Though the Penn Branch community in Washington, D.C., is surrounded by federal parkland, it's far from being an idyllic urban green space. Over the years, many of the government-owned parcels were abandoned to weeds and trash, and had become heavily eroded. When Alberta Paul moved into the Penn Branch community 20 years ago, "We called these vacant plots of land paper alleys," says Alberta. "They were too small for the government to care about, but too large for people to care for as individuals. They made the whole neighborhood feel run down," she says. Alberta decided to take matters into her own hands. Being a lifelong gardener, she could imagine the benefits gardens would have on the community. "I've always been a community activist, so I decided to use my gardening hobby as a tool to help rebuild the Penn Branch neighborhood," she says.
Alberta began by establishing a nonprofit Public Works Committee to spearhead the work. She recruited 24 block captains from around the neighborhood and the committee set about inventorying the vacant lands. "Of course, we wanted to make the neighborhood more attractive by cleaning up the vacant plots, but in the process, I also wanted to reduce storm water runoff and soil erosion into our streams," she says.
The largest abandoned parcel was the 1.5-acre Gateway Park that sits at the entrance to the Penn Branch community. Alberta recruited volunteers to clean up and help replant the park, which now thrives as a gathering place for neighbors, a play space for kids and a location for workshops and community activities and festivals. In 2002, Alberta applied for and received a National 911 Memorial Garden award to further beautify the park and create a memorial rose garden honoring the victims of September 11th.
Alberta has learned a lot about community greening since the early days. "The biggest lesson I've learned is not to over-plant a park beyond the volunteer resources you have to care for it," says Alberta. She has also become savvy about plant selection. "I like to plant native and low maintenance varieties," she says. For example, she planted the easy-to-care-for 'Knockout' landscape rose in the memorial rose garden.
As Alberta's group started working on the Gateway Park project, she realized that, in order for these changes to have a lasting effect on the community, she needed to involve kids. With a USDA grant, Alberta created a life science and environmental education course for 10 local elementary and middle schools. More than 2,500 students completed the course and learned about pollution prevention, recycling and the important role plants play in a healthy environment. Each school created a large flower garden as well a rain garden to get hands-on experience related to the topics they were covering in the course. Alberta lead the program for six years, and today the life science program and gardens are still used in the schools to teach environmental values to the kids.
As the school gardens thrived, so did the community. Local residents took notice, and Alberta started seeing a change in the neighborhood. "People started cleaning up their own yards and planting flowers and shrubs," she says. They even started planting garden in public lands around the neighborhood. The whole community started to look better. "Neighbors started sharing tools, ideas and gardens. The result was a renewed sense of community pride," says Alberta.
Alberta's latest project is to plant more trees throughout the Penn Branch community. Working with the Casey Tree Foundation and the National Park Service, volunteers are planting trees on government land and in private backyards across the neighborhood. At first she was using only native trees, but because some of the soil conditions aren't conducive to the natives, she's also planting non-natives such as willows and cherries in some locations. "So far we've planted almost 500 trees, and have landscaped around 30 private homes and three acres of additional parkland. It's already having a significant impact by mitigating stormwater run-off and erosion," says Alberta.
Alberta recruits volunteers from civic groups such as Keep Washington Beautiful, University of the District of Columbia Agricultural Experiment Station, Sierra Club, local high schools and local court diversion programs to partner and plant. "After six years of planting trees, we feel like the erosion and stormwater runoff problem in Penn Branch is under control," says Alberta. "Now other communities around the city are coming to us to see what we did," she says. Penn Branch is serving as a model of what community volunteers can do to clean up their neighborhoods, prevent pollution and rekindle a sense of pride in their homes. "The key was staying small and focusing on just one particular community and what we could do well. Being a gardener, I just love flowers and trees and I want this community to be filled with beauty for all of us to enjoy," she says.
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