Alex Schmeling

A new state grant aims to unite urban residents of New Haven with the great outdoors.

Earlier this month, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection awarded $55,000 to local environmental organization Common Ground for the restoration of an urban wildlife refuge. Common Ground — a three-pronged nonprofit organization that includes Common Ground High School, an urban farm and an environmental education center — will use the money to restore 2.5 acres of New Haven’s park land and create a more effective gateway to nearby West Rock Ridge State Park. DEEP granted the money to improve urban dwellers’ access to the natural world and restore the natural habitat, Common Ground’s Director of Development and Community Engagement Joel Tolman said.

“We’re trying to be good stewards of this land,” Tolman said.

Common Ground will create a health and environmental exploration trail, construct a new classroom pavilion and restore a half-acre wildlife habitat near West Rock, according to a statement from Gov. Dannel Malloy’s office.

These measures will serve New Haven residents and students alike, Tolman said. High school classes will use the pavilion to learn environmental science hands-on, but younger students will also make use of it in Common Ground’s environmental engagement after-school program, he said. Likewise, the handicap-accessible exploration trail will allow people with limited mobility to access Common Ground’s farm and the city park land. It will also serve as a running track for the school’s physical education classes, Tolman added.

Common Ground anticipates beginning the bulk of this construction work next semester, Tolman said. The nonprofit seeks to complete the pavilion by end of spring 2016 in time for approximately 800 students to use it during Common Ground’s summer ecology camps.

The city park land that Common Ground manages is adjacent to West Rock Ridge State Park. Common Ground often utilizes the trails which link the two spaces, taking students on field trips to the state park and doing volunteer work on the trails, park supervisor Jill Scheibenpflug said.

The DEEP grant arrives two years after U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated New Haven as one of the country’s first urban wildlife refuges in 2013, New Haven Parks and Recreation Director Rebecca Bombero said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiative aims to connect people in urban areas like New Haven to natural habitats and highlight the importance of preserving natural resources.

Common Ground’s work contributes to a larger, citywide initiative to enhance urban green spaces, Audubon Greenwich Center Executive Director Michelle Frankel said. Frankel added that other green spaces on land trust land and university campuses provide an enhanced habitat for wildlife.

New Haven is one of 17 communities being awarded grants to protect 949 acres of open space in the state, according to a statement from the Connecticut Senate Democrats. The Urban Green & Community Garden Initiative through which DEEP awarded the grant is available to economically distressed municipalities.

The next deadline to apply for an Urban Green & Community Garden Initiative Grant is Feb. 6.