Viewpoint: Phoenix’s new Audubon Center brings life to formerly bare area

[Source: Sam Campana, Audubon Arizona, Special to the Arizona Republic] — When the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center opens in October in Phoenix, children from an underserved and diverse population who may never have connected with nature will find themselves in a green and LEED-certified wonderland. What was once a neglected site is now a riparian ecosystem blooming with native plants indigenous to the Salt River.

The 8,000-square-foot center is the National Audubon Society’s first education center in Arizona and a centerpiece for the city of Phoenix’s Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Project.  Six years in the making, it was funded by a capital campaign that raised $7 million.  Our new light-filled and green space features a multi-use classroom, exhibits and discovery areas, and numerous outdoor interactive spaces for children and adults.  An adjoining hummingbird garden invites everyone to enjoy the antics of these amazing birds.

Birds are the main attraction, but children also learn natural science, geology and history here.  Our Arizona-centric curriculum is geared for grades four through eight, and students may also participate in week-long programs during school intersession.  Thirty-five schools in four districts are within 5 miles of the center.

In planning for this center, we aimed for LEED Gold Certification.  But, during the design and building phase, it became apparent to our architects from Weddle Gilmore & Associates and Blackrock Studio that we could aspire to LEED Platinum, the highest rating given by the U.S. Green Building Council.  Some LEED points came from installing solar panels donated by Salt River Project.  Others came from our innovative landscaping design which allows storm water to filter into the ground instead of running into storm drains.  More points were garnered from our attention to water use and diverting 75 percent of construction waste from disposal.

Before we rehabilitated this site, only four mesquite trees grew on the entire 4 acres and just 40 bird species had been spotted in the area.  Our volunteers planted 180 trees to ensure that birds and other wildlife find food and cover.  Today, our center is visited by more than 200 species of birds, and dozens of species nest here.

But this historic restoration of the Salt River is also good for people.  Visitors can walk a trail on the property that joins with the 5-mile Rio Salado Restoration Project where 20 more miles of trails wait to be explored.  By every measure, this is a dramatic first step in revitalizing the entire area, a point that was elegantly driven home on the evening that we previewed the new center to our donors.  As we all marveled at this beautiful and sustainable building and landscape, a great egret, the proud emblem of the National Audubon Society, soared over the new wetland at sunset in full view of all the guests — proving that going green really is for the birds.

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