Reconciling Biodiversity Conservation and Urbanization in Tucson Neighborhoods

Empowering a Community to Save Money and Water While Creating Wildlife Habitat

With a second Innovation Grant from TogetherGreen in 2009, Tucson Audubon Society worked on two fronts. First, in the predominantly Latino Barrio Kroeger Lane, they installed more rain gardens in the front yards of homes, continuing work started with their first Innovation Grant. However, the main activity in 2009-10 was a cooperative effort along the rights of way of two streets. Streets in the neighborhood do not have sidewalks and any vegetation along them is largely emergent or weedy. These streets are important to the neighborhood because they are among the heaviest-traveled and now are part of a pedestrian/bicycle route that leads through the neighborhood from downtown Tucson. Beautification of these streets was a priority, as well as providing native vegetation for birds, reducing street flooding and non-point source pollution through rainwater harvesting, and educating the neighborhood about sustainable landscapes that reconcile urban neighborhoods with the needs of wildlife.

With additional funds obtained by the Ward 1 City Council Office, Tucson Audubon and the Tucson Department of Transportation drew up a plan for extensive rain gardens along the two streets—planted with native trees and shrubs—which collect stormwater off the streets via channels cut through the curbs (“curb cuts”). Tucson DOT contractors roughly scooped out the basin areas and did the curb cuts. Students working with the Sonoran Desert office of the Southwest Conservation Corps, which has a “learn and serve” grant to engage middle school student volunteers in service learning projects, provided the labor. During two four-week sessions, teams of middle school students worked on shaping and deepening the basins, armoring the sides with rock, planting the trees and shrubs, doing the initial irrigation and putting in mulch. This was an extremely useful collaboration and Tucson Audubon is looking for ways to continue to team with the Conservation Corps. Additional help came from neighborhood volunteers. The city’s budget includes irrigation of the trees planted until they are established.

Second, with the assistance of the organization Environmental Education Exchange, Tucson Audubon worked with two schools to integrate similarly educational and hands-on environmental work into their curriculum. The first school, Project M.O.R.E., mostly serves Hispanic and African-American students from low-income backgrounds. Their environmental science class includes many practical applications and hands-on activities. With help from Environmental Education Exchange, Tucson Audubon worked with the teachers to craft a program that fit into their class. They presented in class, led field trips, and helped students design and build a rain garden next to the entrance to the school. Class members took a major role in building the rain garden, and since then they have built a second one.

At Alice Vail Middle School, Tucson Audubon organized an “in-service” for sixth grade teachers. The in-service day, which lasted from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on a Saturday, started with a presentation that covered birds of concern in Tucson, habitat needs of the birds, native plants, principles for sustainable landscaping and particularly rainwater harvesting. They also provided a very large packet of related materials developed by Environmental Education Exchange that were fully integrated with sixth grade science curriculum. Then they spent most of the rest of the day building a rain garden on the school grounds. With participating teachers, they planted five species of native plants in the garden, with room for more to be researched and chosen later by students. They demonstrated several strategies for integrating on-site vegetation into sixth grade curriculum activities.

In the past, it has been a challenge for Tucson Audubon to engage young, minority, and low-income populations. Receiving two Innovation Grants really helped the group begin to overcome this challenge, starting a youth birding program, creating partnerships with residents of Barrio Kroeger Lane, and engaging many young people at Project M.O.R.E. and many more at Vail Middle School, via teachers that attended the inservice. Many additional minority and low-income youth were engaged through the partnership with the Southwest Conservation Corps Learn and Serve program.

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