The sweet smell of nature returns

Toddler Jonas Sackett (left) and his big sister, Zoe

Toddler Jonas Sackett (left) and his big sister, Zoe, who is a kindergartner this year in the newly built Alexander School, “go fishing” in the school’s rain garden with their mom, Sara Dutton Sackett, a Ph.D. student in cell and molecular biology.

Photo by Tommy Leonardi

Skunk cabbage smells bad and grows locally. And now it’s growing at 43rd and Spruce, one of a number of moisture-loving plants planted to absorb storm water, as part of an innovative storm water management project on the grounds of the newly named Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School. (The newly completed building for the school is scheduled to receive students tomorrow.)

Besides the rain garden and its pond the project also includes a rainwater reservoir underneath a new grass playing field that used to be a parking lot and a parking lot paved with porous asphalt.

These are part of a city-wide effort to reduce the overflow from the sewer system into the Schuylkill River during rainstorms, to infiltrate water into the groundwater system, and to reuse the water, said Howard Neukrug, director of the Office of Watersheds in the Philadelphia Water Department. “The project at Penn is one of a growing number of projects to change the Mill Creek sewerway and treat the water as an asset.”

Lucy Kerman, special projects coordinator in the President’s Office, who made the environment-conscious landscaping happen, said, “It’s a wonderful partnership between a public school and the city.”

Kerman put together the planning group, developed the grant and sought the funding. The group also included the Olin Partnership, UCGreen, community representation—that was just the beginning of the list of players Kerman reeled off. “It happened because I heard from Howard Neukrug what was possible on the site and I thought it was a good thing to do,” she said.

Funding—$250,000—came from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The skunk cabbage smells sweeter because the measures will have an educational impact. A platform overlooks the rain garden, where the children can observe, draw and learn. The school, the Graduate School of Education and the Water Department will be working to develop curriculum materials for grades kindergarten to 8 to take advantage of what can be learned from the site, Kerman said. And she asked the Morris Arboretum to help develop exhibits so the public, visiting the site, can understand the environmental measures.

René Torres, a landscape architect with the Olin Partnerships who managed all the plantings for this project, said of the skunk cabbage: “It will give kids a smell experience and will recreate the habitat. Skunk cabbage is normally found in bogs around here.”

The topography is not a re-creation, but is the original landscape, with the rain garden located at the bottom of the hill down which the water has long flowed. “Cities lose their natural feel,” Kerman said. “The school is on a beloved site in the neighborhood, and we wanted to keep that sense of natural space.”

Originally published on September 5, 2002