'Friends' volunteer to maintain and restore natural habitats

Don Vicarel is a "friend" of the Bradford Cinder Path.

The world locked down last spring. People could not gather, travel, sit in a coffee shop with friends, shop, hug, kiss a cheek, or breathe on each other. As guidance became clearer on how the coronavirus spread, the outdoors became a refuge. Outside, people could satisfy the need to be social without being physically close. People could share experiences, breathe fresh air and walk briskly.

Some noticed that, while they’ve spent much of their lives indoors, the outdoor world of plants, water, birds, insects and animals had been neglected. One retiree, Don Vicarel of University Heights, walked with his wife, JoAnn, as she recuperated from knee surgery. He posted a cranky note on Nextdoor: “If the city can cite us for unsightly lawns, can we cite the city for the unsightly Bradford path that runs from Canterbury to Taylor?” The octogenarian said he was feeling particularly irritable because pandemic isolation prevented him from volunteering in the nearby public school.

Debra Franke, co-chair of the Canterbury Community Garden, saw his post and connected him to a fledgling group working to improve the Bradford Cinder Path. The FutureHeights mini-grant program served as a catalyst, providing funds for plants and supplies. (See related article in the July 2020 Heights Observer: “Friends start work to preserve and restore Bradford path”.) In late May, seven masked people gathered as Friends of the Bradford Cinder Path. They made a plan to begin remediating a neglected, but much-loved, pedestrian path. Vicarel, no longer cranky, said, “I didn’t realize that I could personally do something about it!”

Meanwhile, other University Heights residents, Emma Shook and Eran Shiloh, were doing some guerilla gardening (aka “weeding”) at Walter Stinson Park, fondly known as “The Walt.” (See “Weeds meet their match at ‘The Walt’ ", Heights Observer, November 2020.) The park was designed with rain gardens and meadows but, as is common in urban parks, there was no service-department expertise in maintaining gardens with native plants. When Shook and Shiloh heard a call for a park cleanup from Mayor Brennan, they brought their experience as native gardeners to the event. Friends of the Walt was born, and its volunteers have been working most weekends since September 2020.

A third group of friends, Friends of Lower Lake (FLL,) did not grow out of the pandemic, but did increase its number of volunteers this summer. FLL has been restoring habitat at Lower Lake since spring 2018 as a volunteer program of the Doan Brook Watershed Partnership. Comprising 15–20 volunteers from Cleveland Heights, University Heights, Shaker Heights, Westlake and Bedford, the group has been working Sunday mornings to remove invasive species in neglected habitat at the lake on the edge of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights.

Particularly in these challenging times, cities cannot keep up with maintaining public green spaces. Nor are cities trained to manage natural habitat so essential to a healthy environment. Cities can keep grass mowed, streets cleaned, trees pruned or removed; but they don’t have the resources to manage the invasive buckthorn encroaching on the woodlands, or the porcelain berry vine that is curtaining trees.

There is an opportunity for people of all ages to collaborate with city staff and elected officials—not to add to their work, but to reduce or supplement it. Friends groups can do quick and easy cleanups, or they can meet regularly for the long haul.

As Vicarel said, “I feel like I’ve done something positive, and I’m very glad for the opportunity!”

Andre Spencer, Cleveland Heights’ superintendent of parks and recreation, told the Friends of the Bradford Cinder Path, “You are our eyes and ears in the community.”

Visit www.ecologicalheights.com to connect with various Friends groups, or to be inspired to create a new volunteer group for your neighborhood.

Peggy Spaeth

Peggy Spaeth is co-chair, with John Barber, of Friends of Lower Lake.

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Volume 13, Issue 12, Posted 8:46 AM, 12.01.2020