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Delaware & Lehigh - Growing Allentown’s urban jungle
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By Kathleen Ward, Conservation Coordinator

There is an urban jungle in Allentown. No, not the thriving downtown with city streets, but another type of urban jungle. A green, verdant one.

The City of Allentown is home to 36 public parks and playgrounds with over 2,000 acres of parkland and 35+ miles of trails for residents and visitors to enjoy. In all of the parks with creeks and rivers flowing through them, the City of Allentown Parks Department have cultivated riparian buffers, or “urban buffers” as Park Superintendent Rick Holtzman likes to call them. The City formally started implementing the riparian areas in 2008. Before that, parks had short-cropped grass trimmed close as possible to the streambank.

So why the change? According to Rick and Karen El-Chaar, Allentown’s Director of Parks and Recreation, both the City and its citizens wanted the buffers. The City recognized how the buffers would help control the damaging effects of torrential rains and floods; the citizens wanted to ensure clean water and get back to nature.

“People who recreate and use parks and trails also want to have that feel of native areas and improve streams and water quality,” said Rick. “We believe our buffers mean a lot to the City and the environment.”

By definition, a riparian buffer is a vegetated “buffer strip” near a stream which helps to shade and partially protect the stream from the impact of adjacent urban, industrial or agricultural land use. A few feet of plants – hopefully native plants – help stop runoff pollutants from entering the stream, control streambank erosion and provide habitat and nutrients for fish, invertebrates and wildlife.

To put it simply, that few feet of plants and trees on a streambank pays off in dividends.

There were some bumps along the way in creating the riparian “urban” buffers for Allentown’s Parks Department. Rick reports that back in 2008, the riparian buffers were completely “no mow”. This made it difficult for Allentownians who wanted access to the creeks or streams to fish or birdwatch. With some learning and growing along with community dialogue, the parks department now mows footpaths in the buffers to allow people to access the water at select points. They also have created educational signs which are posted along the trails and buffers to let people know why the buffers are important.

Rick and Karen say that the City of Allentown can’t do it alone, however. Grants and volunteers help.

One project in 2019 was aided by a $6,000 mini grant from Lehigh Valley Greenways – a partnership in which the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor Inc. serves as the external lead coordinator. This mini grant allowed the City of Allentown to plant 145 shade trees in the riparian area of “Lindy’s Lot” in the Lehigh Parkway and Cedar Creek Parkway. Once matured, the trees will develop a canopy over the areas intended for a future riparian buffer. Then, the City will begin planting ground covers and lower plants to enhance water quality and storm water management in both parks.

Volunteers also make a difference. Even during the summer of 2020 at the height of the COVID crisis, Allentown’s Environmental Advisory Council, Watershed Coalition of the Lehigh Valley and Muhlenberg College helped Allentown’s parks through their “Adopt a Buffer” program.

While Allentown’s riparian buffer program is excellent, it is not unique in the Lehigh Valley. Many municipalities throughout the region have similar programs. Rob Christopher, Easton’s City Forester, shared how he also values the contributions of volunteers.

“In Easton, we have riparian buffers along the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers as well as the Bushkill Creek,” said Rob. “Our staff of six full-time parks employees can accomplish a lot, but help from interns and people on volunteer days helps put more riparian buffers in place.”

If you would like to roll up your sleeves and help a Lehigh Valley municipality with their riparian buffer project, contact the Watershed Coalition of the Lehigh Valley at https://watershedcoalitionlv.org/get-involved/ or volunteer with another local group.

To learn more about the City of Allentown’s parks and its riparian buffer program, visit: https://www.allentownpa.gov/Department-of-Parks-and-Recreation

And to read more “Success Stories” of Lehigh Valley Greenways’ mini grant programs, visit: https://lvgreenways.org/mini-grants/

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