Baltimore Cleanup

Nature Play Space

By Hannah Schardt; photos by Jeffrey MacMillan

Once, this city lot was abandoned and full of trash. Now it’s a place where kids play, plants grow, and animals find food and shelter. 

Tap image for a closer look.

A busy, bustling city can be a tough place for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife to survive. Connected houses and businesses may stretch for blocks and blocks, with no green spaces between them. Animals struggle to find food or shelter. But visit Druid Heights—a neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland—and you’ll find a surprise in bloom. Tucked between four-story buildings is a wildlife oasis!

In 2019, some people in the community created this “nature play space”: a healthy, welcoming spot for city wildlife. Just as important for the kids who live nearby, it is also a safe, fun place to play.

At first, the space was just an empty lot, littered with trash that people had dumped. “When we first started the project, we took twenty mattresses out of there—and a bunch of car tires,” says Anthony Pressley. He was the head of the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, the neighborhood group that wanted to fix up the space.

Local wildlife needed a place to live. Local kids needed a place to climb, run, and explore. So the community came up with a plan to build something that would be both.

Tap image for a closer look.

Let’s Get Planting!

A landscape architect came up with a design for the lot. Local groups—including the National Wildlife Federation, the group that publishes Ranger Rick—helped raise money to pay for the project. Then people got to work! They built a walking path, a wooden bridge, and a spiraling stone labyrinth. In another spot, they added a row of uneven tree stumps: a perfect place for kids to have fun.

Volunteers also planted native plants—ones that grow naturally in the area. Those plants aren’t just beautiful. They also make good food and shelter for the local birds, bees, butterflies, and other animals. At the lowest part of the lot, people planted a rain garden to collect water that runs off nearby streets and roofs. There, the polluted water soaks into the soil, rather than flowing out to the Chesapeake Bay.

Soon, the project was complete! The planners named it the Elijah E. Cummings Nature Play Space, after a famous civil rights leader and U.S. congressman. Last fall, volunteers from the neighborhood, a local university, and the National Wildlife Federation gathered in Druid Heights. The play space was two years old, and it was ready for a spruce-up! People picked up litter, added new signs, and planted 50 more native plants. (The photos in this article are from the cleanup day.)

Now, the once-empty lot is full of flowers and fun. With rows of houses towering over it in every direction, the blooming play space feels like a secret garden in the city!

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