DOP Spring Landscape - Courtesy James Osen

(This article is second in a two-part series on Biophilia in Washington, DC, written by Stella Tarnay.  Click here to read Part 1.)

Here in the nation’s capital, a movement is afoot to bring nature into the direct experience of residents and for the benefit of the overall environment. Dennis Chestnut, executive director of Groundwork DC  , is reaching out to high school and middle school students to teach them about Watts Branch, a stream that runs for two miles through residential neighborhoods and into the Anacostia River (one of the nation’s most polluted urban waterways). Students will sample, study, and WALK along the stream’s edge, getting to know an ecological treasure right in their own back yards. Further up the river, the Anacostia Watershed Society leads educational tours in boats and rubber boots. Up close and personal, the river’s beauty and its problems, like litter and sediment, are quite apparent. With direct experience, the river speaks and teaches.

Groundwork Whitewater Rafting - Courtesy Groundwork DC

We are doing our part at Dumbarton Oaks Park , hosting students from nearby schools who have never walked in a forest or meadow, encouraging them to smell, listen, and observe. Last week Ms. Bentley took her after-school enrichment group from Hardy Middle School  on its first woodland walk, and Ms.Whitty will soon be bringing her sixth grade science class to the 27-acre park. The British School  from up the hill has been holding regular outdoor classrooms here for the past several years. At our Open House last Saturday, we invited children and their parents to join us in an outdoor music class with the Levine School of Music  . It was great fun, and children who got a little restless could safely wander toward a small stream, where ferns and Virginia bluebells grow along its banks.

Likewise, students are now able to experience nature more directly right in their schools. For example, at Stoddert Elementary, school leaders, local businesses, and the nonprofit DC Greens collaborated to build a 4,000 square foot teaching garden. The garden includes raised beds for edibles, an herb garden, a native plant area, a butterfly-shaped pollinator garden, a shaded teaching area, a tool shed, a sink station, a compost area, and a berry bramble. Students worked together to build a 36-square foot greenhouse from recycled plastic bottles. DC Greens, City Blossoms  and a growing number of organizations are helping schools build and steward garden spaces for children. The Stoddert garden is managed by a dedicated garden coordinator and students. (The children of course get to enjoy the fruits of their labors.) DC Government and partner projects such as these have created close to 100 schoolyard gardens throughout Washington DC. The DC Healthy Schools Act , passed several years ago requires that all school children have access to locally grown, fresh food—some of which is grown in their own schools—and supports the continuing development of schoolyard gardens.

Washington Youth Garden - Courtesy US National Arboretum

Outside of the schools, one of the oldest and most beautiful children’s garden is the Washington Youth Garden, located on the grounds of the National Arboretum. The North Columbia Heights Green, developed with the help of Washington Parks and People, is an example of the transformational power that community gardens can have for all ages in city neighborhoods. The film “Community Harvest” documents the development of the green in an abandoned alley in the Columbia Heights neighborhood.

Community Harvest from Meridian Hill Pictures on Vimeo.

Local building industry associations sometimes complain that the city’s many new environmental regulations, designed to protect its natural environment, are “nuisance regulations,” but many are accepting them as standard practice. In some parts of town, green roofs and rain gardens are becoming iconic markers for high-profile properties. Interestingly, when the largest and most influential building industry association holds its semi-annual community service days (usually a cleanup and tree planting in a local park) sign-up overflows capacity within a few weeks. (I guess it’s fair game to complain about a regulation but who won’t lend a park a helping hand?) Local biophilia shows up in other ways. During our working meetings leading up to the Sustainable DC Plan , safe, convenient access to parks for ALL of the city’s residents was one of the most popular action steps recommended by participants. Another popular action is the restoration of the District’s tree canopy cover to 40 percent. Casey Trees has been leading tree plantings and teaching us about the importance of our city trees for the past decade.

Biophilic relation to nature may be one of the pathways to overcoming the harder sustainability issues. Who, for example, can resist a beautiful and green front yard? The District Department of the Environment (DDOE)  is banking on this to support stormwater management throughout the city. DDOE provides free technical and design advice, and grants, to install River Smart  landscapes on residential properties, reducing runoff into Rock Creek and the Chesapeake Bay. Dennis Chestnut’s project is engaging a new generation of residents who will help restore and protect the water quality of the Anacostia River. Our green open door at Dumbarton Oaks Park has a purpose. We need the help of all our neighbors to restore and protect the park, which is being scoured out by stormwater and overrun by invasive plants. Surely, children who learn to love living things while in school will find it easier to support policies and actions that protect them. How can you destroy what you love, what you find beautiful?

DOP Boys on Bridge - Courtesy Tom Warnock
Photo credit: Lindsey Milstein

Two of the lesser known recommendations of the Nature Working Group for Sustainable DC was the creation of ecological corridors for wildlife habitat and the expanded restoration of wetlands. The Transportation group recommended more greenways along our public streets. All these and other nature-loving recommendations made their way into the Sustainable DC Plan. They will be a necessary part of the green infrastructure system during a time of climate change, keeping our city healthier and more resilient. And with the planting of those corridors, it may be easier for our friend the fox to make safe passage from Logan Circle back home.

Post by Stella Tarnay

Stella is an urban planner who writes about cities, the environment, and the arts. She is chair of Education for the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy and an Advisor in the Sustainable Landscape Design Program at George Washington University. She can be reached at

Photo 1 Dumbarton Oaks Park Spring Landscape courtesy of James Osen

Photo 2 Washington Youth Garden courtesy of US National Arboretum

Photo 3 Groundwork Whitewater Rafting courtesy of Groundwork DC

Photo 4 Dumbarton Oaks Park, boys on bridge courtesy of Tom Warnock