Tending our collective backyard

A century ago, municipal parks featured velvety lawns flanked by tidy groupings of trees, shrubs and annual blooms, often imported from Europe or Asia. Today, scientists and landscape designers advocate “re-wilding"—using native plants to recreate lost habitats, as insect and bird populations decline. These small, endangered creatures are the pollinators we depend on to fertilize the plants that underpin our food system and, indeed, all of life on earth. It is time to transform our beloved city parks.

Most spring, summer and fall mornings, Cleveland Heights retirees Stu and Kathleen Greenberg can be found in Forest Hill Park behind the Recreation Center, tending a few square feet of ground at a time. They remove thickets of invasive, non-native plants (Amur honeysuckle and multiflora rose are two major culprits), uncovering native trees and shrubs—and the occasional park bench. In newly opened spaces they plant black-eyed Susan and varieties of coneflower. Along a feeder stream of the east branch of Dugway Brook they are introducing black willows to stabilize the banks. They have built a series of weirs to slow stormwater and minimize erosion.

The Greenbergs might have taken on a different retirement project if not for landscape architect and East Cleveland Parks Association board member Elsa Johnson. Recognizing that Forest Hill Park needs stewardship beyond what the cities of East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights can provide, Johnson has been clearing trails and removing invasive species for well over a decade.

Eight years ago, she invited the Greenbergs to a tree-planting event, sparking their desire do more for the park. Johnson trained and mentored them until they had the confidence to work on their own. She still offers guidance and has raised funds for them to purchase plants and other materials.

At the opposite end of town, on Sunday mornings from April to November, Peggy Spaeth and John Barber lead Friends of Lower Lake, a crew of up to 20 volunteers who care for the parkland surrounding the westernmost of the Shaker Lakes. They clear European buckthorn, Japanese knotweed, English ivy and other invasives, and plant a wide variety of native trees, shrubs, ferns and grasses.

Spaeth and Barber started this project in 2014, and the results of the Friends’ patient, tenacious stewardship are evident to those who frequent the area.

Since then, several more groups have formed under the umbrella of Friends of Heights Parks. At www.ecologicalheights.com, you can find groups active in nearby parks, learn why pollinators are important, and discover simple actions to make your own neighborhood and yard more pollinator friendly.

For those who want to help, but may not be ready for an ongoing commitment, the Cleveland Heights Green Team (CHGT) organizes cleanups in various parks several times a year. Most recently CHGT collaborated with Bluestone Heights and Doan Brook Watershed Partnership to pick up litter in Denison Park’s Nine Mile Creek gulch.

Founded in 2021 by Natalie Elwell, Alex Sitarek and Catalina Wagers, CHGT sponsors more programs and activities than we have space to detail. Their web site, www.chgreenteam.org, offers an impressive calendar plus loads of practical information.

As we write, the 27th United Nations climate summit (COP 27) is convened in Egypt, with 100 countries represented. If past COPs are any indication, the outcome of this one will fall short of the urgent commitment needed to respond to the climate crisis.

Faced with official foot-dragging, our dedicated park volunteers tell us that their work helps to ease anxiety, restoring a sense of control and inner peace. And it makes a difference. The phrase “Think globally, act locally” has never been more apt.

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at heightsdemocracy@gmail.com.

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Volume 15, Issue 12, Posted 1:47 PM, 11.30.2022