William Penn believed that open, natural spaces worked positively on the mind as well as the body, providing respite from the chaotic pace of urban life as well as the unsanitary closeness of quarters.
Today, more than 10 percent of the land within Philadelphia is park territory.
Tucked inside the Northwest sits the 1,800-acre Wissahickon Valley Park, Philadelphia’s equivalent of the boondocks. Its greenery, craggy rocks and flowing water make it an ideal retreat from the bustle of Center City.
“It’s only 20 minutes away and it’s awesome,” first time Wissahickon visitor and Center City resident Nikki Grossman said. “I feel like we’re in another state or up in the Poconos.”
Such an oasis naturally attracts enthusiasm. An expansive community of volunteers and professionals work tirelessly to protect the park’s characteristic wildlife. Non-profit organizations including Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association, Wissahickon Restoration Volunteers and Friends of the Wissahickon preserve and enhance various aspects of the park.
If these are the Wissahickon’s champions, who are its enemies?
Though the Wissahickon exists to give people respite from the city, the Wissahickon can’t dodge the impact of “Filthadelphia.”
“It’s pretty bad when even your most scenic natural area is littered,” reasoned Hidden City Philadelphia writer Bradley Maule, who is spending one day per week this year collecting garbage from the Wissahickon.
Maule suspects the sheer volume of his findings will be impactful but that it is unlikely to change the underlying culture of carelessness that pervades the region.
“I think the answer is […] a streamlining of resources- sanitation pickup, street cleaning, enforcement of litter laws,” he explained.
In a space as vast as the Wissahickon, such streamlining is easier said than done.
“The nature of the park is that you can’t keep an eye on everyone who’s there,” said Henry Stroud, Friends of the Wissahickon’s project manager.
The Philadelphia Parks and Recreation department replaces garbage bags several times per week but cans that are either too full or not full enough may be emptied by the wind first. Waste may also be washed into the park from nearby neighborhoods during rain events.
As a result, Friends of the Wissahickon has dedicated more than 3,000 volunteers hours in the last two years just to picking up trash.
“That’s a huge amount of time that we could be spending doing the things we really do need to do,” said Stroud.
Controlling storm water flows and eradicating invasive plant species that threaten to crowd out indigenous vegetation are two huge challenges for the Friends of The Wissahickon. The top priority is maintaining the ecological health of the Wissahickon.
Avoid playing the villain by taking everything out of the park that you bring in. The Wissahickon’s friends have their hands full enough without having to pick up your garbage.
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– Text, video and images by Tori Marchiony.