Rox Reserve

A sign for a new development, Roxborough Reserve, spells doom for another chunk of open space. 

“Coming soon!,” shouts the large sign to passersby on Ridge Avenue not far from Wigard, “30 single-family homes, 10 twin homes.” And just like that, another piece of Roxborough open space disappears. Worse, with no hint of irony, the sign announces the area’s new name: Roxborough Reserve. Sounds more like a park than a subdivision; not sure what it might be reserving.

One of the defining features of Roxborough is the open space we share. Tucked into the far northwestern corner of Philadelphia, our land is among the last “unimproved” green spaces to go in Philadelphia, “unimproved” being the word municipalities and developers typically use to tag open space. Like you can improve on a forest?

But market forces are working hard to take care of this, and many of you are reeling from the pace of change in the community. A new house is quickly crammed between two older ones here; four townhouses are wedged onto that corner there.

Into the fray steps the Roxborough/Manayunk Conservancy.

A new name for a nonprofit that had long existed, the Roxborough/Manayunk Conservancy has been busy reinventing itself, drafting a long-term strategic plan for its work, and choosing a new board with new leadership. Tom Landsmann, who many in the community know as co-leader of the Friends of the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Park, is its new president; Kay Sykora, the retired director of the Manayunk Development Corp. and the maven of the Schuylkill River Trail through Roxborough and Manayunk, is a prominent board member, as is John Boyce, the longtime leader of Friends of Gorgas Park.

And it has a new mission statement. “the Roxborough/Manayunk Conservancy,” it reads “works to preserve and improve the environmental, watershed, historical, recreational, and open space assets in the Roxborough/Manayunk area.” No small task.

Kay Sykora told me that “27 percent of the land mass here is green,” a highly unusual ratio for a city, “in fact, twice the average elsewhere in the city of Philadelphia. There is lots of green infrastructure but no maintenance plan.”

“We’d like to preserve the sense you have of driving through a park that you often have while driving through this neighborhood,” added John Carpenter, another new trustee who brings a wealth of preservation experience with him. “We need to provide resource relief for some of the steep slopes, and fund land purchases and donations into land trusts.

“The Conservancy has an interesting vision of open space,” he continued. “While we have really cool spaces like the Reservoir, we also have a small collection of patches of open spaces – they are not contiguous, but almost touching. They provide habitat for birds and other animals that travel back and forth between the Wissahickon and the Schuylkill River. All these little green spaces and parks form a green web over the area, making it cooler and calmer and prettier.”

So one model for what they’d like the Conservancy to become is the Friends of the Wissahickon, the highly successful, 95-year-old nonprofit that rallies hundreds, maybe thousands, of people to repair and restore that beloved park. “How do you do that over here?” Kay asked.

At the moment, they have adopted the Two on Tuesday effort, where every Tuesday evening from 6-8 p.m. the group rotates service projects among four green spaces: the Fountain Street steps off the River Trail; Germany Hill; the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Park; and the towpath. Volunteers put in two hours of work each Tuesday; you can readily join the Two on Tuesday projects by finding the group on Facebook. (Next Tuesday's site is TBD; on July 9, they are meeting at Germany Hill at the corner of Smick and Fountain.)

John Carpenter adds that “we’d like to grow the Two on Tuesday program strategically, as we see it as the core of our mission. We’d also like to expand beyond those four core areas to other places like Gorgas and Edling,” the latter referring to a small pocket park at Shurs Lane and Terrace Street owned and maintained by the Central Roxborough Civic Association. “Right now the Conservancy needs to expand its network of volunteers and expand the tools for maintenance support of our open spaces. We also need to figure out how we bring together the civic organizations that already exist,” he concluded.

Like the friends groups for Gorgas Park and the Reservoir. Ditto the Schuylkill Center’s membership.

The group's new strategic plan extends into 2033, amazingly, as preserving open space is hard work. “This is going to be a long haul,” Kay told me.

But it’s God’s work, and we wish them well.

A small footnote: When I stopped by the new sign touting the Roxborough Reserve this week, I noticed something taped to it – a Zoning Violation notice. How interesting.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org, and tweets @SCEEMike

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