to World War II are often made of higher quality materials. Replacing these buildings with similar rare hardwoods such as heart pine would be impractical and unaffordable. Newer buildings also tend to have a life expectancy of only 30-40 years, whereas many older buildings were made to last. It can make economic sense to retain historic buildings and Improve them to meet modern codes and requirements. Rehabilitating old buildings to their original appearance not only adds character to the area, but can also help attract investment, as well as tourists if the structures are historically significant. For example, a historic but abandoned industrial building can be turned into small business space, or a mixed-use development - giving new life to a building and even a whole neighborhood.

Aesthetic Importance of Older Buildings

Older buildings often are made with unique, valuable materials such as the heart pine, marble, or old brick. They may have detailing and features that you can’t find anymore like decorative facades,unusual glasswork, or copper lining. Many people feel that because of these, older buildings have their own identity and distinctive character, making them more interesting than modern buildings. An added benefit to retaining and maintaining old buildings old methods of workmanship are also supported. 

Environmental Considerations

The importance of recycling has become more and more understood on a household level, but preserving old buildings is recycling on a larger scale. Repairing and reusing existing buildings uses energy and material resources more efficiently and reduces waste. New materials don’t need to be created, nor older demolished materials thrown away. Plus energy for rebuilding is conserved. Also, tearing down structures releases toxins and pollutants in the environment.   

Historic Preservation in Norwalk

Norwalk combines the character of a historic New England community on the coast of Long Island Sound with a thriving city in the county’s largest metropolitan area. One of the priorities outlined in Norwalk’s 10-year Citywide Plan is enhancing and preserving the city’s historic resources. Historic areas such as South Norwalk have seen investment and growth, while preserving its many historic structures and character.  The City’s Planning & Zoning Commissions have recently enacted several regulations to encourage the preservation of historic structures. Two areas of the City where this has been realized is in South Norwalk (SSDD Regulations) and the Wall Street area (CBD Regulations). For example, if the historic structures will be preserved, the Commission can reduce the amount of required parking, decrease building setbacks or increase building height or size for recognized historic structures. Read More about Norwalk’s zoning regulations pertaining to historic preservation Read More about Norwalk’s historic heritage on page 95 of  the Citywide Plan

Ways That Cities Can Prepare For Climate Change

Climate Change and CitiesWe are already experiencing extreme weather events from climate change. In the coming years, scientists predict that we can expect more heat waves, flooding from sea-level rise, water shortages and other effects. This weather can affect roads, bridges and other city infrastructure, along with important facilities such as water treatment plants and power grids. With more extreme weather conditions ahead, cities will need to take action. Along with plans to mitigate the causes of climate change, there are some important steps cities can take to combat its effects.  

Storm Management

During intense rain and other storms, cities need to look for ways to handle more water than they’ve been used to in order to reduce flooding. Some ways to do this could be using roadway tunnels as storm drainage systems, replacing concrete sidewalks with permeable pavements and adding green roofs. In addition, increasing and creating stormwater retention ponds, constructed wetlands and swales will be important to capture runoff. Other flood control systems such as seawalls and dykes can also be constructed, and pumps at wastewater treatment plants can be elevated.  For cities that are directly on the water, they can increase open space along the waterfront as buffers for rising water levels as well as storm surges by designating coastal hazard zones, establishing erosion setback requirements, and limiting development. Similarly in low-lying areas prone to flooding, cities can develop green zones by restoring natural meadows, wetlands and open spaces to areas and lots that are no longer being used.  

Conservation and Efficiency

Energy conservation and efficiency programs will be necessary to combat extreme heat and cold. To reduce electricity loads and limit risk of blackouts, especially in the summer, cities and building owners can put smart micro-grid technologies into effect and increase the use of energy efficient and renewable technologies. Examples of these are rooftop solar power, geothermal technologies, biodiesel-fueled generators, and technologies that respond to demand such as smart meters. To reduce the impact of rising temperatures, buildings can invest in green spaces, green roofs and more trees on the streets.   Another interesting initiative cities can take is to change zoning laws to accommodate urban agriculture, and encourage the development of vertical, indoor farms. These farms can be located in cities and are able to grow food with much less energy and water than outdoor crops, and without the vast amounts of pesticides.  

Power Grid/Energy

Power grids can be vulnerable to extreme weather events, as well as higher and lower than normal temperatures. As mentioned above, cities can put into place smart grid technologies for smart metering to help with energy and water conservation. In the future, cities and energy companies will also have to emphasize building redundancy.  This is developing networks and spare capacity as well as energy storage into a city’s power system to deal with disruptions and surges in demand.   

Emergency Response

During emergencies, it’s important for the public to be well informed. With more potential for emergencies with climate change, cities will have to improve and coordinate their emergency planning and response for such things as large storms, heat waves, flooding, high winds, water shortages, among others. Alternative transportation routes and systems will also need to be developed and publicized in cases where evacuations are necessary. Not only will residents and workers need to be made aware of how to react when climate change impacts a city, but the city can use that engagement to identify problems and come up with solutions. Developing plans and concrete steps will help cities prepare for climate change, making them better places to live and do business. Norwalk’s Citywide Plan envisions enhanced stormwater management, promoting smart growth development, energy-efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction and the preservation and restoration of open space.

Read more about Norwalk’s Environmental Sustainability and Resilience Plans on Page 133 of the Citywide Plan

Complete Citywide Plan Draft