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Park Tour Will Explore Restoration Proposal

Photo: Kendra Bobowick

A pond along the southern side of Deep Brook Road, opposite the skate park at Dickinson Park, flows beneath the road and feeds the tributary flowing across an open field. Resident and landscape architect Billie Cohen envisions boardwalks and viewing platforms bringing guests out over the water to experience wildlife there. 

Nature lovers, environmentalists, educators, and others are invited to a Dickinson Park tour this week.

On Thursday, June 27, at 5:30 pm, guests will enjoy an open house tour of the fields and watercourses to learn about proposed improvements for the park, including wetlands restoration and an education center.

Barbara Toomey, member of an ad hoc group formed to promote Dickinson Park improvements, is “excited” about the plans. “It is a really beautiful restoration of the wetlands with associated educational and recreational amenities,” she said. “We hope to turn a plain lawn into a wetland with boardwalks, educational information, wildlife viewing areas, and much more.” The restoration would bring to the community a place for people “to experience nature and learn about ecosystems, wetlands and wildlife,” she said.

Resident and landscape architect Billie Cohen, who will be leading the tour, has been working with the Parks and Recreation Department in creating a new vision for Dickinson Park. She has presented members with schematic drawing in past months, and a project mission statement: restoring the park’s ecosystem aims to “create a nature sanctuary within the existing recreational park that not only engages visitors, but will support native plant habitats and wildlife. The wetlands education center will serve as a living-learning laboratory — a base for innovative site programming that will raise environmental ‘literacy’ and awareness of the healing and restorative powers of nature.”

“This is a unique opportunity for Newtown,” said resident Betsy Paynter. “The wetlands and education center will draw people to it. The project speaks to all generations.”

Heading the ad hoc group, and also a Parks and Recreation Commission member, Jan Brookes issued a recent press release that began: “When the Dickinson Park pool was closed in 2005 because of health code violations, part of the magic of Dickinson Park vanished. The pool was filled in and grassed over.”

The press release explains that Ms Cohen has created a plan to turn that grassy field into a wetlands sanctuary and education center. She said, “The site lends itself to recreation and the natural environment. It will be a nature sanctuary for play, exploration, and meditation. It will be a play centered space versus a sports centered space.”

The area has already seen environmental improvements. In recent months a stream restoration project brought a tributary, which had been piped below ground, back to the surface in a collaborative restoration effort to “daylight” the waterway.

Parks and Recreation Director Amy Mangold said, “Mother Nature wants her children back. We are her children.”

Restoration plans will not change or remove any of the facilities presently at Dickinson. The basketball court, tennis courts, skate park, and pavilion will remain. The Fun Space, scheduled for demolition at the end of August, will be replaced by another playground that will be partially surrounded by a butterfly garden, according to Ms Cohen’s plans.

Ms Cohen’s vision includes additional stream daylighting with its banks planted with native grasses and bushes, and the site made accessible to visitors through wooden walkways. The restored wetlands will become a wildlife sanctuary, and the location of nature education programs. Eventually, a structure housing the education center will be built nearby.

No money is currently in the budget for wetlands restoration or a nature center, Ms Brookes said. “The funding for that has to come from grants and private donations.”

Ms Brookes’ goal at the moment is to find residents willing to be part of a Friends of Dickinson Park Association. “There needs to be a broad base of support, and that comes from having a strong advocacy group,” she said. The Parks and Recreation Commission has approved the plans.

Is the funding within reach? “Well yes, if there’s no time frame,” she said. Comparing this project to the skate park fundraising, which started off slowly, she suspects “as changes start to occur, more people buy into the vision and possibility.” While funding and project momentum may be off to a slow start, she said, “That doesn’t mean we can’t start educating people with what is there.”

Ms Brookes said, “Education can begin minimally with signage such as ‘Can you spot a female mallard duck?’” for example. She said that children would be allowed to play in other daylighted areas of the stream (if it is found to be safe for the stream health and environment), and learn informally. Formal education can begin with scheduled nature talks. When the wetlands is fully functional, class trips can be scheduled, talks can be presented on various topics. It can be staffed with volunteer docents, or with someone paid if there is funding to do so.

 “Environmental science isn’t my field,” she admitted, and she is also learning as she goes. She recently learned the concept that a stream funneled underground is a dead stream. “That had never occurred to me before,” Ms Brookes said, but the words rang true when she recently visited the park. “I heard sounds of skate boards and basket balls hitting the pavement, but I didn’t hear or see birds.”

But when she walked across Point O’ Rocks Road to the wetlands that will be connected in this project, several birds flew overhead, she said. “It looked so green and alive vs the monotone green of the flat grass a few feet away. I knew that if I had walked to the other side of the fence, I’d see turtles and frogs — an ecosystem. The place where the pond had been suddenly seemed dead to me. I’d like it so see live again.”

More stories like this: Dickinson Park, wetlands restoration
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