Going north through Philadelphia, railroads and rivers act as man-made and natural neighborhood boundaries. Nestled between the Schuylkill River to the west, Lehigh Avenue to the north, and elevated train tracks to the east and south, is Strawberry Mansion, a 2-square-mile neighborhood adjacent to East Fairmount Park—and soon, the Discovery Center. The center, placed on the southern shore of the 129-year-old East Park Reservoir, is a joint project with the Strawberry Mansion community, National Audubon Society, Audubon Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia Outward Bound School. When it opens in late September, the center will be an educational destination with programs, classrooms, interactive exhibits, indoor and outdoor learning opportunities—and a haven for birds that stopover in the reservoir during their migrations. The 37-acre body of water, Philadelphia’s largest man-made lake, will be rechristened Strawberry Mansion Reservoir. Since the beginning, Audubon Pennsylvania and its partner Outward Bound have sought to work collaboratively with Strawberry Mansion residents and community leaders to ensure that the space serves its immediate neighbors, and is an educational and environmental asset for the entire region.    

Strawberry Mansion Reservoir. Photo: Dominic Arenas/Audubon

Keith Russell, Urban Conservation Program Manager at Audubon Pennsylvania, and one of the pioneers for the Discovery Center says that the center will create programming that will meet the needs of the Strawberry Mansion community. “One of the reasons Audubon Pennsylvania decided to build The Discovery Center in Strawberry Mansion is because it is a community that does not have many amenities for local residents,” Russell says. “Strawberry Mansion has a large population with many needs.”

The Discovery Center and the surrounding land and water provide stopover habitat to well over 100 species of migratory birds, and residency for all manner of species from songbirds to waterfowl and raptors. But for Audubon, the main purpose of The Discovery Center will be to introduce neighbors and residents from across the region to local conservation issues and to plant and animal species they may not have the opportunity to see elsewhere. It will also provide neighborhood residents with a beautiful new space to organize, gather, and host events. From The Discovery Center, some of the programs that Audubon will offer include bird walks and workshops on native-plant gardening while Outward Bound will offer leadership-oriented activities such as rock climbing and ropes courses for organized teams and school groups. It is within walking distance for the thousands of people that live in Strawberry Mansion and nearby Brewerytown and easily accessible by public transportation.

In addition to working on conservation issues, such as bird-window collisions and how native plants support other native species, making The Discovery Center a reality has been a main priority for Russell. Even with his constant involvement with the project over the years, Russell says he cannot believe that The Discovery Center will be finally opening.

Students from the Strawberry Mansion Learning Center and their chaperones pose with binoculars after an afternoon bird watching program at the Discovery Center. Photo: Dominic Arenas/Audubon

“After having worked on the project for over a decade, I am looking forward to The Discovery Center opening and the neighborhood finally being able to benefit from having this brand-new facility,” Russell says. “There are other environmental education centers in and around Philadelphia but almost all are located much farther from actual neighborhoods than the Discovery Center. Because of the close proximity of the center to these neighborhoods we will have an opportunity to serve the needs of our neighbors in unique ways.”

“There’s a lot of history here,” says Izelliah Nelson, a fellow with the Alliance for Watershed Education who is working on outreach into the Strawberry Mansion community in partnership with Audubon Pennsylvania. “A lot of residents in the Strawberry Mansion area were attached to the reservoir, prior to it being decommissioned and fenced up.” But, she adds, now that the reservoir is being reopened for public and educational purposes, the Discovery Center and the surrounding habitat will help provide opportunities that the community needs and be a place where people from every walk of life can educate themselves on environmental conservation.

“We’re thrilled to be partnering with Philadelphia Outward Bound School to bring The Discovery Center to Strawberry Mansion and the nearby communities. Through this joint venture, we’re able to offer unique and collaborative opportunities for neighbors to experience the natural world in their own backyard,” says Jean Bochnowski, Deputy Director of Operations and Centers at The Discovery Center and John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove.

The Discovery Center will officially open to the public with the inaugural Discovery Day on September 29, which will bring local community members together with center staff for a day of celebration and activities. “Neighbors from across the street and friends from across the Philadelphia area will have the chance to see and reconnect with one of the most uniquely beautiful places in the city,” says Greg Goldman, Vice President and Executive Director of Audubon Pennsylvania. “Many for the first time in nearly 50 years, and many others for the first time ever.”

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