14,000 hours & counting

By Claire Morgan, Volunteer Coordinator, and Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Throughout our now 50-plus years of educating thousands of people, volunteers have been central to our mission. In fact, we could have accomplished surprisingly little without volunteers. Claire Morgan, our volunteer coordinator, calculates that in the 12-month period ending July 1, volunteers poured 14,000 hours of service into the Center, planting trees, feeding baby birds, measuring water temperatures in streams, hanging gallery exhibitions, even tallying supermarket receipts for dividends.

In this season of giving, we’d like to thank our volunteers for giving us so much.

Like at the wildlife clinic. There, some 70 volunteers in the clinic greatly extend the reach of clinic staff, taking regular weekly shifts cleaning cages, feeding animals, even helping administer medicine. In 2015, about 3,300 wild creatures were brought to the clinic, a record for one year—and without volunteers, rehabilitators Rick Schubert and Michele Wellard would be unable to provide this critical level of service.

Here’s one measure of the importance of clinic volunteers: 10,000 of the hours of volunteer service come from the wildlife clinic alone.

SCEE3477Dan Featherston is one of those volunteers. Helping us for 2½ years now, he “deeply cares” about rehabilitating wild animals, and has a special fondness for pigeons, a bird usually overlooked.

We capped off the recent jubilee year of celebrations with the planting of Jubilee Grove, 200 new trees planted mostly by volunteers and interns. Year round, land stewardship volunteers help stewardship manager Melissa Nase propagate native plants in our greenhouse and nursery. As our native plant sales have been growing in importance, our volunteers are invaluable here, potting plants, caring for the nursery and greenhouse, and even advising customers during the sales as to what plants to use in their own gardens.

Monthly, restoration volunteers join us on the front lines of ecological restoration, removing noxious invasive species that choke out native plants while planting new trees and wildflowers as well.

And then there’s Toad Detour. Unique to Roxborough, every year thousands of toads cross Port Royal Avenue to mate in the reservoir. Instead of getting squashed on the road by passing cars these toads are ushered across by volunteers. This spring, some 1,400 adult toads made the journey through the help of many volunteers, including Scout troops.

The Senior Environment Corps run by Claire leans on a core of wonderful retired adults who, this year, have been monitoring the stream along Wises’ Mill Road to measure the impact of storms on water quality. They share this data with Philadelphia Water and the statewide program Nature Abounds.

We also have a small but dedicated group of volunteers who help us with office skills including data entry, shredding, mailing, organizing, etc. And a new volunteer has just started helping our facilities staff with carpentry and handyman jobs.

Last but not least, an incredible board of 18 volunteer trustees has supported and guided us this year, offering their gifts of time and talent.
Henry Geyer, one of the SEC volunteers, summarizes the experience for many. “Volunteering is my way to say thank you and to give something of myself back to my community. It’s a chance to be with caring people who have your same interests, and hope to make a difference , no matter how slight, in our world. I hope that what little I have contributed will be of some significance.”

Henry, it is. And we are deeply indebted to Henry, and all our extraordinary volunteers.

With a New Year just around the corner, perhaps you’ll make a resolution to give back both to the environment and the community through volunteering.

Schuylkill Center Old Fashioned Recipe

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

This past Saturday afternoon was idyllic: the early fall light streamed through the trees golden and green, the air was crisp, but not cold.  And 130 friends of the Schuylkill Center gathered in Jubilee Grove to celebrate our 50th anniversary, wrapping up the year of special events.  We dedicated Jubilee Grove and it’s new Binney Meigs sculpture, our Nature Preschoolers sang a delightful song for us (“Schuylkill Center Dream”), Judy Wicks and Maya van Rossum both read letters to 2040 (look out for their letters on the blog soon), and our education director Gail Farmer read a letter on behalf of Stacy Levy.

SCEE2906And, everyone enjoyed our new signature cocktail, Trees of the Schuylkill Center, or a Schuylkill Center Old Fashioned as it was quickly named.  So today, I’m sharing the recipe – enjoy – or come back and join us for another botanical cocktail hour.  Special thanks to Zya S. Levy of WE THE WEEDS for the inspiration.

Schuylkill Center Old Fashioned
0.5 ounce dark amber maple syrup
0.5 ounce black cherry syrup
Several dashes bitters
2 ounces bourbon
3 – 4 ounces sparkling water, as desired

  1. Pour the syrups and add a few dashes of bitters
  2. Add bourbon and mix
  3. Add sparkling water and stir again
  4. Serve over ice and enjoy in the beauty of the forest

50 Facts, 50 Days

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

As we wrap up celebrations for our 50th anniversary, we’re posting one fact each day for the 50 days leading up to final celebratory event of the year: Jubilee in the Grove.  Each week, we’ll update this post with the most recently posted facts, as well as extra details.  Follow all the posts on Facebook or Twitter with #50years

50 Facts, 50 Days

1. On average, our Nature Preschoolers spend 3 hours/day playing outdoors, 42 times more than the average American child.

2. In one year, the Schuylkill Center’s forest absorbs 10,200,000 lbs of CO2, producing 7, 480,000 lbs of oxygen. This is equivalent to taking 850 cars off the road for one year.

3. The Schuylkill Center celebrated its one-millionth visitor in 1987.

4. There are 1,000 ceramic bees in Native Pollinator Garden, Maggie Mills, Ben Mills, and Marguerita Hagan’s environmental art installation.

5. In 1988, we changed our name from the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center to the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.

6. A short scene from the 1998 film Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey was shot at the Schuylkill Center. No flowers blooming when crews came to shoot, so the background of the scene is filled with small white paper flowers.

7. The word Schuylkill comes from early Dutch explorers and translates to “hidden river.” Continue reading

History and Nature Intertwine at The Wagner Free Institute of Science

Originally written by David Hewitt on the blog Growing History; adapted by Wagner’s Cara Scharf

North Philadelphia, with its closely packed houses and shops, cracked sidewalks and streets, and vacant lots and overgrown parks, is not necessarily where you’d expect to find a historic landscape.

London PlaneIt’s there, however, in the yard of the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Though there are many historic plants in the yard, some of the most noticeable are the large trees such as London planes (Platanus x acerifolia) and silver maples (Acer saccharinum) that ring the yard. Their size alone suggests they have been here for a while, but how long and where did they come from?

The first question is reasonably straightforward to answer.  To find out how old a tree is, you either cut it down and count its rings or you take a core sample and count the rings that way.  The latter leaves the tree standing, so Wagner faculty member David Hewitt, Ned Barnard, a fellow historic tree enthusiast and author of New York City Trees, and a few others used an 18” corer to take a long, narrow piece out of both a London plane and a silver maple in the Wagner’s yard in October 2011. Both trees were found to be in the range of 110 or 115 years old.

WOnce the age was narrowed down, Hewitt went to the Wagner’s archives to see if he could find record of the Wagner acquiring the trees. He found that they likely came from a nursery owned by Thomas Meehan in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, and were added around the turn of the 20th century. Meehan was a significant figure in 19th century botany and horticulture, founding two horticultural publications and working for Bartram’s Garden before he founded his own nursery business which planned many notable gardens including the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, and the English Garden at the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville, Florida. In a letter from Thomas Meehan (dated February 22, 1900) he mentioned that he had been ill. He died in 1901, so the Wagner yard may well be the last landscape he worked on.

History is everywhere, and so are plants.  The two are intertwined, and even in the middle of the city they tangle together, and the one can tell us about the other, the trees can tell us what was there before, and what was there before tells us about the trees that are there today – and even though they may be layered over and it may take some digging and coring, they all have something to say, and they all can say it, if you just look.

In addition to the Wagner, Philadelphia is rich with examples of historic plants and gardens such as Bartram’s, Wyck Historic House and Garden, the Schuylkill Center, Fairmount Park, etc. Take some time, while the weather is still conducive to outdoor activity, to check some of these sites out!

About the Growing History blog: This is the blog of “Growing History: The Philadelphia Historic Plants Consortium”. The consortium links institutions, creating a network of gardens and historic plants with materials propagated from the sites themselves.  Plants exchanged will serve as material for education in their shared history, in science, and conservation. The blog disseminates the stories behind the plants and the landscapes they occupy.

About the Wagner Free Institute of Science: The Wagner is a Victorian-era natural history museum and has been a provider of free science education since 1855. Visitors are welcome Tuesday through Friday, 9 to 4 pm, though please note the museum will be on a summer break and closed to the public the last two weeks in August (17th through the 28th). If you’re interested in spending time in our historic yard, join us for the Honey Happy Hour, part of the 6th Annual Philadelphia Honey Festival, on Friday, September 11th from 5 to 7 pm. More details on this event can be found here.

What to do outside before summer is over

By Kiley Sotomayor, Summer Environmental Art Intern

Now that we are in the final month of summer vacation, it is the perfect time to fit in something you’ve been unable to do all summer in between graduation parties, sports games, and weddings. For me, that means doing new things and spending as much time as possible outside. The Schuylkill Center is a great place to do both! I’d like to recommend three things to check off your list before August flies by:

  1. Hit the trails. We as a country spend about 8.5 hours a day in front of the screens, usually sitting. To get out of a screen rut, take a healthy break by going for a hike, bonus points if you go with friends. It will give your eyes a rest while waking up your body and may even increase your social savvy more than social media.  Even though August signals the end of wineberry picking, there is still a lot to check out on the trails. Whether you spot a lone deer making its way across a path or catch sight of a #Stormsnake, hiking along a shaded trail is a nice change of pace from the bright city sidewalk.

Continue reading

Which Environmental Leader Would You Put on the $10 Bill?

By Beth Crawford, Summer PR & Communications Intern

Over the past few months, social media has been inundated with a simple, but powerful hashtag: #womenon20s. The grassroots organization that launched the groundbreaking campaign, Women on 20s, created buzz for the movement by inviting the public to vote for influential female leaders in United States history. After more than 600,000 people cast their votes, Harriet Tubman was chosen as the potential face of the new $20 bill. Women on 20s petitioned President Obama to request that Jacob Lew, Secretary of the Treasury, consider a change to the $20 bill in time for the 100th Anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020. The Treasury responded by announcing that a new $10 bill, featuring a woman, is now slated to be designed by 2020. In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Schuylkill Center and our commitment to fostering stewardship of the environment, we decided to travel back in time and reflect upon the lives of significant female environmentalists. These are the determined women we have selected as candidates for the new $10 bill:

Rachel CarsonRachel Carson was an early environmental activist who illustrated how harmful effects on the environment impact our daily lives. During the 1950s, Carson researched how pesticides, especially DDT, destroy our environment and compromise the safety of our food supply. Silent Spring, published in 1962, detailed her ominous findings, and the United States government responded with a presidential commission which validated her work and enacted a ban on DDT. Her novel resonated with the American people and inspired a movement that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and ultimately paved the way for the protection of the planet by future generations. In recognition of her lasting efforts to conserve the environment, President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Dian FosseyDian Fossey was best known for her research of the behavior of gorillas and her efforts to protect them from danger. After a trip to Africa in 1963 during which she met Joan and Alan Root, photographers who were creating a nature documentary about African gorillas, she was compelled to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda to study the fascinating creatures. Fossey was intrigued by “their individuality combined with the shyness of their behavior,” and in 1967, established the Karisoke Research Foundation to further support the study of mountain gorillas. Her experiences learning about the psychology of gorillas were captured in her 1983 autobiography, Gorillas in the Mist, which became a national bestseller. Her passion for the gorillas manifested itself in her approaching the media about problems facing them and destroying poachers’ traps. Sadly, in 1985, she was murdered at her camp in Rwanda, likely by an angry poacher. Fossey’s legacy lives on in the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, which advocates for the continued protection of gorillas today.

Lady Bird JohnsonClaudia Johnson, better known as “Lady Bird Johnson,” utilized her position as the First Lady of the United States from 1963 to 1969 to accomplish lasting victories for the environmental movement. Besides playing an active role in the “war on poverty” and the Headstart Program, Lady Bird Johnson worked tirelessly to conduct beautification projects for Washington, D.C, and established the First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital. Additionally, she planted bulbs and trees along roadsides to publicize the rapid increase in habitat and species loss during the 1960s. Her efforts culminated in the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, the first major legislative campaign created by a first lady. She delivered her thoughts about a new type of conservation in a lecture to the American Institute of Architects in 1968, which is still very relevant today: “A beautification in my mind is far more than a matter of cosmetics. To me, it describes the whole effort to bring the natural world and the manmade world to harmony,” Lady Bird stated.

Judi BariJudi Bari was an environmentalist and feminist who vehemently opposed logging in the ancient redwood forests of Northern California as a principal organizer of the Earth First! campaigns. In order to promote the expansion of natural lands, Bari established her first forest blockade site in 1988 to support the enlargement of the Bureau of Land Management’s Cahto Wilderness Area. In response to loggers’ opposition to the blockades, Earth First!, under Bari’s leadership, launched its Redwood Summer protest. In an effort to reach reconciliation, Bari organized a workshop on the Industrial Workers of the World at an Earth First! event in California. This collaboration between environmentalists and timber workers allowed them to seek solutions to remedy the fast pace at which the timber industry was destroying forests. Although Bari is a controversial figure due to her outspokenness and a mysterious car bombing attempt on her life which led to her being temporarily arrested, Bari’s achievements in preserving the California rainforests are remarkable.

Although all of these inspirational women have greatly contributed to the American environmental movement, only one can be chosen as the face of the new $10 bill. Who do you vote for? Let us know in this poll, or suggest another candidate in a comment below. [yop_poll id=”-2″ tr_id=”[yop_poll id=”3″]

Natural Dyeing: from plant to fabric

By Guest Contributors Elissa Meyers and Mira Adornetto

After pulling out green cotton fabric from a naturally fermenting indigo vat, our workshop group watches excitedly as the green transitions into a dark indigo blue. This incredible process, which occurs as the indigo dye oxidizes has been used for thousands of years in numerous places and cultures. Throughout human history, color has been applied to fibers on every continent, starting as far back as 2,600 BCE. Plants, shellfish, and insects: wildflowers, trees, mollusks and bugs, have been used to dye fibers.

Since the industrial revolution dyeing went from natural colorants like plants and insects to synthesized petroleum based dyes, which are fairly damaging to the environment. The argument that modern “low-impact” dyes are less harmful to the environment than natural dyes has become a highly debated topic in the textile industry. Millions of tons of synthetic dye are still being dumped annually into waterways leaving textiles as one of the top ten worst polluted industries.  Natural dyes, however, offer an alternative.

marigoldssteepingNatural dyeing usually includes the use of a metallic salt, known as a “mordant,” from the French word “mordre” meaning “to bite.”  Mordants include alum, iron, tin, chrome, copper, and also tannic acid. Tannins are readily available in the environment: they’re in black tea, as well as in oak trees and many other plants.  Alum (sometimes used in food and cosmetics, though less often these days) is the most prevalent metal in the earth’s crust, followed by iron. These mordants can be used and disposed of safely. Although some of the other metals, tin and chrome for example, can produce more intense colors, they have a larger safety risk and environmental impact. These metals tend to give natural dyes a bad reputation as they are toxic to the environment. In fact, at BLUEREDYELLOW, we don’t even consider using them in our work.

Our society’s awareness of global environmental issues has increased substantially since the 60s. In today’s DIY culture more people want to use accessible and sustainable materials. People now are more concerned with where manufactured goods come from and what to use them for. When synthetic dyes hit the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution, natural dyes became nearly obsolete. However, craftspeople like William Morris, (known for his textile patterns) continued to work using the older, more craft-based, processes including natural dyeing. With today’s advancements in science and technology, we have a better understanding of the world around us.  Yet there is still so much to learn in the world of natural dyes. Philadelphia was once a powerhouse of the textile industry. Currently, it is a region with an active and abundant arts community, with an emphasis on craftsmanship.

Aside from the arts, Philadelphia is abundant with urban gardens and is a region where a long list of dye plants can be grown and found. Some of these include mugwort, goldenrod, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, mint, dock, and sorrel. There are several tannin bearing plants including black walnut and sumac. It is also possible to grow historical dye plants such as the Japanese variety of indigo dye (vibrant blue) as well as madder root (alizarin red). It is incredible how many options there are to produce color in this area and we hope the craft will continue to be explored in a local, as well as global, way.

About the Authors
Elissa Meyers and Mira Adornetto founded BLUEREDYELLOW, a design and natural dye house producing comfortable, chemical free textiles.  BLUEREDYELLOW was founded with support from The Corzo Center for the Creative Economy. Currently, they work with businesses offering an alternative dye service and do piece dyeing as well as dyeing by the yard.  Elissa and Mira also lead natural dyeing workshops around the Philadelphia area.  They will be leading a two-day workshop at the Schuylkill Center on July 17 and 18.


Making nature relevant: finding common ground

By Gail Farmer, Director of Education

This April marked the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, and we have come a long way since that huge 1970 event. But clearly, we have a long way to go: a recent study by the National Environmental Education Foundation found that two-thirds of the public fails even a basic environmental quiz and a whopping 88% cannot pass a basic energy quiz. This same study found that 45 million Americans think the ocean is a source of fresh water and 130 million believe that hydropower is America’s top energy source.

Alarmingly, this environmental literacy gap is widening: people between the ages of 18 and 34 know less about the environment than the previous generation, ages 35 to 54 (Coyle, K. (2005). Environmental Literacy in America.  National Environmental Education and Training Foundation. 100pp). After five decades of environmental education in our schools and in our communities, we must recognize that this growing environmental literacy gap is not simply a matter of education. It’s also a crisis of relevance.

While immersive experiences in nature are a great way to build personal relevance, children today have significantly less direct experience and contact with the outdoor environment than they did even a generation ago. American kids have retreated indoors, spending ⅓ of their time watching screens (7.5 hours/day), but only 1% of their time outside. How can environmental issues be relevant to a generation of youth who have very little direct and meaningful experience in the natural environment?

For the last decade, the Schuylkill Center has been offering programs that provide Philadelphia youth with immersive experiences in nature, experiences which aim to create emotional connections and build relevance – the essential foundation for environmental literacy. Our summer and day-off camps, our after school program, and our Nature Preschool all offer opportunities to connect with nature in a personally meaningful way and on a regular basis. The challenge is that the people who register for our programs are families for whom nature is already relevant. So, how do we get on the radar of everyone else?

Outside of our work with schools, environmental education often fails miserably at reaching beyond “the choir.” How do we reach and engage people for whom nature is not relevant or meaningful? This is a tough one. At the Schuylkill Center, we have outlined a strategy to help us address this challenge. We must expand our messaging beyond what matters to us (healthy ecosystems, environmental literacy), aligning it with broader issues that already matter to the parents, teachers, and community members we are trying to reach. In education, we refer to this as “meeting people where they are.” It’s not about getting them to hear what we have to say; rather, it’s about beginning with what matters to them and finding where our values intersect.

Personal health and well-being, safety, and family are nearly universal values. In addition to public programs that offer immersive nature experiences, our education department has been cultivating partnerships with non-environmental organizations that provide essential services addressing these broad needs.

For example, we are partnering with the Interfaith Hospitality Network, an organization that helps families transition out of homelessness. As they need high-quality childcare services for the children of families they serve, the Schuylkill Center provides these children with spaces in our summer and day-off camps. I have recently been giving talks about the health and wellness benefits of nature, and have been contacted by people working in mental health, social services, and health care who are interested in providing nature experiences for their patient populations because of the positive cognitive, physical and emotional health impacts. So the Roxborough pediatric clinic of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia brings groups of patients to the Center for “Walk with a Doc” trail hikes. Such collaborations are the key to reaching beyond our base and an important pathway towards a larger and more diverse “choir.”

So as we move into the next 50 years of programming, we are looking to offer more nature-health connections like wellness walks, and outdoor yoga. We’re continuing to offer immersive nature programs. We’re also looking to build more partnerships with non-environmental, groups. But above all, we’re looking for common ground.

Note: This piece was originally published in the Schuylkill Center’s members newsletter, Quill, in summer 2015.

PLAY Manayunk: The Way-Way-Back Story

By Guest Contributor Melissa Andrews, Destination Schuylkill River

PLAY Manayunk is happening on Saturday, May 16 in Manayunk and celebrates outdoor recreation, fitness, and healthy living in our area.  Did you know that this event is inspired by major changes to the neighborhood over multiple decades, and that Manayunk’s own canal towpath is a major character in that story?

A walk on the towpath on a beautiful day feeds the senses.  All along the path, there are views of the canal and adjacent Schuylkill River, but patience and repeat visits yield more unusual sights.  Turn around the bend near the Flat Rock Dam, and you might see – and hear – a melodious flock of Carolina wrens; closer to Main Street Manayunk, you can greet the canal’s resident great blue herons, red-bellied turtles, or pumpkinseed sunfish.  There is also a growing collection of murals and three-dimensional art; muralist Paul Santoleri’s new work on the Fountain Street steps is worth the short walk up from the towpath toward Umbria Street.

Photo Credit Kim Wood (2)The towpath can also pique your hunger.  Depending on how the wind is blowing from Main Street, you may pick up the scent of spicy noodles with chilies, a grilling burger, pulled pork tacos, or the intoxicating smell of fresh-baked bread.  From the efforts of numerous community groups who help tend plantings, the towpath is also an ideal place to stop and smell the flowers.

You will not be alone in experiencing these sensations.  Every day, people who work and live in Manayunk and its surrounding Philadelphia and Lower Merion neighborhoods come to the towpath to run, bike, stroll, fish, and enjoy a rare moment in nature.  Now, with the completion of the new Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreations Center, you can catch a show put on by the Manayunk Theater Company or the Delaware Valley Opera Company.  Better yet, you can jump into a pick-up game of basketball.

While life along the canal seems idyllic now, it has not always been so.  In the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, the towpath helped Manayunk rise to prominence as an industrial neighborhood that contributed to Philadelphia’s overall industrial revolution.  Manayunk’s factories and mills produced a wide range of wares, most notably textiles and paper.  The water from the Schuylkill River and towpath powered their production, and carried the final products down to the City of Philadelphia and from there out into the world.

Like any industrial town, Manayunk was packed with workers, grit, smoke, and noise, as well as the mules that helped pull commercial barges along the canal.  During this time, the waterway – so useful for the creation and transit of Manayunk’s goods – became degraded: the old familiar story of economic gain at ecological expense.  Without labor regulations, the factory workers also suffered.  Men, women, and children alike faced long hours, dangerous machines, and hazardously poor air quality.  Hard work was the word of the day, with most factories operating three shifts a day, six days a week.  Under this intensive use, the once idyllic riverside became a location that most people avoided during their few respite hours.

By the late twentieth century, most heavy industry had moved out of major cities, if not out of the country.  Manayunk was no different.  With most factories and mills shut down, the commercial corridor became dilapidated and mostly vacant, and the once-busy towpath and canal became silent and overgrown.

Manayunk’s second life began in the 1980s, as a new wave of entrepreneurs opened an eclectic variety of shops and restaurants in the center core of the district and moved progressively outward.  New business owners and residents not only began rehabilitating buildings, but also initiated intense cleanup and reclamation projects on the river, canal, and towpath, placing pressure on public officials to also invest in these resources.

Manayunk is now once again filled with the sights and sounds of a returning natural world.  Visitors who revel in these open spaces, along with numerous fitness, health, and recreation groups who use these outdoor areas as their playground, advocate for more of these experiences and opportunities.  This return to nature is what we at Manayunk Development Corporation are celebrating at PLAY Manayunk on Saturday, May 16.  We invite you and your family and friends to Venice Island (7 Lock Street) to take part in all of the outdoor activities that the area has to offer, and experience this new chapter of Manayunk’s history for yourself.


Photo Credit Kim Wood (1)About the author:
Melissa Andrews is Project Manager and Watershed Education Coordinator at Destination Schuylkill River, a project of the Manayunk Development Corporation that focuses on planning, programs, and projects on water and land.  With a background in environmental planning and design, she loves being able to step out her door – both at work and at home – and have quick access to some of the best parks and trails that Philadelphia has to offer.


Nature Above the City

By Ezra Tischler, Public Relations/Environmental Art Intern

The sun was starting to set as we stood on the 8th floor rooftop looking at the rising towers of Center City just a few blocks to our east. A breeze swirled across the helipad, weaving through massive HVAC units, across a garden of ornamental grasses and perennial natives. It was mid-September and the low-growing succulents of the PECO Green Roof created a nice contrast with the yellow blooms of Coreopsis ‘Crème Brulee’ and the pinkish-red Gaura lindheimeri.  Bees and butterflies buzzed and fluttered about the varied vegetation. It was hard to believe a city of concrete and asphalt bustled with automobiles, commuter trains, and scattered litter just eight stories below.

View looking east from the PECO green roof.

View looking east from the PECO green roof.

It’s probably even harder for people at street level to imagine a pollinator garden and grassy oasis, measuring over an acre, existing eight stories above on the roof of our region’s major electricity provider. The PECO green roof, built in 2009 as a partnership with the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, is the largest green roof in Philadelphia. While other green roofs found on Philadelphia’s private residences, academic institutions, and businesses pale in comparison to PECO’s 45,000 square foot roof, they certainly still contribute to the health of our metropolis and add their own pieces of nature to our city.

Helipad on the PECO green roof.

Helipad on the PECO green roof.

When we talk about nature in the city it’s easy to neglect our roofs. From the street they are usually out of sight. Many roofs are hidden behind locked doors with signs that read Authorized Personnel Only, where HVAC units, antennae, or other aesthetically undesirable mechanics are housed. The PECO green roof is off limits, even to employees, unless you attend a scheduled tour. However, roofs pose a unique opportunity to inject nature into our city, in places we might otherwise not expect. As Philadelphia continues to expand its sustainability efforts the unexpected and seldom thought of roofs may play a significant role in helping to solve our city’s environmental issues.

In 2005 the Schuylkill Center installed a 2,215 square foot green roof on a portion of our Main Education Building in an effort to display the many benefits associated with a vegetated roof. Green roofs help increase energy efficiency of buildings by regulating temperatures and decreasing the constant need for heating and cooling. They also provide habitat for wildlife and serve as havens for pollinators. Most importantly to Philadelphia, green roofs act as stormwater management tools slowing the rainwater runoff to our overflowing sewers, in turn keeping our rivers and drinking water that much cleaner. Green roofs are just one example of functional nature in the city.

Pollinator garden on the PECO green roof.

Pollinator garden on the PECO green roof.

Any sliver of nature, intentional or not, provides measurable worth across many disciplines and deserves our attention. Philadelphia is a city with a massive parks system, two major flowing rivers, and access to numerous wild areas within or immediately near city limits. We are fortunate to never be far from nature. Still, in this built environment we may lose sight of the natural beauty right in front of us. It’s this idea that makes the unexpected acre of green roof on the PECO building so magnificent.

To find nature in the city when you least expect it, when you aren’t looking for it, can be just as wondrous as hiking through the wild back-country. It’s a testament to nature’s resilience and a reminder of our complex relationship with the natural environment, one of dependence and stewardship. Sure a green roof is designed, built, and maintained by humans but the bees, butterflies, birds, and vegetation are part of a system much larger than us. Only in the city are there opportunities for such large groups of people to exist with nature. So, the next time you’re on the street or on a roof, take some time to think about all these ostensibly hidden opportunities and maybe you’ll find nature in the most unexpected of places.