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Community Migrates Together at the Discovery Center
Community members from across Philadelphia came together to Migrate to Adventure and Discovery on April 1st, 2017, at the site of the future Discovery Center—a collaboration between Audubon Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Outward Bound. The two internationally-known non-profits have been working together, along with other local agencies and non-profits, to transform an abandoned and generally unknown water reservoir in East Fairmount Park, adjacent to the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, into a new community resource and reclaimed neighborhood asset. The daytime event was intended to raise awareness about the project, give a sample of future programming, and engage meaningfully with nearby neighborhood residents as well as Philadelphians from near and far.
Why would Audubon and Outward Bound be interested in this particular site? Since its decommissioning as a drinking water source over 50 years ago, the 37-acre reservoir has been closed to the public and with that, human activity. It hence evolved to be a haven for migratory birds and a veritable “wilderness” within city limits, providing an opportune site for outdoor education, leadership skills and environmental stewardship. The Discovery Center’s central goal is to reach 15,000 students per year via Audubon and Outward Bound’s joint programs for children 6 to 18 years old.
While Audubon and Outward Bound have been working together for years, together with Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation, to develop the Discovery Center, partnerships with other organizations were prompted by the site’s inclusion in the local Reimagining the Civic Commons Initiative. The national project, piloted in Philadelphia, with funding from the Knight Foundation, the William Penn Foundation, and administered through the Fairmount Park Conservancy, includes five “Civic Commons” across the city that are working together through partnerships and programs to make each organization—and their surrounding communities—stronger through skill-sharing, community involvement, and learning from one another. As one of these sites, the Discovery Center, Audubon and Outward Bound began working with the Strawberry Mansion CDC, the Free Library of Philadelphia and other Civic Commons partners to imagine possibilities for early-stage activation in East Fairmount Park adjacent to the reservoir that would generate excitement about the project, demonstrate its community-building potential, and prompt long-time residents to share their memories of the reservoir and neighborhood.
Partners brainstormed an event which would serve as a “gateway” to the neighborhood, to East Fairmount Park, and to the Discovery Center, which is anticipated to be completed in 2018. Using tried and true elements to harness community energy, the event featured offerings from local food trucks, giant games for all ages, welcoming and warming elements like fire pits and hot chocolate (it was still chilly in March!), seating areas, and energetic music. In addition, local arts partner Amber Arts, funded by the Fairmount Park Conservancy's ArtPlace America Community Development Investments (CDI) grant, created posters placed across the event site, featuring neighborhood histories as told by local residents, sharing their memories of the reservoir and of growing up in Strawberry Mansion. This added an element to remind attendees that the park was not only a city-wide recreational resource, but very much a part of neighborhood identity and pride. As community engagement and empowerment is a core principle of the Civic Commons, this was an important role to acknowledge.
Finally, the event included the unveiling of the Free Library of Nature program, featuring the “birding backpacks.” The backpack is part of a new initiative created by the Free Library of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to provide birding tools and programming to residents through their neighborhood library. The backpacks are available on loan at select library branches around Philadelphia to be used as part of an organized bird walk or on a solo adventure. The backpacks include maps, a bird guide, and binoculars. Those that attended the event were the first to test the backpacks, and participated in birding tours led by Parks and Rec and Audubon guides. Migrate to Adventure and Discovery demonstrated the power of nature and outdoor education to bring people together. Philadelphians came from across the city, perhaps because they lived nearby, were bird enthusiasts, urban historians, or just wanted an excuse to be outside despite chillier temperatures. Though not yet complete, the Discovery Center proved to be a true “civic commons,” bringing a multitude of groups together to appreciate and share a community benefit. Here’s to future opportunities as the site moves towards completion!
*Reimagining the Civic Commons is a national initiative supported by The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and The Rockefeller Foundation. The Philadelphia pilot, funded by the Knight and William Penn Foundations, is managed by the Fairmount Park Conservancy. PennPraxis serves as the local facilitator of the Innovation Fund, which brings partners in the program together to activate the sites prior to the completion of capital improvements, to share skills and assets between site managers, field leaders, and community organizations, and strengthen relationships with surrounding communities.