Ko Lyn Cheang

Connie Vereen believed her neighborhood deserved a park. There was a designated park space at the end of Cherry Ann Street, but it was treated as an illegal dumping site by residents. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, she petitioned for the city of New Haven to turn the space into a park for the children and residents of her neighborhood, which straddles the New Haven–Hamden border.

“When we talk about Cherry Ann Street, it was the tale of a street that was neglected by both New Haven and Hamden,” said Barbara Vereen, Connie Vereen’s daughter.

But in 2013, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services designated New Haven one of 21 Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership cities across the country, Connie Vereen’s dream of creating a neighborhood park for Cherry Ann Street was realized.

The Urban Resources Initiative, a program linked to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, became involved in the efforts, providing expertise on which trees were native species and which were invasive species. Residents spent the next few years clearing the space, meeting every Saturday to remove weeds and clear debris. Playground equipment was added to the space this year.

Today, what used to be a breeding ground for invasive species is a bird sanctuary with playground equipment, a walking trail and a community garden. Migratory great blue herons can sometimes be seen resting in the vicinity. Children play on the swings.

“We live in two cities joined by one park,” Barbara Vereen said.

Cherry Ann Street Park is one of 25 urban oases scattered across New Haven. In schoolyards, beside parking lots and along ponds and rivers, residents tend to community gardens and plots of wildflowers in an effort to rehabilitate native species.

Audubon Connecticut, a bird conservation organization, brought the vision of developing an urban oasis for birds to New Haven. With increasing urbanization along the eastern seaboard of the United States, migratory birds increasingly need to stop over in cities. Audubon partnered with Common Ground High School, the Urban Resources Initiative, the local New Haven government and other community groups to realize this vision.

“That’s the vision — that we create this connected network of little wildlife refuges across our city,” said Joel Tolman, director of impact and engagement at Common Ground High School.

Common Ground, a charter high school focused on education about the urban environment, is one such urban oasis.

Isobel Browe, a senior at Common Ground High School, spends one period of each school day working on the school’s urban farm. Together with her classmates at Common Ground, Browe is carrying out tests on water samples from the West River in an effort to investigate an orange bacterial growth that has taken over a section of the river.

“I definitely think it is a human cause,” Browe said. “Anything that runs off from the landfill over there or any of the housing developments goes straight to the river.”

In addition to conducting research, students at Common Ground plant native species and create “bioswales,” landscape elements designed to filter pollutants out of surface runoff water and to control water runoff into the river.

Bioswales and rain gardens are also being created in a community-based effort to filter untreated stormwater that flows into rivers and the Long Island Sound. Through the Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership program, residents of New Haven lead various community projects like the one initiated by Connie Vereen.

It took time for the New Haven community to understand what being an Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership city meant. Now, the community is becoming more aware of its unique status, said Nan Bartow, president of Friends of Beaver Ponds Park. Friends of Beaver Ponds Park is one of several volunteer groups in New Haven that maintain the health of these urban oases.

Tolman said he considers Cherry Ann Street Park to be the project at its best — driven by a neighborhood leader, with local and federal partners supporting the vision of a New Haven resident.

“One [goal] is to get the water cleaner for all of us, and the other is to have citizen access to these wonderful resources — the river and its tributaries,” said Stephanie FitzGerald, a member of West River Watershed Coalition steering team.

According to Tolman, federal support for the Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership has continued. He said that the project could not have made the progress it has without federal support. But he expects that, in due time, he will have to more actively defend that commitment. He added that he feels optimistic about the longevity of these efforts.

“I feel good about the degree to which community members and local funders have stepped up to support this, and in that sense it is fairly resilient,” he said.

Ko Lyn Cheang | kolyn.cheang@yale.edu

Correction, Oct. 22: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Connecticut Audubon Society brought the vision of developing an urban oasis for birds to New Haven. In fact, the organization is called Audubon Connecticut.