National Audubon Society and Philadelphia Outward Bound School Partner to Connect Philadelphia Youth to the Natural World


Two internationally acclaimed non-profit organizations, The National Audubon Society (Audubon PA) and the Philadelphia Outward Bound School, are collaborating to preserve one of the most underutilized assets of our city—the former East Park Reservoir. While Audubon works to protect natural ecosystems and their wildlife and Outward Bound changes lives through challenge and discovery, their missions will converge at this site: The Discovery Center at Strawberry Mansion Lake. Together they plan to revitalize the lake, which has remained virtually unknown and inaccessible for decades, by creating an educational center for conservation and leadership development. The center will provide an opportunity for the public to interact with nature in the city, and offer significant educational resources to the greater Philadelphia region and its future generations.

East Park Reservoir

Photo by Bas Slabbers photo/video.

The proposed location for The Discovery Center —the west basin of the East Park Reservoir and surrounding grounds in East Fairmount Park adjacent to the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood—encompasses a 37-acre man-made lake that was originally part of the City’s water supply system and abandoned as a water supply source more than 40 years ago. The site was formerly under the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia Water Department and closed off from public access. In fact, today it is concealed from view by fencing, dense vegetation and a significant grade change from street level.

For a highly urbanized environment such as Philadelphia, The Discovery Center will be a unique opportunity for our city’s young people and adults to experience nature. Located in the heart of East Fairmount Park, the lake is a prime stopover site for migratory birds, including a diversity of waterfowl.

Audubon and Outward Bound plan to build an eco-friendly facility that will serve as a gateway to the natural world where children, youth, families, corporate teams and civic and community groups will learn and grow through educational programs that inspire engagement with nature.

East Park Reservoir Revitalization

Photo by Bas Slabbers photo/video.

This is a one-of-a-kind project. Nowhere in this region does another location exist that can boast similar natural habitats and wildlife species in the midst of an urban locale. Additionally, the collaboration of two internationally renowned non-profit organizations to benefit the Philadelphia community and preserve a natural treasure is a remarkable opportunity that may not occur again.

The Vision

Both Audubon and Outward Bound programs introduce young people to the natural world, challenging them with experiences that promote self-discovery, character and leadership development, and provide hands on environmental education within natural outdoor settings. This exposure and the lessons learned foster a lifelong commitment to environmental stewardship and service. The Center will be the keystone of Audubon education and conservation programs, as well as the base of operations for Outward Bound’s leadership and character development activities in the region.

The Discovery Center will serve as the base of operations for the Philadelphia Outward Bound School (POBS), a chartered affiliate of the nation’s preeminent provider of active learning expeditions. Outward Bound has long-established programs in over 40 schools in the Philadelphia region and serves more than 4,000 students annually. It has outgrown its current location and is excited by the opportunity to build The Discovery Center because of the idyllic setting of the lake and abundance of outdoor educational opportunities in East Fairmount Park.  At this new location, POBS plans to attract multiple community and regional partners to participate in its world-renowned personal/team challenge and leadership development programs. POBS programs extend will continue to extend well beyond the Center in Fairmount Park to natural settings across the Delaware Valley region, including state forests and parks, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and other wilderness settings across the PA/NJ region.

Audubon will use the new facility as a hub for research and science-based conservation projects and programs in the Philadelphia region. It will engage individuals and communities by offering the resources and tools necessary to analyze, preserve, and restore our natural environment. Audubon education programs will challenge both young people and adults through hands-on exploration of the natural world in their own backyards and neighborhoods. The Center will also be a hub for Audubon’s international conservation initiatives and a major link in a regional network of bird and wildlife viewing destinations.

Programming at the Center

Research shows that outdoor activities not only increase children’s physical activity, but reduce their stress and anxiety. Children who interact with outdoor environments have better cognitive and creative skills than their more housebound counterparts. The relationship between environmental and human health will be a central theme across programming and design of The Discovery Center. Audubon’s ambition to make Philadelphians more aware of the human relationship with nature will be reinforced by the challenging activities offered to young people through Outward Bound.

Audubon and Outward Bound programs use outdoor classrooms and experiential education to enhance academic gains in social studies, science, language arts and math. Hands-on projects offered through the Center will provide students with learning experiences in natural settings that have practical applications in other environments.

While each organization offers highly effective programs under their own brands, their collaboration of resources and educational experiences will produce a stronger and more multifaceted breadth of programming. Philadelphia’s young people will have a powerful new opportunity to discover a greater sense of awareness of themselves and the environment, along with adults and senior citizens. Educational experiences at the Center will deepen connections to the community and natural world, and develop skills necessary for success in an urban economy.

The Center will link to and enhance community assets in East Fairmount Park, such as the Smith Memorial Playground, Sedgley Woods Disc Golf Course, the Boxers’ Trail and Mander Recreation Center. It will enhance the plan for a gateway between the park, Strawberry Mansion, and North Philadelphia neighborhoods, offering public access to the lake in alignment with public safety and protection of the site as a bird and wildlife sanctuary. There will be no entrance fees to public viewing areas for observing birds and wildlife on the lake and program specific fees have not yet been determined.

The Discovery Center will inspire both local Philadelphia residents as well as visitors from across the United States (and beyond) to gain access and enjoy Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park and an extraordinary look into nature in the middle of the city.

East Fairmount Park

L-R: Katie Newsom Pastuszek, Executive Director Philadelphia Outward Bound School, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. With a ceremonial singing of the lease Philadelphia Outward Bound School and Audubon Pennsylvania kick of the Discovery Center project in the East Fairmount Park section of the city. Photo by Bas Slabbers photo/video.

The Project Benefits:

  • Environmental: This project will preserve a hidden gem of Philadelphia’s landscape, one that could not be recreated once destroyed, and will allow public access to 50 acres of nature that have been closed off for decades. It will conserve a critical habitat for the benefit of birds, wildlife and the people of Philadelphia for generations to come.
  • Educational: The Center will be a sanctuary for the young people of nearby neighborhoods. It will be a destination for school and youth groups from across the city that provides a foundation for exploration of the natural world and offers discovery opportunities for personal growth and achievement. It will also empower adults to learn more about the city’s natural attributes, and to engage with them in new and exciting ways.
  • Civic: The collaboration of two international organizations in the development of this project will achieve national recognition and play a unique role in Philadelphia’s emerging green city status. It will stimulate the creation of new businesses and services in Strawberry Mansion and the rest of the region. This is a legacy project that will accomplish the preservation mission of Fairmount Park.
Fairmount Park Philadelphia

Photo by Erin Lawson.

The Discovery Center at Strawberry Mansion Lake is planned to enhance the park lands in which it is situated. Audubon and Outward Bound are working closely with the City of Philadelphia to ensure that all environmental reviews and requirements for preserving the natural habitat of the lake and surroundings are met.

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