AlexRenew joins community partners in creating an Urban Wildlife Habitat

Date: 
5/31/2016

AlexRenew’s campus has been a haven for nature, with visitors like turtles, foxes, ducks, field mice, and even a bald eagle. CEO Karen Pallansch recalls a groundhog that was notorious for eating the employee vegetable garden. “The groundhog was so fat that his legs stuck out at his sides, and I’m sure he moved by rolling along on his belly,” Pallansch said.  

With expansions of our water transformation infrastructure and Alexandria neighborhoods becoming denser, AlexRenew wanted to preserve some of Alexandria’s natural surroundings. So on May 18, the AlexRenew team alongside community volunteers planted an Urban Wildlife Habitat on our campus.

“The project we worked on and the people we worked with were a blast,” said Bob Landsman an Arlington Regional Master Naturalist who helped coordinate volunteers with the Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners, and Audubon at Home. “Planting 900 plants in this huge area just feet from AlexRenew’s treatment facilities was excellent. We need more projects like this.”

The planting, one of the largest native plant restoration projects in Alexandria, was the culmination of months of planning by AlexRenew and its community partners. The team included the Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners, and Audubon at Home as well as Native Plant Landscape Design and Earth Sangha. Interests aligned between AlexRenew and these groups in planting a garden that would not only restore wildlife habitat to the landscape but could also serve as an environmental outreach opportunity.

“On paper there were a lot of impediments to this project,” said Matt Bright with Earth Sangha. “It’s a real testament to how much people cared that it not only happened but that the result is so good.”

The goal was to recreate high-quality habitat, and this was accomplished using all native plants that were locally propagated. The plant selection reflects Alexandria’s floral heritage and even brings back some natives that have been lost. “This area of Virginia has some of the world’s most diverse plant communities,” Lisa Bright said.

The plant selection was founded on years of experience shared between Rod Simmons — a plant ecologist with the City of Alexandria who is the authority on local native plants — and Earth Sangha — a nonprofit that promotes conservation by propagating native plants directly from local forests and meadows. By working in the field, these experts know how plants grow together and how animals interact with the plants in the wild. This is key to the overall success of the Urban Wildlife Habitat.

For example, grasses are usually not at the top a gardener’s list when planting for visual impact or attracting pollinators, Matt Bright said. “But they play an important structural role in creating useful habitat.”

While it is part restoration effort, the project is also part garden. “My hope is that the Urban Wildlife Habitat will be self-sustaining and provide food and shelter for wildlife — small mammals, birds, caterpillars, and butterflies — and at the same time it will be a source of pleasure for those who visit,” said project designer Elisa Meara with Native Plant Landscape Design.

Meara organized the plants and created a curving grass pathway through the Urban Wildlife Habitat in a way that “lets people interact with and enjoy the different plants and their colors throughout the seasons,” she said. Numerous studies show that interaction with nature helps to reduce stress and promotes wellness.

The aesthetic of the space will also help to set an example of how native plants can be both beautiful and functional. “We want to gain more public support and understanding of native plants,” Landsman said. “We’d love for visitors to look at these native plants and want one for their own yard,”

Native plants are beneficial for the environment not only because of the wildlife advantages but also because they do not require irrigation after establishment. Also, they do not need fertilizer or pesticides, which can harm beneficial native bugs and pollinators that actually help a garden thrive.  

When designing the Urban Wildlife Habitat, Meara drew inspiration from bold shapes of Brazilian painter and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx and from the plantings of New York City’s High Line — a park built on an elevated freight rail line above Manhattan’s West Side. “The High Line is such a wonderful public space that has inspired so many people even in such an industrial environment,” Meara said.  

Like the High Line, the hope is that the garden will transform a portion of AlexRenew’s 33-acre campus. “The Urban Wildlife Habitat beautifies our campus and it will be a great place for our team and visitors to enjoy and learn from,” Pallansch said. “We look forward to seeing how the garden changes as the plants grow and spread in the years to come.”