An Industrial Brownfield In Ohio Gets a Makeover Fit for Birds

An Industrial Brownfield In Ohio Gets a Makeover Fit for Birds

Columbus, Ohio, isn't exactly known as a birding mecca. But an Audubon Center, located a mere mile from downtown, is attracting avian species galore--and people, too. 

By Greg Breining
Published: 11/16/2012

Urban based his pitch to potential donors on several "compelling reasons." A green-design center would showcase ways we can live lighter on the planet. A natural area so close to downtown would demonstrate that nature and development can go hand in hand. Finally, exposure to nature has been shown to be useful in improving early science education in disadvantaged schools. "Frankly if you drive through these neighborhoods, there isn't a whole lot of nature," says Urban. "So one compelling reason is the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty through early-age hands-on science-nature experiences."

Corporate and individual patrons were clearly convinced. Urban and other center promoters have raised $14.5 million, more than enough to build the center and begin operation.

There was never a question that the new center would incorporate green-building techniques, says Starck. A chief concern was the building's location on the banks of a major tributary of the Ohio River. Because polluted urban runoff is a widespread problem, Audubon told its architect, DesignGroup of Columbus, not only to manage drainage from the property but also to show visitors how it could be done. The process starts with a roof that is green--figuratively and literally, planted with natives, including phlox and sedum, which suck up and transpire rainfall. What isn't absorbed runs down chains or cutaway downspouts so visitors can see it flow into a system of drains and rain gardens positioned around the property. Porous sidewalks and parking pads allow rainfall to soak into the soil.

To cut the carbon footprint of heating and cooling, designers opted for geothermal heat pumps. A closed-loop system of 27 wells reaching 300 feet deep provides 55-degree water to cool the building in summer and help warm it in winter. The system will save the center an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 a year on heating and cooling costs.

Large banks of south-facing windows provide passive solar heat but also raised concerns about bird strikes. Bird patterns embedded in the glass, known as fritting, break up the reflective surface. A crazy-quilt of window-frame dimensions also ward off avian collisions. "It's working," says Starck. "We've had a couple of strikes and it's always been someplace that doesn't have anything on it."

In front of the center stands an 800-pound bronze sculpture of a passenger pigeon, one of several figures crafted by artist Todd McGrain for his Lost Bird Project (for more on the project, click here). It's a reminder that the last known wild pigeon and last captive both died in Ohio. 


Outside, Starck and Doreen Whitley, the center's former conservation director, have contributed to a plan for the grounds, and a basis for collaborating with Metro Parks on resource management of the surrounding park. They're reducing invasive exotics, especially plants, increasing the width and natural composition of the natural river corridor from understory to canopy, and planting and nurturing the artificial wetlands that were dug on the park property to catch runoff (from the residential-commercial development plans the were later abandoned).

They're measuring their success by gauging the response of birds, especially neotropical migrants such as flycatchers and warblers, to the changing setting. "It's not rocket science," says Whitley. But it is labor-intensive, and that's where Audubon's conservation and community goals coincide, as students learn by gathering and recording information.

Within five miles of the new Grange center are 53 schools where more than 80 percent of the students are economically "disadvantaged," notes Christie Vargo, the center's director. There's a huge need for science education, she adds. At Livingston Elementary, for instance, only eight percent of fourth graders passed the state standardized science test in 2009. Grange staff worked with the principal to develop a hands-on curriculum for the students during visits to the center, and 48 percent of fourth graders passed the exam in 2010. The Center is contracting with schools, providing students with multi-hour fieldtrips, says Vargo. "Our focus is really working very intensely with the students. It's not one-shot field trips, but a program that really makes a difference."

Center staffers wanted to design projects that would help kids learn while doing real work for the center. One school said students needed to learn to use dichotomous keys to identify species. Whitley wanted to identify trees along transects in a small patch of forest. So she assigned students to tally them and then do the math to determine species composition of the tract.

In another case, volunteers and staff eradicated bush honeysuckle from the area dubbed Area 51 for its frequency of invasive aliens. The dense, arching honeysuckle shaded out native species and formed getaway tunnels for local delinquents running from police. Whitley recruited students to replant the area with native spicebush, dogwood, sumac, viburnum, witch hazel, and elderberry. "The idea was to pack in as much as possible."

To determine how successful the planting had been, she enlisted eight students from an alternative charter school "to map the hell out of it." They came out several times a week to locate every new plant by GPS coordinate and note its health. Whitley got her data and students learned about mapping technology. In fact, one student landed a summer job with a software company based on his experience.

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Congratulations . It was

Congratulations . It was wonderful to read about this project.

Blue Heron

Saw a blue heron behind Whetstone H.S. 2 days ago. Didn't know they stayed in Ohio this long.

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