By Sharon Gibbons
A recent dedication ceremony on the Richmond Greenway honored the advocacy of Lillie Mae Jones, for her community vision that made possible the transformative park we enjoy today. About twenty years ago, Lillie Mae Jones, a longtime Richmond resident and community activist, had the idea of converting an old disused Santa Fe railway line into a park. Despite critics and naysayers, she persisted with her dream of transforming a gritty area of urban blight into a green and healthy place for families to walk, bike, play, and garden. She kept prompting the local community leaders, and over time, the railroad ties were replaced by an asphalt pathway, a community organization called “The Friends of the Richmond Greenway,” or “FORG” was formed, and local community groups, including The Watershed Project, committed to designing and implementing projects on designated spots on the Greenway. In 2011, The Greenway was adopted as a City of Richmond park and more recently, major construction by local firms, has started, creating public spaces and helping the various FORG groups realize their designs.
The Watershed Project has played a special role on the Greenway, which is part of the “Iron Triangle,” the neighborhood where the Greenway forms a triangle with two other railway lines. As a disadvantaged community with high crime, poverty, and urban blight, the Iron Triangle also faces regular flooding of the low-lying streets in this area from winter storm water runoff and blocked stormwater drains, clogged with trash. Since 2010, The Watershed Project has implemented rain gardens at the end of flooding streets and connected them with bioswales, both along the Greenway, using the long, narrow dimensions of the Greenway to good effect. To date, TWP has constructed five rain gardens and three swales, with more projects underway. With the help of our Green Collar Corps, our job-training program for local high school graduates, students, and volunteers, TWP has transformed weedy, trash-choked sites into healthy native gardens. The rain gardens collect and filter polluted storm water and the runoff is then directed into the connected bioswales, which allows the water to be filtered and absorbed as it replenishes groundwater while keeping pollutants out of the Bay. The rain gardens and bioswales are planted with native drought-tolerant plants designed to be low-maintenance and pesticide-free, while providing beautiful native habitat for wildlife. The extended bloom period of native flowering plants attracts pollinators, while the many trees and shrubs provide shelter and food for birds and animals. The spaces invite residents to walk, bike, and enjoy being outdoors.
The Watershed Project’s network of rain gardens and bioswales have provided an outdoor classroom setting for local school groups and service clubs, and is a model of community-building, as volunteers help plant and maintain the gardens and swales. This year, we’ve hosted several school groups, such as a civil engineering class from Richmond High School and the Community Leadership Institute summer camp from the Leadership School, located in the Iron Triangle. An estimated 120 students from local schools and service clubs have participated this fiscal year in service-learning on the Greenway, helping to weed, plant, and mulch, while learning about environmental justice. After their experience on the Greenway, Leadership School students wrote:
“Overall, this was a life changing experience (with The Watershed Project) because we hadn’t cleaned up the streets before which opened our eyes to see how much we could help the environment. Cleaning up the streets was our way to give back to the planet after all the planet and environment has done for us. We plan to continue making the change by volunteering to local environmental organizations (such as The Watershed Project). Some easy actions we can take as individuals is to help plant trees and plants in our local parks, gardens, recycle, pick out weeds and pick up trash such as plastic and pet waste to keep our parks in good conditions for the community to enjoy.”
The Watershed Project supports the right for Richmond residents to have healthy, green spaces in their city where they can enjoy the outdoors. There is growing awareness that proximity of nature in urban spaces increases residents’ health, in addition to the benefits of the gardens and swales filtering pollutants. Many students who participate in our service learning activities on the Greenway rarely get outside. Through our program, we encourage getting outdoors, working for change in their community, and community leadership through becoming watershed stewards.
We also promote community volunteerism, hosting our monthly Second Saturday on the Greenway and participating in community events, such as Martin Luther King Day of Service, to invite people to come learn about and help us plant and maintain the Greenway. We’ve hosted more than 200 volunteers this fiscal year and have cooperated with other FORG members to implement Greenway projects. In all of our outreach and projects, we seek to strengthen community ties and efforts to make Richmond a healthier and more beautiful city.