On the way to wonderful…

By Maryann Helferty

Front of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center

Front of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center

During a summer drive along a busy commercial corridor in Philadelphia’s historic Overbrook section, I was transfixed by a vibrant mural lining the cinder block wall of a former cable manufacturing plant. The wall had been painted to show bees and flowers emerging over the cityscape just as the property’s new occupant, the Overbrook Environmental Education Center, has grown into a community asset from a former brownfields site.

Interpretive signs explained how stormwater systems in older cities are often routed in tandem with the sanitary sewer.  During heavy rainfall, raw sewage can be discharged into waterways, causing a health concern.   At this site, however, stormwater is managed with bio-retention basins, swales, green roof systems and pervious pavement.  These techniques allow an amazing 90 percent of rainwater to be harvested on the 45,000 square foot site.  Developers and contractors frequently visit to see these innovations in action.

The Center director, Mr. Jerome Shabazz, shared his vision for community-based urban outreach centers.  “We create a third place beyond home and work, where everyone can meet and feel welcome.”   How does creation like this happen?  First, one listens to the home-owners and businesses to understand what strengths make Overbrook stable and connected.  Then educational offerings build from the needs expressed by the community.

Overbrook Environmental Arts Orchard Planting

Overbrook Environmental Arts Orchard Planting

Today, like the bees on its mural, the former brownfields site hums with energy, offering environmental education initiatives, as well as nutrition, fitness, and literacy.   Rising over the parking lot was the Penn State Extension High Tunnel Greenhouse; children are climbing a gym set under the trees; and a vibrant tile mosaic shows the creativity of residents from a Summer Youth project who designed the entrance that says:  “On the way to wonderful find a place called alright.”

What are the strengths that make your neighborhood an alright place to be?  How do you work in your community to make it wonderful?  I’d love to hear from you.

About the Author: Maryann Helferty is a water quality scientist with the Mid-Atlantic Regional office of the EPA.  She has worked on groundwater and watershed protection in both the rural Pacific Northwest and the urban corridors of the Atlantic.  One of her passions is teaching urban youth about water through the poetry curriculum: River of Words.

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