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Green Design: Audubon Center
Making the Grade
A decade ago few could have envisioned that a wretched riverside dump in Dallas would be transformed into a natural oasis and the centerpiece of a pioneering experiment in education.

 

The March morning dawns wet and chilly, a fine mist shrouding the treetops ringing the gray-green waters of Trailhead Pond. From the upper reaches of a spindly young sapling, a male house finch sings, and cattails bend under the weight of silvery dew. Suddenly a speck of white stirs in a massive elm’s topmost branches, and a long yellow beak emerges. With gentle grace, a great egret takes flight, rising in a broad arc over the pond, his pure white body silhouetted against the backdrop of a slate-colored sky, and wheels south to find his breakfast on the Trinity River in Dallas, Texas.

On the pond’s other side rises the Trinity River Audubon Center’s long, low building, where Ben Jones—tall, broad-shouldered, dressed in khakis and a short-sleeved polo shirt emblazoned, appropriately, with Audubon’s great egret logo—towers over a roomful of chattering fifth graders. As if to properly look his part as the center’s education director, Jones wears glasses and has a pencil stuck behind one ear.

“Hawks!” he calls out in a commanding baritone, surveying the room. “Where are my Hawks?” Several hands shoot up from a huddle of girls near the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on the pond. “You’re going with Dr. J,” Jones says, ushering the Hawks over to Jeanette Boylan, the center’s raingear-clad, binoculars-toting citizen science manager and resident ornithologist.

“Bullfrogs!” Jones continues, assigning a leader to another group. The Skunks will go with Zeshan “Zee” Segal, one of the center’s education managers, and the Coyotes with Jones. Each cluster will explore one aspect of the center through a different educational activity: hiking the property's four miles of trails, testing pond water in the lab, exploring the exhibit hall. Jones leads his Coyotes, 15 kids from a local Montessori school dressed in skinny jeans, skater shoes, and hooded sweatshirts, out to the deck overlooking the reclaimed ponds and forests. “Look at this view!” Jones exclaims, as much to himself as to the kids, who are already doodling in their little green field notebooks. “Unbelievable.”
It really is hard to imagine that this place, with its towering trees, its swimming coots and chirping phoebes, is just a quick, eight-minute drive from downtown Dallas. Or that it’s only 150 yards from the Trinity River, which drains most of northeast Texas and delivers its waters in 715 meandering miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

For decades the land where the Trinity River Audubon Center now sits was used as an illegal dump site for construction waste and household trash—a reflection of the rampant poverty and neglect that characterized Dallas’s southern sector and the Trinity River itself. Then, in 1998, city residents approved a $246 million bond program aimed at revitalizing the river and its surrounding lands. Along with money for levee improvements, new bridges, and a plan to manage the Great Trinity Forest—at 6,000 acres, North America’s largest urban bottomland hardwood forest—the bond package included about $22 million for an equestrian park and an interpretive center that would ultimately become the Trinity River Audubon Center. The center, among the first of the bond initiatives Dallas has completed, is now a beacon of progressive environmental education in an underserved neighborhood. Teachers and students alike are beginning to notice the natural and instructive resources around them—and that’s translating into higher test scores, better listening skills and, according to fifth-grade teacher Bridget Williams, a whole lot of enthusiasm.

 

Mere blocks from the soaring windowpanes and winding boardwalks of the Audubon center, on a street with numerous abandoned properties and overgrown yards, sits Rufus C. Burleson Elementary, an outpost in Dallas’s notoriously underperforming public school system. Test scores for the bulk of the students—more than 98 percent of whom get free or reduced-rate meals—fall significantly below state averages. Williams, an ebullient, round-faced young woman with soft brown eyes and a wide smile, has been teaching gifted and talented students here for six years. Lately her focus has been science, an area in which fewer than half of Burleson’s fifth graders met the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) standards in 2008.

After those test scores came out, Williams realized she had to rethink the way her school teaches science, and last fall she started working with Jones and the Trinity River Audubon Center to make her science curriculum more participatory. “Everything just can’t be done inside the classroom,” Williams says now. At the Audubon center, she explains, her students “gain a lot of knowledge about habitats, ecology, the birds just by going. It’s like real life to them,” she adds, “not just hearing it from the teachers.” The fact that the center sits just blocks away from where her students study and play is, in Williams’s view, an act of “pure genius.”

This past year Williams taught Soundscape Science, an innovative eight-week curriculum developed by Audubon Texas to help students understand and describe their world through listening, to a group of 25 fifth graders. During a series of field trips, students walked around with digital recorders (on loan from Audubon, just like the laptops they would later use to remix the sounds) and taped whatever they heard—cars in the street, kids during recess, birds at the Audubon center. At the end of the program, groups worked together to create remixed audio projects—the part of the program fifth grader Ebonie Coleman says was the most fun. Besides learning to tell the difference between the sound of a finch and a Cadillac, and what that says about the health and character of an ecosystem, Williams says her students learned to really listen—in class, to her, and even to one another. Through their lab work at the center and in class, they also learned to approach problems analytically, by using the scientific method to hypothesize, gather empirical evidence, and work logically toward a conclusion. Williams credits the Soundscape Science program and the Audubon center itself with her students’ astounding turnaround: In 2009 Burleson Elementary’s fifth graders had the highest science scores in the area, with a TAKS pass rate of nearly 90 percent, up from 48 percent.

This summer Williams returned to the center for a workshop on a new curriculum, called Waters to the Sea, that provides teachers with a big-picture understanding of the importance of local ecosystems—for Williams and 10 other area educators, the Trinity River watershed—before they bring their students on site. Today she’s passing on what she’s learned to several of her students. She bends over a waist-high sandbox in the middle of the exhibit hall to demonstrate how a natural river forms its meandering route and how its channeling early last century dramatically altered the ecosystem. “Whichever way you make it curve, that’s the way the river flows,” Williams says, slowly turning on a faucet to fill her tiny channel with water and urging the students to get their hands dirty. The girls, shy at first, turn suddenly enthusiastic, shrieking and laughing as they dig into the wet sand. They also learn that whatever happens to the river in Dallas affects the palm-lined beaches and beleaguered coastal ecosystems farther south, along the Gulf of Mexico.

Williams then leads them outside, armed with binoculars, and they look eagerly for minnows in one of the ponds, swollen and murky after the week’s heavy rains. “Okay, now this is where y’all go swimming! You ready?” Williams asks, putting on a face of mock seriousness.

“Noooo!” the girls chorus in protest, dissolving into laughter as Williams leads them across the pond, reminding them to listen for the natural and artificial sounds they’d learned during the year.

Dave Litman, Audubon Texas board chair, entrepreneur, and founder of hotels.com, considers Soundscape Science one of the center’s best assets. He says that physically introducing students to the natural world and then teaching them to interpret it scientifically can play a pivotal role in improving their critical thinking skills, and accomplish even more. “As people become less connected to the land, they become less connected with nature, and they care less about it when it comes time to vote or in their own personal actions,” he says. “If we want to create a future generation of conservationists, then this is what we have to do. Otherwise people won’t care.” Litman is throwing his full weight behind a bill in Texas’s next legislative session (which opens in January 2011) to fund and provide incentives for the kind of hands-on natural resource education that the center is pioneering.

 

Until recently few were quite so sanguine about the Trinity River’s prospects. “A stench from its inky surface . . . [gives] the suggestion of some mythological river of death,” wrote the Texas Department of Health of the river in 1925. “With this burden of filth . . . a thing of beauty is thus transformed into one of hideous danger.” In the 1930s the city rechanneled the river and built high levees to distance it from downtown Dallas, which prevented floods but also relegated the Trinity to a near century of degradation and misuse. By the 1970s the practice of dumping municipal and industrial waste had rendered fish “almost nonexistent,” the U.S. Geological Survey found.

For decades the 120-acre property now occupied by the center was operated as an illegal landfill where, despite code violations and complaints, piles of construction debris grew. In 1997, for the second time in five years, the landfill caught fire and burned for several months, the smoldering tires and shingles spewing fumes. Finally, in 1998, residents of the surrounding neighborhood sued the city for failing to prevent the dumping, and a federal district court ordered the city to perform remediation.

Dallas Park and Recreation project manager Don Burns first saw the landfill in 2001, when he was exploring potential sites for the city’s new interpretive center. Wondering what was behind the “Danger: Do Not Enter” signs, he studied the site on maps and then wandered in one day—only to be shooed away by security hired by the city’s sanitation department. Once he secured permission to return, though, Burns found just what he’d been hoping for: a quiet, buildable site in a low-income neighborhood, just yards from the Trinity River.

“You had to have vision,” Burns admits—not everyone sees an interpretive center in 1.5 million tons of debris. “You had to look past the existing conditions and think, we’re going to be able to do this. We’re going to be able to clean up; we’re going to be able to plant new vegetation.” Burns’s department drew up plans for the site and convinced the city manager that with an extra $3.5 million, the city could augment state remediation requirements with aesthetic features like native grasses and manmade hills dotted with 1,400 newly planted trees. With the city’s blessing, Burns, together with the design team of Brown Reynolds Watford Architects and architect Antoine Predock, worked with the remediation team to ensure the process took into account the land’s future use.

By 2007 what remained of the landfill had been capped, sealed, and outfitted with a methane collection and monitoring system. A $1 million grant from the Dallas-based Meadows Foundation helped jump-start programming and improve the center’s energy efficiency, and in October 2008 the Trinity River Audubon Center opened with much fanfare. More than 10,000 local birders and residents flocked there on the first weekend.

The center has introduced them to a river few of them ever fully knew. “They’ve lived around it all their lives but have never really had access to it,” explains center director Chris Culak, an easygoing outdoorsman with a quick smile and a healthy measure of Texas charm. Culak, like Litman, expects to extend the conservation ethic from schoolchildren to their parents and friends.

The building itself is a marvel: designed in the shape of a bird in flight and every facet of its construction thoughtfully conceived, from the long, arcing windows slanted away from the ground to prevent bird strikes to the Forest Stewardship Council–certified cypress walls, bamboo flooring, recycled blue jeans for insulation, and even a rainwater catchment system that collects water for irrigation. Its heating and cooling system is expected to help the center become the Dallas Park and Recreation Department’s first building to be LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. As other bond projects come to fruition, the center’s four miles of trails will be part of a much longer, continuous network of biking and running trails that will  connect it to the equestrian park, the Great Trinity Forest, and downtown Dallas. Two kayak launches are planned for nearby access points on the river as well.

These days hardly a vestige of the old landfill remains. Under the lush boughs of a gnarled bois d’arc, Jones is showing his Coyotes the tree’s striking orange roots. The morning has brightened, and sparrow chirps fill the forest.

“This is one of our beautiful native trees,” Jones says, passing around a fallen branch. “Have you ever seen the big green horse-apples? That’s from this tree right here.”

The students nod in recognition. Every Texas kid knows a horse-apple—huge, hard, and inedible, they could, in a pinch, be suitable stand-ins for baseballs. Jones turns and gestures to a tight, thorny row of trees behind him, explaining how the trees grew near fences built by early settlers. He shows them how the bois d’arc’s branches are pliable—“That means you can bend them”—he demonstrates—“and they hold a shape,” and asks the students what else they could be used for.

“Basketball hoop,” suggests one boy. “Snowshoes!” shouts a girl in a pink rain jacket. Jones nods.

“Snowshoes, yeah. What else?”

“A bow and arrow?” a slight, dark-haired boy in shorts ventures, and Jones grins.

“A bow and arrow! Right! They’d bend the branches, put a little cord across the back end”—again, he’s demonstrating—“and then use it for their bows and arrows.” Jones leads the kids through the forest to the next station, where they’ll sketch a bois d’arc in the little green nature journals the center provides. After they’ve sketched the different ecosystems—forest, prairie, river—the trails are named for, the Coyotes will examine a half-gnawed beaver tree before tramping through the mud to the Trinity River overlook. From the top of the tall, sandy bank, Jones points out another great egret—or maybe the same one he saw earlier—down by the coffee-colored water. “Ten million people get their water from here,” Jones tells the students.

“It looks dirty!” a boy protests.

Jones explains that a lot of what looks dirty is just silty runoff, and that cities clean water before they use it. But, he adds, this river flows all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. “Do you see how your actions affect dolphins, whales, sharks?” he asks. The Coyotes nod. “This is like a highway to the ocean. See all the garbage in there?” He points to a plastic bottle floating near the shore. “Where does it go?”

“The ocean!” the students chorus back. Jones smiles, and in this moment, the reason these students are here becomes obvious. It’s not just test scores, and it’s not just about playing in the mud and listening to bullfrogs. Whatever these students take with them—a happy memory of a day when hiking around and looking at birds counted as school, or a lifetime dedicated to restoring rivers—will benefit them, the mallards that have returned to these ponds, and the great egret soaring silently above, back to its perch in the canopy.

Alexa Schirtzinger is a Dallas-based freelance writer.

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Audubon Center: Night School
Students are starstruck at an astronomy class held at Dallas’s Trinity River Audubon Center.