Urban Wild

This article by April Alix first appeared in WildfloraRI, Spring 2022.

Throughout history, especially here in New England during the Industrial Revolution, cities popped up along waterways consolidating the population into a small area. City dwellers needed to get outdoors and enjoy nature, so public parks sprang up as havens for residents as well as urban wildlife.

Cindy Corsair, a U.S.Fish and Wildlife biologist, with students from the George J. West Elementary School, celebrating the first certified schoolyard habitat in Providence. Photo by Providence Urban Partnership.

Now, 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas. How can they develop a meaningful connection to nature? Here in Rhode Island, the Providence Urban Partnership was formed in 2013 as a collaborative between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Providence Parks Department, and the non-profit Partnership for Providence Parks. This Urban Partnership focuses on connecting children and their families to nature in the city using parks and green spaces as outdoor learning areas. It creates the opportunity for them to experience the local flora and fauna and to develop a sense of appreciation and respect for nature in their neighborhoods.

By understanding the importance of these urban ecosystems and their role as stewards within them, Providence residents learn to advocate for positive changes that benefit both people and natural habitats throughout the city. The revitalization of schoolyards in Providence has made nature accessible to Providence students for in-school and afterschool learning and exploration. Working with the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and the USFWS, two valuable resources have been created and are available online. They are the “Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide,” a step-by-step guide for designing and planting a schoolyard habitat, and the “Schoolyard Habitat Resource Guide for K-6 Educators,” which suggests programs for outdoor classrooms. Local schoolyards, including one at the George J. West Elementary School, are getting a ‘habitat make-over’ with the installation of native plants that attract a variety of wildlife. These schoolyard habitats allow students hands-on learning about local species and the importance of conservation, as well as bringing nature to the neighborhood.

Providence is also home to many community gardens, which include plantings along their borders accessible to the public. These include native plants, such as milkweed (Asclepias sp.) with seeds that fly off on bits of white fluff from unusual seed pods or small bayberry (Morella caroliniensis) with waxy seeds and leaves that are delightfully fragrant when crushed. There may be plants that attract birds and pollinators such as winterberry (Ilex verticillata), with bright red berries, and red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), a favorite of hummingbirds when it blooms in the spring. Students, like the second graders from Kizarian Elementary School, explore the plants surrounding the community garden at Father Lennon Park to find insects and other invertebrates, while learning about the interconnectedness of plants, animals, and humans within the urban ecosystem.

Creating healthy habitats in urban areas is critical, not just for the well-being of both human and wild residents, but also for the migrating species that use city greenspaces as stop-over points during their long journeys. Providence is one of 30 Urban Bird Treaty Cities, designated by the USFWS Migratory Bird Program. A Treaty City is committed to restoring, enhancing, and protecting habitats for birds while engaging communities in the effort. The Providence Parks Department’s landscape architects incorporate bird habitat enhancement in their plans. Station Park, for instance, at the entrance to the downtown Amtrak Station, has been planted with native species that provide habitat, including food for migrating birds. Signs explaining the importance of these natural spaces, and how to help are posted in the park.

Whether you live in Providence or are a visitor, plan to spend time this summer exploring some of the 120 parks throughout the city. Riverside Park, besides having a robust community garden, is home to a fish ladder that helps fish migrate upstream through the Woonasquatucket River. The Roger Williams Park Edible Forest Garden is a habitat-rich, food-producing space modeled after a woodland ecosystem. Neutaconkanut Hill features hiking trails through 88 acres of woods, fields and wildflower meadows. At Davis Park, pollinators thrive in the gardens across from the playground. (Learn more about parks in Providence )