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Wetlands and WetLand in the city

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Often, when I fly into Philadelphia International Airport, I imagine what a bird’s eye view of the area must have looked like back before Philadelphia became the bustling metropolis it is today.  If I squint just the right way, I can almost see how the flat expanse of skyscrapers and rowhomes transforms to green, how South Philly and even the airport itself melt into the freshwater tidal wetlands that were once in their place (the last remnant of which is still visible at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge). Continue reading

Leslie making StormSnake

#StormSnakes Update – Wriggling Through Change

By LandLab Resident Artist Leslie Birch

Water flowRight now I’ve been experiencing some interesting emotional connection to my LandLab project. This may seem odd, as my project is probably the most tech oriented of the bunch! I can only describe it as this feeling of letting go of attached ideas and really just observing and listening, both to nature and the people that know it well. That is different for me, because most of the time my projects are conceived ahead of time so they can be “pitched” to the people that may green-light them. The process for LandLab is very different because the Schuylkill Center is trusting from past work that I have the ability to produce something interesting. They are looking for ideas, but they are not holding you to them. In fact if anything, they are excited by process and evolution, and the show in the gallery really speaks to that idea. The staff at the Center has been really great in encouraging my work, and allowing it to unfold. It is no different from allowing seasons to change, and I’m really experiencing that in my whole body. That’s it for the fuzzy stuff — let’s get back to the science!

You may remember that I wanted to get a glimpse of Port Royale Ave. and the Center’s property in the rain. It has been difficult to do this because this fall the rain storms have been coming at night, which would not be the best time for video. However, there was a morning when it was raining, and I rushed out of the house to record. Check out the video.

Steve in the woodsAlthough this was not a heavy storm, at least I saw the puddling on Port Royal Ave., and I can imagine in a larger storm what the situation might be. In fact, seeing how difficult it is to actually record a storm makes the idea of a stream monitor even more valuable. So, I made a visit to Stroud to check out their monitoring equipment, as well as Steve’s workspace.  The property has nets for insects, buckets for leaves and other organic matter, and monitors for the stream — it’s a Disney World for scientists.

Steve's officeThe tech space is full of controllers, sensors, cables, cases, batteries and canisters of water. It was encouraging that I was able to identify some of the parts in the bins, and Steve and I probably could have spent even more hours than we did just talking shop.

 

After seeing what was needed, Steve helped me to order some parts. So, now I have a datalogger and an ultrasonic rangefinder at my house. The datalogger is the main board in the circuit which will give instructions and allow for data to be collected. The ultrasonic sensor will measure the water depth throughout the day. So far this is a cost-effective set-up and there may be some room for another sensor. Right now I’m favoring conductivity, which looks at metals in the water. However, the sensor has to be able to withstand freezing temperatures, and Steve is currently testing a new one to see if it will be accurate. So, we will see which sensor wins. Steve has been testing equipment like this for years and is an expert on sensors and conditions.

One of the frustrating things about the field is that a good part may be discontinued, which leads to more testing of new products. Also, just because the paperwork says a part will operate in a certain way under certain conditions does not always mean this is true. So, the process is never-ending.

Leslie and Brenna sewing StormSnakeThe next step in the process was to work on building a snake from burlap, and luckily I found someone interested in assisting me — Brenna Leary. Brenna recently graduated with a degree in environmental education and also has a love of plants. So, we’ve been having a lot of fun bouncing ideas back and forth. We spent an afternoon at the Center stuffing a casing of burlap with stones, wood chips, and coir. Then, we stitched the fabric shut and created the features of a tail, head and tongue with some tucks and scraps. It was a lot of fun and the resulting piece reminds me of the corn husk dolls I used to make as a child in Girl Scouts. They were featureless, but they had a beauty none-the-less, and so it is the same with the snake.Leslie making StormSnake

I started this post with this idea of change, and it may be apparent with electrical parts, but it is even more so with art. I first imagined my burlap StormSnakes to be painted with environmentally safe paint. However, someone reminded me that even natural things can react badly when put in touch with chemicals in stormwater run-off. So, you never know what kind of brew you are going to get running into the stream. I know there are all sorts of compromises we make daily, however, I didn’t want any risk in this, no matter how small. So, one day I was having lunch with another artist friend and we got into talking about the cool plant holders made of felt and other natural ways people deal with urban plantings. I suddenly remembered those crazy Chia Pets with the bad commercials. They were ceramic objects with a seed goop smeared onto them which would eventually sprout into odd topiaries. What an interesting idea to make snakes that had growing material on them. So, I talked to Melissa at the Center about the possibility of incorporating seeds or plugs onto my stuffed burlap snacks. She definitely had some recommendations and was excited since plants are her expertise. So, I hope to now perform a test in the greenhouse to see what emerges. Can I do stripes? Would I work with different plants and textures? I don’t know and I like that answer.

leaf

The Biggest Day in 50 Years

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

This piece was originally published in the Roxborough Review on Thursday, September 10 in the column Natural Selections

Saturday, September 27 might just be the biggest day in the Schuylkill Center’s storied 50-year history.  On that day, we’re offering the first bird seed sale of the year, the last native plant sale of the year, and launching the University of Nature, a full day of outdoor learning for adults.  We’re beginning the day by presenting the ninth annual Henry Meigs Award for environmental leadership to Ann Fowler Rhoads, and ending the day by unveiling a new show in our environmental art gallery.

One big day.

The University of Nature is the latest in a series of new programming thrusts the Schuylkill Center is rolling out.  We’re offering university-level expertise in a one-day outdoor setting.  Over the course of the day there are nine workshops and walks from which to choose, and you’ll leave at day’s end graduating to a higher level of environmental understanding. Continue reading

Trail

First Day as a LandLab Resident

By LandLab Resident Artist Leslie Birch

MeLesI’m Leslie Birch, and I’m very curious about Philadelphia’s water. Last Thursday, I felt a bit nervous as I headed my car down the long driveway towards the Schuylkill Center. Having looked at records online for water quality in this watershed, I’ve seen mixed reports. We are located downstream from some heavy-duty coal and energy industries and also share our waters with many manufacturing industries. What hope can there be? Well, after meeting Sean Duffy, Director of Land and Facilities, I was assured there actually is a shining star – apparently the Center has some of the best water quality around because it is spring fed. Originally the land was made up of farms, and in those days you had to have a well to get your water, so this makes a lot of sense. Now, most people are connected to a community source of water through pipes, so the fact that the Center still has its original clean water source is good news.

WindDancePondThe tricky news is the issue of storm water runoff. Sean said that in the last six years, he’s never seen it so bad, and certainly this is a result of what’s going on with the climate. I don’t want to argue about what to call this global warming, but I do want to understand the resulting chaotic weather and natural disasters that are occurring.  Storm water runoff is one of those disasters. I’m sure some of you have seen this damage first hand at the shore with hurricane Sandy or even here in Philadelphia with the recent flooding. This year I had a friend who was preparing to evacuate as her garage became flooded. Many people’s cars were considered “totaled” after this recent storm, along with furniture and sentimental items. I’ve also assisted in flood preparation and clean-up at the historic Canoe Club on the Schuylkill. I’ve seen first-hand the marks left by the water level on the first floor ceiling of the building, as well as the inches of thick silt left behind by the storm. I’ve even seen injured birds and a displaced baby heron desperately looking for its mother. Recently I was reminded that even people’s pets are later found as victims of these storms. So, this rushing water is something we need to face.

PortRoyalSo, how does storm water run-off translate here at the Center? Sean was able to pinpoint the main areas of runoff on a map for me, and one of the major culprits is Port Royal Avenue.  Often, roads have stormdrains that funnel rainwater away underground to be discharged into a larger waterbody during a storm – you’ve probably seen them around cities or even your neighborhood.  But on Port Royal, there are no storm drains, and when it rains, the water still needs somewhere to go.

TrailInstead, where Port Royal borders the Schuylkill Center property, there is a curb cut – the lower burm is removed to allow the water to leave the road surface.  That moves the water straight off the road, leading it to travel above the ground’s surface down the hill towards Wind Dance Pond, causing erosion of the soils. You can see evidence of this in the picture.  The pond soon overflows and causes water to divert towards the stream. Before you know it, you’ve got damage to the stream bed and possible trail damage and downed trees. This is cause for concern and really where my journey as an artist begins.

As a LandLab Resident, my goal was first to question the quality of the water, but that has now changed to question the movement of the water, specifically what happens before and after it enters Wind Dance Pond. Some things to consider may be the change in the height of water in the pond, the speed of the flow of water, and even the path the water takes as it exits the pond.

To gather information, I’ll need to do more scouts with Sean to see other forms of damage on the trails. I’ll also have to start researching equipment used to monitor these changes in water and figure out a way to keep it tethered under tough conditions. Finally, I’ll need to determine a way to make this information visual in a way people can understand, especially children.

So, what can I do about the trickle that I see leading to the pond, knowing it has the potential to become a torrent or flood with each major rainstorm? I’m not sure yet, but I know my answer will include community. Water is a powerful agent, and it will take more than one to tame it.

 

About the Author:

Leslie Birch is a tech artist with a love of Arduino microcontrollers. She lives near the Schuylkill River in the Art Museum area and loves birding.   She also blogs at Geisha Teku.  She can be found on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

Making Room for Rain

By Stacy Levy

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education is working to investigate the intersection of nature and the city. The role of rain in the landscape is being actively explored in programs and planning around its buildings. As a nature center, SCEE is at the forefront of solving site issues through art based intervention. On May 31, 2013 a conference on New Environmental Art will be held at SCEE to look at ways that art and science can collaborate to solve ecological problems in urban nature, and enlighten citizens to find new solutions in their own lives.

Rain is usually given a long narrow space to inhabit: gutters, downspouts, underground pipes. People can walk practically anywhere in a building and on the surrounding landscape. What if this paradigm got turned on its head? 
Give people a more narrow path of movement around a site while rain gets plenty of space to spread out and linger? How would our built environments change? And how would it change our relationship to rain?As an eco-artist, I want art to be an advocate of rain. Art is good at giving meaning to the leftover or abandoned aspects of the world—and rain is one of those abandoned elements. Though a yardstick worth of rain falls every yearin this region, we hardly register rain’s presence. In urban settings, architecture and engineering have generally kept rain invisible to us. The relationship between rain and the built environment needs to be changed, and art is well positioned to alter that relationship.At SCEE, I am working with ecologists, engineers and educators to create an artwork that gives the rain room to spread out while keeping people in a defined space. But people do not lose out in this design— both rain and visitors get a dynamic space to co-exist.Rain Gardens create spaces that can get wet and stay wet while the water infiltrates into the soil.

Instead of becoming a muddy soup, the rain garden holds the rain within the permeable soil and the roots of a diverse community of native plants . These plants also make good habitat for other species like insects and food for birds and other small mammals.

 

This new artwork deals with two types of visitors to the site: rain and humans. A grated metal catwalk prevents the plants from being trampled while also keeping people’s feet dry. ‘Staying dry’ and ‘soaking in’ are two incongruent activities—one of the reasons that rain has no place to go in the built world is the hierarchy of the dry human foot!


We want to demonstrate ways to change rain’s journey in the built environment. We also want to give visitors a chance to test out the very materials of the city: the surfaces we spend our lives walking on like asphalt, concrete and grass. How do these materials work with or work against rain?

How this art works: Some of the rainwater will be diverted and stored in an above ground cistern. Then during dry days, our visitors can pump this contained water into 5 different troughs. Each trough contains a different familiar surface materials from the landscape: concrete, asphalt, gravel lawn and meadow. People can direct the rainwater onto these different surfaces to see how the water responds— by soaking in or running off.

At SCEE rainwater will be given both the time and the place to act the way rain should act. And people will be given a place to interact with the falling rain while staying out of its way as it soaks into the soil. The idea of rain needing a refuge is a new idea to most of us. We hope people learn about rain, and the surfaces it meets in our world. This piece gives people a new angle on rain and its relationship to our built environment.

The piece will be under construction over the early spring. Please come by and see it!


Want to know more about Rain Gardens?

The Philadelphia Water Department

The Rain Garden Network

The Groundwater Foundation

The Department of Environmental Conservation

Rain Garden Alliance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

©2012 Stacy Levy

Getting Millennials to Care More about the Environment

By Whitney Works, Intern for SCEE’s Environmental Art Department

Working with the Environmental Art Department of the Schuylkill Center has piqued my interest in a few things. While I recognize my own conservation habits, I can’t help but wonder about my colleagues and other Millennials (those aged 18-29). Those outside of the environmental science or nonprofit sphere; how do they view the environment and its pressing issues?

Surprisingly, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study earlier this year finding that Millennials were more civically and politically disengaged and less concerned about helping the larger community than GenX and Baby Boomers were at the same ages.

So, what?

Millennials are now the largest group of Americans outnumbering Baby Boomers (nearly 90 million strong) by an estimated 20 million. Their presence can no longer be overlooked. It’s estimated that they will have the most buying power by 2017 and for the next 40 years after that.

Not only do nonprofits have to make their missions and projects more engaging to Millennials, but they also need to get them excited about social change.

That’s just it. How exactly do you encourage Millennials to care more about the environment? Beyond growing their own gardens, composting, recycling, and using sustainable materials.

Participant Media just launched a new channel YouTube channel, TakePart TV. The channel “serves as a digital home for clever, eye-opening and optimistic content around big issues that face our planet for Millennials ranging from teens to thirtysomethings”. Clips like the Waterpocalypse Now video, from the Brain Food Daily series takes a humorous, more crass approach, but one has to wonder if these types of media really move audiences to action.

Ecoarttech, a unique organization “combining primitive with emergent technologies, to investigate the overlapping terrain between ‘nature’, built environments, mobility, and electronic spaces” may be on to something. Their current project Indeterminate Hikes+ is a mobile media app that “transforms everyday landscapes into sites of bio-cultural diversity and wild happenings”. Users map out a hike in a natural or urban setting and along the way are asked to perform small tasks, learning to appreciate the surrounding environment and notice the unique sits often overlooked.

Having the unique advantage of combining both visual art with environmental education, what can the Schuylkill Center take away from these two examples in order to engage Philadelphia young professionals about relevant environmental issues, such as stormwater run-off?

I’m on a self-made mission to find out.

Stay tuned for more blog posts from the Advisory Board, and more on the Millennial view on Environmental Art.