What was once an empty lot in Avondale, Cincinnati, is now teeming with life and serves as a living classroom. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in Cincinnati, Ohio, in partnership with the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center and with contributions from P&G and the Reds Community Fund, has established the Rockdale Urban Learning Garden at Rockdale Academy.
The garden was part of the 2021 Reds Community Fund Community Makeover service project. Every year the Reds Community Fund identifies a neighborhood in the greater Cincinnati area and works to improve its ball fields, recreational centers, schools, parks, and public spaces. Led by Charley Frank, the executive director of the Reds Community Fund, the 2021 Avondale makeover brought together close to 500 volunteers and partners from a variety of places and backgrounds.
The completed garden, located on approximately two acres of land across the street from Rockdale Academy, comprises a variety of interactive educational spaces and garden beds devoted to trialing new varieties of plants for the Zoo.
Why Rockdale Academy?
The Zoo was founded on 65 acres in the middle of Cincinnati in 1873. Although the Zoo grounds have since expanded, and the facility has continued to thrive, the historic Avondale neighborhood in which it resides has seen its fair share of struggles.
“Avondale is a really complicated, fascinating, and important neighborhood with incredible history, beautiful architecture, and some of our most important businesses such as the Children’s Hospital and the Cincinnati Zoo,” said Frank. “But it has also become one with a very high poverty rate and additional challenges, so it was really important that we consider Avondale for our Community Makeover Project.”
Community leaders and partners, including the Zoo and the Reds Community Fund, have come together on various revitalization efforts, education/outreach programs, and health initiatives which have had a lasting impact on the neighborhood.
“Zoos often find ourselves in these incredibly underserved communities, and traditionally we have not played a role in being a part of the solution,” said Mark Fisher, senior director of facilities, planning, and sustainability at the Zoo. “We decided to flip the narrative and get engaged with our community.”
Initially, the Zoo planned to donate a small pollinator garden sponsored by Brazee Street Studios to one of 24 Greater Cincinnati schools in the area in the Spring of 2019. Although Rockdale Academy was one of the final two candidates, the school was ultimately not selected due to a lack of space and water. However, seeing a need, Steve Foltz, the director of horticulture at the Zoo, promised to help the school.
Zoo officials noticed a nearly two-acre empty lot across the street that used to house the old school building. The Zoo reached out to its partners, and as part of the 2021 Reds Community Fund Community Makeover project, they were able to transform the idle land into a thriving green space that serves the community.
From Empty Lot to Living Classroom
Foltz envisioned much more than a pollinator garden for the students at Rockdale Academy and scrawled the original sketch of an entire mini botanical garden on a napkin. With the help of more than 500 volunteers, Zoo staff, and community partners, his drawing came to life and unfolded as a nearly two-acre living educational space with more than 12,000 plants―not including the garden’s thousands of annuals and vegetables.
In addition to being the largest pollinator garden in the region, Rockdale’s Urban Learning Garden also includes garden beds for the Zoo to trial hundreds of perennials and annuals, raised vegetable beds, an orchard with a variety of fruit trees, a propagation greenhouse powered entirely by solar panels provided by SonLight Power, two Quonset huts, an amphitheater, a picnic area, and a sensory garden for children with autism.
Rockdale Academy is a center of excellence for autism and has three classrooms devoted to serving children with autism. Specially selected soft and fragrant plants fill the fenced-in sensory garden.
“We wanted to make sure that our Urban Learning Garden was all-inclusive and was able to meet the needs of all our students,” said the Principal of Rockdale Academy, Dr. Jaren Finney. “So, it was very important to ensure that we could provide them with a safe and secure place.”
In 2020, Rockdale Academy also adopted a new Global Conservation program that encourages students to learn how to transform Avondale, and the larger world, through service projects, field studies, and access to new technologies. A major part of the curriculum is modeling sustainability and healthy eating habits for students.
“We planted any fruit, shrub, or tree that you can grow in Cincinnati,” said Foltz. “We labeled them all so the kids would be able to identify where their food comes from.”
Teachers at Rockdale Academy use hands-on experiences in the Urban Learning Garden to help students understand nutrition and how food quality directly impacts their quality of life.
The garden also serves as a model of sustainable practices. The propagation greenhouse, which operates as a year-round plant lab, is powered by solar panels, equipped with a rainwater harvesting system, and uses hydroponic food production. Through engaging lesson plans or hands-on maintenance, students are involved with every part of the process.
The pollinator garden offers further opportunities for students to learn about the importance of productive green spaces in urban environments. The garden, filled with native flowering plants and experimental trial pollinator plants, has attracted more than 50 species of bees to the now thriving greenspace.
A Lasting Commitment
Rather than declare the project finished after the 2021 Reds Community Makeover, the Zoo has promised to help with the ongoing support and maintenance of the Rockdale Urban Learning Garden. To ensure that the facility is well maintained, the Zoo hired a full-time horticulturist, Carlos VanLeeuwen, who works with teachers to facilitate environmental curriculum in the garden.
Another component of his job is to work with the Groundwork ORV’s Green Team, who are seasonally hired young adults that help weed, plant, mulch, and care for the living classroom. The program provides teens with income and transferrable skills that they can use to pursue green jobs in the future.
“In two years, we’ve never had any vandalism,” said Fisher. “Because it’s the kids in the neighborhood; it’s their garden, they help build it, they maintain it. No one’s messing with that garden.”
The project’s longevity is also ensured through biannual sales of plants grown in the garden. Funds raised are directly reinvested into the program, with this past year’s funds devoted to the Academy’s summer enrichment program and a field day.
The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens and their community partners view the Rockdale Urban Learning Garden as the foundation rather than the final product for the greater Cincinnati community. The Zoo would ultimately like to recreate similar projects throughout Cincinnati’s inner-city neighborhoods to create a pollinator-friendly environment across the entire city.
“Every zoo and aquarium, on their own scale, needs to be doing something like the Rockdale Garden,” said Fisher. “Because if you took 240 of us and did something like that every year, we could really move the needle.”.
The Zoo encourages other accredited facilities to follow its lead and participate in comparable projects within their local communities.
“Every zoo and aquarium, on their own scale, needs to be doing something like the Rockdale Garden,” said Fisher. “Because if you took 240 of us and did something like that every year, we could really move the needle.”
Photos Credit: Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden
Sarah Gilsoul is a writer and the Communications Program Assistant at AZA
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