Nearly 90 percent of Connecticut’s population—around 3 million people—reside in urban areas away from natural green spaces, and are usually deprived of the opportunity to connect, engage, and learn from nature.
To bridge that gap, Audubon Connecticut staff, along with several partners, have launched a project that pairs state-of-the-art mapping technology with community-based habitat restoration. The project, dubbed Urban Oases, crunches numbers on land use and population density in neighborhoods to identify the communities that are in critical need of green spaces, while also addressing the needs of restoring high quality habitats for migratory songbirds in densely developed territories.
Once areas with the most potential are identified, residents of these areas and local schools help to transform the parks, vacant lots, backyards, and schoolyards into bird-friendly habitats so that both birds and birders can enjoy. “People want to see these areas within a walking distance—so it’s our goal to increase access to them,” said Katherine Blake, the Bird-Friendly Communities coordinator for Audubon Connecticut.
Students of all ages also play a big role in the program. The Schoolyard Habitat program, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is one of the many layers of the Urban Oases program. It began about four years ago with the goal of closing the high science achievement gap in Connecticut schools—a state with the largest achievement gap in the nation. In 2015, an estimated 60 teachers were trained to use the schoolyard habitats as outdoor classrooms and engage children and nature.
During the program, the students learn to be aware of their own habits and how to make them greener, including turning off water while brushing teeth, recycling, walking, or riding a bike to school. And with the help of teachers and school administrators, the students do a lot of the habitat restoration and plant native plants, which typically require little maintenance and provide nourishing seeds for birds and other wildlife—an ideal way to attract native pollinators, insects and birds.
Of the 16 participating schools, 13 are in underserved communities in Fairfield County and New Haven, and lacking in easily accessible green spaces. Using their new schoolyard habitats and outdoor classroom, students hone their critical thinking skills and understanding of technology, gaining skills that help them in all academic subject areas in their overall performance, says Francesca Williams, the Schoolyard Habitat Curriculum & Evaluation Consultant.
So far, there are 12 urban oases scattered in parks throughout Connecticut, and a further 16 schools with certified schoolyard bird-friendly habitats. With the success of the program in Stamford, New Haven, Greenwich and Norwalk, the Urban Oases and Schoolyard Habitat programs plan to expand to new communities and schools across the state.