Discovery Center Makes Wildlife Sanctuary in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park Accessible to the Community

Pew grantee, marking first anniversary, has expanded environmental education and outdoor experiential learning in the city

Discovery Center
Philly
Since The Discovery Center opened one year ago, people from Philadelphia and beyond have regained access to a natural area in East Fairmount Park.
Halkin Mason Photography/DIGSAU/The Discovery Center

Since opening its doors Sept. 28, 2018, The Discovery Center in Philadelphia’s East Fairmount Park has welcomed thousands of visitors to its mix of natural surroundings and classroom space. The center has restored access to an important wildlife area within the city and created opportunities for Philadelphians to explore the environment, learn about conservation efforts, develop leadership skills, and participate in outdoor and experiential learning programs.

In September 2017, The Pew Charitable Trusts awarded funding to help construct the new base of operations for the Philadelphia Outward Bound School and the first local home for Audubon Pennsylvania. The site had been an abandoned reservoir adjacent to the city’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, not far from the Schuylkill River.

The former freshwater storage facility had become a sanctuary and stopover for more than 200 species of migrating birds since it closed in 1972 and proved to be an ideal fit for the two nonprofits’ plan to create their joint venture. Establishing The Discovery Center would save and sustain an important part of Philadelphia’s natural environment while expanding both organizations’ programs to serve wider audiences.

One year in, school and community groups and people of all ages are making use of the 50-acre site, which offers walking trails, a bird-watching tower, an aerial teams challenge course, canoeing, and a 14,000-square-foot building with classrooms, exhibition space, activity areas, and a 36-foot indoor rock-climbing wall. Public programs range from gardening workshops, birding walks, senior dance classes, and nature yoga to interactive “Discovery Days” with games, arts and crafts, and live bird presentations.

Community groups host meetings at the center, which features a bird-friendly design: The building’s glass windows are etched with translucent lines and dots so that flying birds can see them, and the cedar facade has embedded boxes for nesting.  

“Our goal was to create a new, expanded base camp for the experiential education programs that we provide for local audiences, especially for youth attending public schools in Philadelphia, and, through our partnership with Audubon, to help protect and preserve an important natural habitat,” said Meg Wise, executive director of the Philadelphia Outward Bound School. “As a public space, the center is designed for everyone to learn and develop new skills. It is a place to have fun and to connect with other people. We are committed to being an engaged and responsive steward for the site.” 

Tonnetta Graham, president of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corp., the organization that represents the center's neighbors, sees opportunities for those who live nearby.

“The Discovery Center has helped Strawberry Mansion residents rediscover our connection to a treasured space in Fairmount Park," she said. "Many neighborhood residents have already enjoyed participating in activities like yoga, line dancing, bird-watching, zip lining, and simply gazing at the spectacular view. They’ve been able to host meetings that have engaged community members of all generations. We view the park as our back yard, so we have appreciated learning more ways to enhance, preserve, and activate its natural resources.”

Looking to the future, Greg Goldman, executive director of Audubon Pennsylvania, said: “This has been an incredible first year. We’ve been able to offer more access to nature and wildlife along with hands-on experiential education programs to more Philadelphians than ever before, and we’re looking forward to all the possibilities that lie ahead.”

For more information about The Discovery Center and its programs, visit discoveryphila.org.

Frazierita Klasen is a vice president overseeing Pew’s work in Philadelphia.

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