The 53rd Environmental Partnership Dinner returned to Philadelphia on Thursday, Nov. 9. to honor environmental excellence, leadership and accomplishment in southeast Pennsylvania.
Distinguished guests included DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn, Montgomery County commissioners Kenneth E. Lawrence and Jamila Winder, and Miss Pennsylvania Miranda Moore.
Before announcing the awards, PEC Vice President Patrick Starr took a moment to recognize President Davitt Woodwell, who is retiring at the end of the year.
“Davitt has been a phenomenal leader of PEC over the last decade, and he is leaving PEC at the top of its game,” Starr said.
Moore, who worked as an environmental engineer before taking on the Miss Pennsylvania role, presented the evening’s awards.
Government Innovation and Sustainability Award
From open space and trails to renewable energy and green buildings, Montgomery County has helped municipalities become more equitable and climate-resilient while making sustainability a priority in its own operations. The County received the 2023 Government Innovation and Sustainability award for its longstanding regional leadership on environmental, conservation, and outdoor recreation initiatives.
“The county has been a leader for decades,” Starr announced during the awards ceremony. “It constructed the first segment of the the Valley Forge Trail back in the 70s – in part a bicentennial project.”
96 miles of trails now traverse the county, which has been instrumental in securing connections in The Circuit Trails network. The recently completed Chester Valley Trail extension links the Schuylkill River Trail in Norristown to the existing segment in Chester County, forming a vital regional link that serves commuters as well as recreationists.
“It’s a quality of life issue,” Commissioner and board Chair Ken Lawrence said. “Our residents love the parks and trails. But it’s an economic issue as well.”
The recognition also reflects Montgomery County’s commitment to promoting equitable and inclusive open spaces. The County has played an important role in efforts by Circuit Trails partners to understand and address inequities in access to the outdoors, seeking out ways to make trails safe and welcoming for everyone.
On climate and clean energy, Montgomery County understands the value of partnerships. County officials are working with local communities to produce a climate action plan that will serve as a resource for municipalities in their own resiliency planning.
The County is also exploring hydroelectrification of the Norristown Dam on the Schuylkill River, with the goal of supplying energy to the County government campus in Norristown as well as to the borough itself.
County staff lend expertise and capacity to under-resourced local governments, and help to foster collaborations like the Wissahickon Clean Water Partnership, which PEC helped to conceive, bringing together 13 municipalities and four wastewater treatment plants to develop a water quality improvement plan for the Wissahickon Watershed.
“We pride ourselves on our ability to work with our municipalities and get things done in a collaborative manner,” said Scott France, Executive Director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission.
Special Places Award
The Discovery Center
The site of the Discovery Center, winner of 2023’s Special Places award, has for decades served as a beloved outdoor refuge for residents of the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.
PEC Vice President Patrick Starr, in his remarks during the ceremony, said the Special Places award recognizes extraordinary but sometimes overlooked places in the region that provide value that far exceeds their physical footprint.
The Discovery Center encircles the 37-acre East Park Reservoir, which is the largest body of freshwater in Philadelphia and an important habitat for both local and migrating birds. Created by the Philadelphia Water Department in the late 1800s for drinking water storage, the reservoir became unnecessary as the city’s population declined in the mid-20th Century.
By the 1980s, PWD had decommissioned the facility, which was overtaken by vegetation and gradually became a home for fish and aquatic plants. But as nature moved in, people were excluded. Fences went up, locking out residents of predominantly Black and working-class Strawberry Mansion, a community long accustomed to using the space for recreation, family gatherings, and school events.
“We lost access to a special place,” said Tonnetta Graham, President and Executive Director of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation.
The Water Department intended to drain the reservoir, but Strawberry Mansion residents teamed up with Audubon Mid-Atlantic to preserve the site and reopen it to the public. Audubon Mid-Atlantic and the Philadelphia Outward Bound School now jointly operate the Discovery Center, which serves as a research facility in addition to hosting conservation projects, educational programs, and opportunities for neighbors to simply relax outdoors.
More than 200 species of birds, including loons, cormorants, and bald eagles, use the site as a stopover while migrating along the Atlantic Flyway, earning its designation as an Important Bird Area. Pollinator gardens grow around the water, and public paths provide access to birders and nature lovers.
Audubon shares the space with the Philadelphia Outward Bound School, one of 11 in the country, and the two organizations collaborate regularly on programming designed to foster personal growth and learning through outdoor experiences. Recreation opportunities complement nature education, from birding by canoe to raptor observation from atop Outward Bound’s ropes course and zipline tower.
“The Discovery Center is a place that more Philadelphians should visit,” said Jennifer Torman, PEC’s Events and Administration Coordinator for the southeast region. “There’s nothing else like it in the city, and the programming that Audubon and Philadelphia Outward Bound School have jointly created is impressive.
The space itself is notable for its unassuming outward appearance, which belies the striking abundance of natural beauty within: the reservoir is completely hidden from view along busy Reservoir Drive, and only the Center’s ornate iron gate hints at the presence of something special.
First-time visitors often stop in surprise upon stepping through the gateway, which frames an unexpected vista of open water surrounded by lush vegetation and buzzing with human, avian, and insect activity.
“One of the best things about working at the Discovery Center is seeing people come up the path for the first time, and they don’t know what they’re about to see,” said Suzanne Biemiller, Executive Director of Audubon Mid-Atlantic.
“These gates right here, just OMG!” said Strawberry Mansion resident Gail Gayle, who was part of the citizen-led effort to create the Discovery Center and now works there as an assistant. “When they come in here it’s like, they never knew it was here… it’s a speaking piece.”
Staff, neighborhood leaders, and Strawberry Mansion residents agree: the Discovery Center is successful because it grew organically from community needs and desires, and was driven by authentic community involvement rather than being imposed from above.
“Some projects get done and there’s rancor, there’s disagreement with the people it’s supposed to serve,” Audubon program manager Keith Russell said. “Those things didn’t really happen here.”
Residents take pride in what the Discovery Center has become, and those involved in its creation say being recognized as a Special Place validates their years of hard work and advocacy on its behalf.
“It almost makes me feel a little bit of ownership of this, because I’m here to take care of it,” Gayle said. “I’m here to stay, and I’m going to take care [of it], and I love where we live — where I live — in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.”