Water Fluxes in Soil-Pavement Systems: Integrating Trees, Soils and Infrastructure

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Virginia Tech


In urban areas, trees are often planted in bare soil sidewalk openings (tree pits) which recently are being covered with permeable pavements. Pavements are known to alter soil moisture and temperature, and may have implications for tree growth, root development and depth, drought resilience, and sidewalk lifting. Furthermore, tree pits are often the only unsealed soil surface and are important for water exchange between soil and atmosphere. Therefore, covering tree pits with pavement, even permeable, may have implications for the urban water balance and stormwater management. A better understanding of permeable pavement on tree pavement soil system functioning can inform improved tree pit and street design for greater sustainability of urban environments.

We conducted experiments at two sites in Virginia, USA (Mountains and Coastal Plain) with different climate and soil. At each location, we constructed 24 tree pits in a completely randomized experiment with two factors: paved with resin-bound porous-permeable pavement versus unpaved, and planted with Platanus x acerifolia 'Bloodgood' versus unplanted (n = 6). We measured tree stem diameter, root growth and depth, and soil water content and temperature over two growing seasons. We also monitored tree sap flow one week in June 2017 at the Mountains. In addition, we calibrated and validated a soil water flow model, HYDRUS-1D, to predict soil water distribution for different rooting depths, soil textures and pavement thicknesses.

Trees in paved tree pits grew larger, with stem diameters 29% (Mountains) and 51% (Coastal Plain) greater. Roots developed faster under pavement, possibly due to the increased soil water content and the extended root growing season (14 more days). Tree transpiration was 33% of unpaved and planted pit water outputs, while it was 64% for paved and planted pits. In June 2016, planted pits had decreased root-zone water storage, while unplanted pits showed increased storage. A water balance of the entire experimental site showed overall decreased soil water storage due to tree water extraction becoming the dominant factor. HYDRUS-1D provided overall best results for model validation at 10 cm depth from soil surface (NSE = 0.447 for planted and paved tree pits), compared to 30- and 60 cm depths. HYDRUS-1D simulations with greater pavement thickness resulted in changes in predicted soil water content at the Coastal Plain, with higher values at 10- and 30-cm depths, but lower values at 60-cm depth. At the Mountains, virtually no difference was observed, possibly due to different soil texture (sandy vs clayey).

Tree pits with permeable pavement accelerated tree establishment, but promoted shallower roots, possibly increasing root-pavement conflicts and tree drought susceptibility. Paved tree pits resulted in larger trees, increasing tree transpiration, but reduced soil evaporation compared to unpaved pits. Larger bare soil pits surrounded by permeable pavement might yield the best results to improve urban stormwater retention. Also, HYDRUS 1D was successful at simulating soil water content at 10-cm depth and may be valuable to inform streetscape design and planning.



Platanus x acerifolia, street tree, tree roots, porous pavement, resin-bound gravel, soil temperature, soil water, tree transpiration, sap flow, SuDS, stormwater management, green infrastructure, tree pits, planted streetscapes, HYDRUS