Make Ecologies Strange 1

Adrien Wilson-Thompson — “Urban Students Deserve to Breathe”

Adrien Wilson-Thompson is a rising senior majoring in Anthropology. She is from Maryland. 

For her art installation, she chose to work with natural earth mineral paint and found rocks. She constructed the installation at the James G. Kaskey Memorial Park (Bio Pond) in order to draw attention to the restorative properties of embracing nature. 

Every spring, life returns to the University of Pennsylvania. The ice melts away as we begin to feel the warmth from the sun, and the once cold and desolate campus erupts with the colors and sounds of the season. The flowers start to bloom and the trees that were once barren are now sprouting green leaves, bringing a splash of color to the otherwise gray landscape. This seasonal change is the most stunning at the UPenn Bio Pond ss one of the few areas on campus that resembles a natural ecosystem. You know spring has truly arrived when the turtles return to the pond, basking in the sun as they soak up the warmth after a long winter.   

The commonsense ecology at the center of this piece is the University of Pennsylvania Bio Pond. Located on the high ground east of University Avenue, right behind the Quad and Hamilton Walk, The James G. Kaskey Memorial Park, dubbed the University of Pennsylvania Bio Pond, is regarded as one of the oldest official green spaces on Penn’s campus (Kyriakodis, 2018). This small body of water, situated amidst a maze of footpaths that wind through peaceful flowerbeds and light-filled clearings, is regarded by many as one of Penn’s best-kept secrets gems. In warm weather, this pond attracts people from all walks of life, whether they’re dining alone, enjoying a romantic outing, or simply reading a good book. The Bio Pond’s effect is almost surreal, as it provides a complete escape from bustle of the city making you forget you’re standing on a college campus in the heart of a major metropolis. 

I consider myself as having a very personal relationship to the Bio Pond. To put it lightly, I have always struggled with issues regarding my mental health, making the transition into college life very difficult. Having struggled my whole life, I thought moving to a big city for college would be the perfect change of pace for me. Alas, during my freshman year, I was faced with familiar feelings of despair and emptiness during what should have been the most invigorating and exciting time of my life. A big contributor to these feelings was realizing that I moved to a huge city completely by myself; I was not aware of how shocking this switch in locale would be. I had never lived in a city this large, and I found it very strange to move to an area where I would walk outside and all I’d see is concrete. On a walk alone one evening, I stumbled upon the Bio Pond, and I discovered my own personal forest in the middle of such an urban environment. I have spent countless days looking at the flowers and watching the turtles and small fish navigate their own small universe. They didn’t know we were in the middle of Philadelphia. I found that my walks to the Pond and the time I would spend there always improved my mood. The small oasis that is the Bio Pond has truly been a saving grace during my time at this school.   

Recognizing that this connection to the natural environment has been integral to the state of my wellbeing, it sparked curiosity into the benefits that green spaces have on all aspects of health, both mental and physical. Living in big cities causes a multitude of negative health effects, caused by factors such as population density and air pollution. In my personal experience, disconnecting from our urban everyday environments has calming and restorative effects on the mind and body. Easy access to green outdoor spaces from places of business, such as schools and work, has been proven to significantly reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, while improving mood, creativity, and cognitive function (Lottrup, 2013). Spending time in nature can reduce levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress, and increase levels of serotonin, the hormone associated with happiness (Lottrup, 2013). Studies have shown that exposure to nature and other restorative environments can increase sustained attentional capacity, which is very important for university students (Berto, 2005). Furthermore, a study conducted by the University of Washington (2014) produced results that directly linked academic institutions’ proximity to natural settings with measurably positive impacts on students.   

From an environmental and climate perspective, incorporating green spaces on college campuses is vital to the ecological wellbeing of the area. Urbanization has been the cause of many environmental issues we face in the present day. One observable effect of urbanization is known as the heat island effect, in which highly developed areas experience higher average temperatures due to the high concentration of hard, reflective surfaces (Wong & Yu, 2005). However, the presence of large green areas in urban environments has been shown to result in a decrease of average temperature, helping to mitigate this heat island effect (Wong & Yu, 2005). Furthermore, through oxygen production and concentrated areas of foliage, the presence of thriving natural ecosystems in urban environments has been shown to improve air quality and promote biodiversity (Wong & Yu, 2005). The ecological benefits of green spaces in urban environments are undoubtedly clear. 

There is no shortage of reasons as to why access to natural settings in university environments is crucial to the college experience. Aside from its health benefits, green areas also usually serve as gathering places for social and recreational activities. Once the weather makes a turn for the better on Penn’s campus, you’ll find people having picnics under the trees and throwing footballs around on high-rise field from sunup to sundown. These areas serve as fundamental spaces for community building and connection at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as countless other universities across the country. Additionally, natural areas on college campuses can provide opportunities for hands-on learning and research in fields such as ecology, environmental science, and biology. One of my fondest memories of my time at Penn has come from my engagement with nature during this class. There was one day where we all walked outside as a group and sat on the grass in a circle as our professor read to us a guided meditation about connecting to nature. I left this experience with an entirely new perspective and a deeper appreciation of the natural world and my place in it. An experience like this would have been completely impossible without that small patch of grass to sit on. Overall, nature is an essential component of a healthy and vibrant college campus, providing benefits for health, learning, community building, and environmental sustainability. It is no surprise that access to the BioPond has been a crucial part of my wellbeing at Penn, but I can’t help but notice how it’s one of the only spaces near campus conducive to a connection to nature.     

In forming this connection between natural ecosystems and healthy living, I wanted to explore why this small section of land was the only space of its kind. This sent me on a journey of discovering what existed here before Penn existed as an institution. Since landscapes are simultaneously concrete and fluid and linked to multiple histories, we can study them by drawing on the histories of their transformation and cultivation (Matthews, 2018). Upon researching the ecological record of the Bio Pond and of the University of Pennsylvania, I discovered a longstanding history of natural destruction. Before European colonization, the area of Penn’s campus spanned the Atlantic Coastal Plain as a closed canopy forest with swamps and marshes in lowland areas (Roman et al., 2017). However, like much of the northeastern United States, this region was deforested during colonization, and the land that was once blanketed with trees is now virtually barren. The recorded history of the property that now houses the University of Pennsylvania dates back to the early 1800s, when the land between 34th Street and University Avenue was known as Blockley Farm (Thomas & Brownlee, 2000). Once Penn began developing this area, the landscape drastically changed from agricultural fields to a manicured campus. Additionally, it is also important to acknowledge that the development of the University of Pennsylvania itself displaced numerous black and brown low-income communities, commonly referred to as the Black Bottom, resulting in the destruction of this suburban community throughout the 1900s to the present day (Roman et al., 2017).  Even the Bio Pond itself has faced destruction as well. Originally five acres wide, the garden contained an extensive system of plant beds, greenhouses, and rock gardens (2022). Today, the BioPond stands at 3 acres of its original 5, as much of it was demolished in the 80s for development and construction (2022).  

Throughout my time at Penn, I have witnessed multiple green spaces transform into designated construction zones. Gutmann College House resides on what used to be a beautiful lawn where students would go to bask in the sunshine. This past year, the University announced its plans for development of a new building on the lawn near Hill College House. In “The Licit Life of Capitalism,” author Hannah Appel (2019) makes the argument that, through concepts such as contracts, infrastructures, and expertise, capitalism can be understood as a constant, ongoing project. It was through this passage that I began to understand that the constant development of infrastructure on this campus will never cease. As long as there is open space, development will occur in the name of profits, since the grass itself isn’t making anyone any money. We as students are forced to watch as infrastructure is placed on a pedestal above our green spaces. Since the University of Pennsylvania is ranked as one the universities with the highest rates of depression and anxiety amongst its student body, it would follow that this institution would do everything in its power to promote healthy living. If Penn truly values its students, they should fund and support the development of more green spaces, instead of demolishing what little remains. These spaces are vital to our health, and we have nowhere near enough of them. 

In an attempt to interrupt the everyday, I knew I wanted to design an art-based installation at the Bio Pond. I wanted to create something would prompt onlookers to engage with the environment in a unique way. One of my favorite ways to engage with the Bio Pond is by sitting on the rocks that surround the water, and I decided to incorporate these rocks into my piece by writing various messages on them. With quotes such as “drop your shoulders,” “unclench your jaw,” and “take a deep breath,” my objective was to create something along the lines of a guided meditation. I carefully chose each affirmation with one goal in mind: to force to audience to consciously de-stress and ground themselves. After a bit of research on non-toxic, eco-friendly painting products, I got to work, using vibrant colors to catch peoples’ eyes. It was a brilliantly sunny day after a week of rain as I gathered my materials and made my way down to the pond. Once I arrived, I sat down and stared at my surroundings for a moment, trying to capture the feelings that being there brought me. I hoped that if I could infuse these feelings into my work, it would properly convey my message.  

Admittedly, the way I chose to design this art-based engagement does not communicate the current argument I am trying to convey; it does not display why green spaces are important or why we should preserve them. However, this was an intentionally calculated decision. Instead of creating a thought piece that would form an argument, I wanted to encourage other people to interact with this land in the ways that I have. I did not want to highlight the negative effects of the lack of green space, but rather highlight the positive effects of the spaces we do have access to. I wanted everyone who saw the piece to have the opportunity to disconnect from their daily lives, even if just for a moment, and remove themselves from the chaos of the city. For me, this intervention was a way for me to personally destress. Amidst the madness of finals season, sitting down by the pond and hand painting each rock brought me peace during an otherwise stressful time. That is why this intervention was so meaningful to me. Not only did I get to engage with the environment, but I hopefully got to encourage others to as well. 

Exposure to green spaces can have a positive impact on the mental health and well-being of students, faculty, and staff at college campuses everywhere. College can be a stressful and demanding time, and access to nature can provide a much-needed break from the pressures of academic life, contributing to a more sustainable and healthy campus environment. Connecting with the natural world provides us with a sense of clarity and purpose that promotes peace, perspective, rejuvenation, and an overall better quality of life. The University of Pennsylvania needs to prioritize its green spaces, instead of trying to further its development. The sight of trees swaying in the wind, the sounds of birds chirping, and the smell of fresh air keeps us grounded in our urban lives. We need more spaces to connect with nature and slow down, just like the turtles that bask in the new life that spring brings. They move slowly and deliberately, taking their time to navigate their paths. The sight of turtles returning to a pond after winter is a reminder of the natural rhythms of the world around us. It’s a moment of awe and wonder, serving as a reminder of the beauty and power of nature and the tranquility that it brings us.   

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