22 May
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Stepping Stones of Engagement: Fish and Wildlife brings nature into the city

Photo courtesy USFW

Photo courtesy USFW


The sight of a US Fish and Wildlife (USFW) car passing through Olneyville in Providence might seem a bit incongruous. The hilly streets are lined with tenement apartments, some with boards on their windows. The line of homes is occasionally broken up by bodegas with names like El Canto and Tortilleria. Just off the main drag, kids from the William D’Abate Elementary School are about to be dismissed for the day. Apart from weeds growing through cracks in the sidewalks, there seems little sign of either fish or wildlife.

Just a few streets over, however, there is an entirely different scene. Riverside Park is a green oasis, featuring an interpretive garden, playground, bike path, canoe launch, and a fish ladder to allow fish migration. It is within walking distance of the elementary school, and has become the hub of science projects, gardening, and other outdoor activities rarely thought of in an urban environment. The park is the result of partnerships with the several organizations, including the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, the Providence Parks Department, and others. Janis Nephshinski, Visitor Services Manager for USFW, says a blend of the work of the Service, the work of the state, and the work of the local NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) has helped local children learn about things like the fish ladder. “It’s something they came down here and saw every day and never even thought about its importance. Once you reach the children, the children reach their parents, so the children can say ‘look at what this ladder is doing!’ They will notice the birds in the canopy, and realize that there are so many ways to observe nature that they never knew about before.” These and other efforts have been designated as the Providence Parks Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership.

The Partnership is a kind of clearing house of resources for dozens of locations within the Parks Department. While RI USFW may not have the staff to directly care for all these green areas, coordinating the Partnership means that a wider assortment of needs can be met by a whole host of environmental and educational organizations. USFW hosted a recent visit from Jim Kurth, Deputy Director of USFW, who came to celebrate and see first-hand what the organization has been up to. Begun in 2014, the Partnership was one of only eight programs nationwide to be established. “With 80% of Americans living in cities, the initiative aims to meet children and families where they live and work (as well as) nurture an appreciation of wildlife conservation,” according to USFW. With 26 neighborhoods containing properties owned by the Providence Parks Department, most within walking distance from schools or public transportation, these “green” areas provide residents with a chance to care for and enjoy a bit of nature.

Photo courtesy USFW.

Photo courtesy USFW.

Since its inception in 2014, the Rhode Island site has been successful enough to become a training model for other states, and gets calls from around the country asking how states can establish similar partnerships. With nearly two dozen organizations contributing time, money, and staff, the Partnership became a kind of talent pool. One location might be interested in restoring native vegetation; Rhody Native steps in to assist. Another might have a lack of summer programming for neighborhood kids; Audubon steps in to use the location for one of their summer camps. The recent addition of April Alix, partnership director, has been a boon to the organization. “She’s able to say, ‘I know your needs, and I know how to fill them,’” says Nephshinski. “As we say in Rhode Island, ‘I got a guy!’”

USFW has worked with the Providence School Department and Roger Williams Park Zoo to revitalize a teachers’ institute, which gives teachers resources and ideas for teaching about nature in their classrooms. One of the guiding principles in the work revolves around the idea of “stepping stones of engagement” to connect people with nature. The teacher’s institute was key in creating some of those stepping stones. “The kids can first learn in their classroom, then go to their neighborhood parks, and they do that monthly with institute trained teachers. Later, they can get free bus transportation to come to (Charlestown’s) Ninigret refuge. We got ten schools from Providence who were able to visit Ninigret that would not ordinarily have been able to come.”

In another part of the city, an affordable housing complex encircles a small park. It is midafternoon on a mild day, and a few people pass through the area, which sits at the base of a small hill. “This was just an unused green space,” Nephshinski says. Thanks to the Partnership, the park will be used for a variety of purposes: ground has been broken for a pollinator garden; several platforms have been built into the hillside to provide a stage for outdoor performances. There is a small office building on site, and the walls are painted with murals of gigantic insects and animals.

“We will have summer programs to get the kids and adults outdoors. We’ll be planting more shrubs and trees with people from the neighborhood in order to encourage a greater sense of ownership by the community,” says Nephshinsky. “The area is starting to be used again.”

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