At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., we connect people to nature to drive conservation action for the benefit of people, animals, and the planet. Striving towards this collective conservation impact within various Aquarium efforts has required intentional engagement and partnership-centered approaches. Residents, partners, and stakeholders need to have meaningful opportunities to center their lived experiences and apply their expertise to drive that collective impact. One of the main locations in Baltimore that we engage in, that has exemplified this wholistic conservation approach, is Masonville Cove, an urban green space nestled between the communities of Brooklyn and Curtis Bay on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River in South Baltimore.
Masonville Cove is a critical habitat for urban wildlife in Baltimore and an important resting stop for migratory birds in the Mid-Atlantic region. More than 200 different species of birds have been observed in Masonville, and it’s well-known as one of the top ‘birding hot spots” in the state of Maryland. Admission is free to visitors, who are welcome to explore the area’s 54 acres of restored wetlands and nature trails six days a week. The Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center serves as the home for various education programs for local students and also features various exhibits that teach visitors about the history of the area and the wildlife that now call it home.
There’s plenty to see and explore at Masonville, but two of the better-known residents are a pair of nesting bald eagles, first spotted in 2019, and the only known pair in Baltimore.
In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) designated Masonville Cove as the nation’s first Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership, as part of the USFWS Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, one that seeks to improve lives by expanding access to green space, education, and outdoor recreation for people living in and around cities. However, this area didn’t always serve as a model for urban green space. Its beginnings can be traced to the 1890s, when the town of Masonville was founded. It was home to a few hundred residents and several businesses at this time, but by the 1950s, this residential area had been heavily industrialized to support Baltimore’s economy. By the 1960s, the effects of industrialization were clear: the Patapsco River was heavily polluted and inhospitable to local wildlife, and Masonville had essentially become a dumping ground for local industry and residents, full of tires, steel, and other litter.
Fast forward to 2002, and the Baltimore Harbor Team—a group of volunteers from local organizations and environmental groups—was formed and began making recommendations on areas to place dredged material, which is sediment removed from shipping channels. The Baltimore Harbor Team recommended a study of Masonville for the project, and in 2004, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the Maryland Port Administration offered to restore Masonville Cove as part of the harbor dredging project. Restoration of the Masonville site began in 2007—some of the debris that was removed in the early stages of restoration could be traced back to the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904—and the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center opened its doors in 2009, which is the same year that the National Aquarium’s work there began.
The National Aquarium, as well as other members of the Masonville Cove Partnership including the Maryland Port Administration, USFWS and Living Classrooms Foundation, have centered a learning and growth mindset in support of the development and application of community engagement best practices. These practices continue to inform how we must show up authentically and collaboratively to ensure that the environmental and sustainability needs and interests of the surrounding communities drive the work we do, both at Masonville Cove and in the surrounding communities. We have prioritized the time to listen to understand and move at the speed of trust, building transformational relationships with residents and stakeholders. This approach has served and continues to serve as a foundation that has resulted in the collaboration and co-creation of several events and programs, like environmentally-themed workshops, debris cleanups, pollinator garden plantings, and community science events.
One of the largest events we host every year at Masonville Cove is a BioBlitz, where volunteers gather to find, identify, and record as many species of plants and wildlife as they can. The 2021 BioBlitz on 17 July marked the eighth time that we’ve held this event at Masonville, and there was a tremendous turnout: 88 volunteers made 279 observations and identified 137 different species, from black-eyed Susans to ospreys to snapping turtles and many species in between.
Every year, these events allow volunteers to contribute to community science while exploring the flora and fauna that thrive in this urban refuge, but last year’s event also provided a special opportunity to celebrate Latino Conservation Week.
In 2021, Latino Conservation Week—an initiative from Hispanic Access Foundation—was observed from 17 through 25 July. Its purpose is to provide a platform for Latinos to demonstrate their passion for the preservation of nature and engage in experiences that foster their connection to the environment. Masonville Cove has been a partner and host site of this effort since 2016.
In honor of last year’s Latino Conservation Week, we asked Veronica and Selvin Martinez, leaders at one of our South Baltimore community partners, TAYR Church of God, a few questions about their experience with National Aquarium conservation events and connecting with nature in their community:
Q: How long have you been members of the South Baltimore community?
A: We have been members of the South Baltimore community for ten years.
Q: How did you get started participating in conservation events?
A: We started participating in conservation events when we did cleanups in our church area and neighborhood through the Aquarium and also becoming involved with Masonville Cove and learning about caring for the Chesapeake Bay.
Q: What do you enjoy about participating in conservation events?
A: I love that we can enjoy nature, that we can also work together as a community and become aware of and care for the environment, and the Bay. I enjoy seeing how everyone is passionate about what they do and it’s inspiring to others.
Q: How do you think your community benefits from connecting with nature?
A: Our community benefits from connecting to nature a whole lot. We are educated on a lot of things we aren’t aware of; we are ... becoming responsible for where the trash is thrown out because a lot of that has to do with how plants and animals are treated, which overall causes a positive effect on the air we breathe.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for your community to participate in these types of conservation events?
A: It’s important our community participates in these events because it reminds us [to] conserve [and] care for the planet.
Q: What’s your hope for the future of natural spaces in your community?
A: My hope is to see more green areas in my community, that we can all be much more responsible for all actions taken.
The critical conservation work we engage in at Masonville Cove and beyond wouldn’t be possible without the strength of our partnerships. We’re grateful to our partners—from local organizations like TAYR to state and national organizations—for their critical support in helping us protect Baltimore’s waterways and wildlife and create a better Baltimore.
Megan Kowalski is a content writer at the National Aquarium.
Curtis Bennett is the director of equity and community engagement at the National Aquarium.