Philadelphia has more than 40,000 vacant lots, according to Grounded in Philly. The refuge and the Friends of Heinz Refuge have targeted six of those lots in Southwest Philadelphia to “actively work with partners to beautify, bring change or revitalize the space to fit community needs,” says refuge manager Lamar Gore, manager of John Heinz at Tinicum National Wildlife Refuge, PA.
“We don’t go in and say we want to create a pollinator garden,” says Gore. “We ask the community to come up with a space that meets their needs and our interest in teaching about birds and pollinators…Our work is based on building relationships with targeted communities and working with them to restore and redesign community spaces.”
After attending a community meeting in the Kingsessing neighborhood, architecture students from Philadelphia University, at the refuge’s request, presented design alternatives for the Cecil Street Garden based on community interest in native plants, vegetable gardens and a place for people to sit and talk.
On a frigid Martin Luther King Day in January, Friends president Jeannette Guess joined 100 community members and partners working on the Cecil Street Garden, including 24 high school students from SCA Philadelphia/Camden and members of the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition. “Another partner organization, Southwest Partners, provided breakfast and lunch. The community came out. They support us and we support them. It made my day,” said Guess.
Working with TreePhilly and Audubon Pennsylvania, the Friends passed out trees last May for residents to plant in their own yards. The Friends are also providing funds for educational programs in the community, such as a hands-on after school science program at a local library.
The refuge is working beyond its neighborhood, collaborating with Independence National Historic Park in downtown Philadelphia to install a pollinator garden, enhanced by interpretive signs and programs. Student Conservation Association (SCA) crews planted more than 500 native flowers on a Saturday in March. The refuge is also identifying more lots that could become pocket parks. “In many cases,” explains Gore, “the city owns the lots and we work with City Council members for permission to protect the land in a variety of ways.”
In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced an annual investment of $1 million to help Heinz Refuge engage urban neighborhoods and young people in conservation and outdoor recreation. “If we want to ensure that conservation is relevant to future generations, we have to put more energy into reaching people where they live, which is becoming more and more in urban centers,” said Service Director Dan Ashe during a ceremony at the refuge.
Will pocket parks and other projects mean more members for the Friends of Heinz? “You better believe it!” says Guess. “Once people see the fruits of their labors, their attitude changes.”