The permanent protection of 1,100 acres along the Brandywine known as “Woodlawn” is an historic act of conservation by the Mt Cuba Center, The Conservation Fund and Woodlawn Trustees, Inc. But it has the potential to be even more: a National Historic Park designation for the property offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Delaware to advance the future of conservation on a national stage. And it is nothing short of amazing that the platform for this unique opportunity was constructed more than a century ago.
In an effort to meet the global challenges of steady global population growth and the trend toward more and more people living in cities, The Nature Conservancy has been working to more deliberately connect urban and suburban populaces with nature in order to foster a deeper understanding of how vital healthy ecosystems are to human life. As it turns out, William Bancroft grasped the importance of connecting people with nature more than 100 years ago. Borrowing from the “Bourneville Experiment,” a British social and land-use reform movement in the late 1800s, Bancroft developed and began to execute an urban plan for Wilmington that combined affordable housing with an abundance of open space. He began amassing land along the Brandywine, including what we now know as Woodlawn, and spoke of the health benefits – both physical and spiritual – that man derives from nature.
Woodlawn is a few short miles outside the Wilmington city limits, and yet – with its productive farmland, mature Piedmont forests and first-order streams – it is “the country.” Springs on the property contribute clean water to the Brandywine, the sole source of Wilmington’s drinking water. Floodplains offer an economic way to reduce storm water run-off, thereby reducing floods in low-lying sections of the City. A trail system provides access to cool forest interiors and hilltops that afford views into thousands more acres of preserved land in Pennsylvania. In short, the property offers us the opportunity to experience ourselves in the natural world – a vital counterbalance to the 24-hour-a-day tether binding us to the virtual world – and a chance to witness first-hand the value nature brings to our lives.
So how could a National Historic Park at Woodlawn serve to adapt William Bancroft’s vision to the realities of life in 21st century Delaware? By providing an elevated stage for the many groups already working to make Delaware a better place to live. Imagine, for example, the Brandywine Valley Association partnering with the University of Delaware’s Water Resource Agency or Stroud Water Research Center to teach groups from the Boys & Girls Clubs how to restore wetlands or plant buffers along a first order stream at Woodlawn. Or consider the Delaware Trail Spinners working with youths from the Challenge Program, perhaps in conjunction with land stewards from The Nature Conservancy, to engineer and construct bridges that allow trails to safely cross environmentally sensitive areas. Picture too the Delaware Center for Horticulture mobilizing its vast volunteer network to plant and maintain an urban garden at Woodlawn, with the produce being distributed through the Food Bank of Delaware. Similarly, imagine the Delaware Museum of Natural History drawing on the repositories of Hagley Museum and Library to help local school groups prepare historical interpretations for sites at Woodlawn and elsewhere, for example, Old Swede’s Church and Fort DuPont.
These types of novel partnerships would draw a wide array of people into nature, helping them understand the critical services ecosystems provide. Moreover, by getting their hands dirty creating and maintaining Delaware’s first National Park, Delawareans would forge an enduring ownership stake in what they helped to build, a bond with the land that could be passed down from generation to generation. This model – one of the first of its kind – would also stand as a shining example of what government can accomplish working in partnership with a local community. A National Historic Park designation would elevate our work to the national level, providing both an economic tailwind for Delaware and an inspiration for other localities across the country to use conservation as a platform to benefit people and nature.
The Woodlawn property also reflects the degree to which our community’s history is entwined with nature. Ruins of early Quaker homes on the property provide a springboard for imagining what life was like in the days before we became a nation. Standing in Woodlawn’s forests, it is not hard to picture an early Quaker settler or Lenape Indian carrying wild game to a pre-colonial trading post. In fact, surveyors long ago notched trees in Woodlawn to mark the 12-mile arch from the New Castle Courthouse identifying property deeded to William Penn, a line that would eventually form our state’s northern border. In this way (and others), a National Historic Park designation for Woodlawn dovetails snuggly with Senator Carper’s decade-long effort to found a National Park in Delaware based upon the period from early American settlement to first statehood.
Delaware was blessed to have a visionary like William Bancroft. We are equally blessed to have the Mt. Cuba Center and The Conservation Fund bring Bancroft’s vision to the brink of national significance. Let’s join together in partnership and seize this opportunity for all it is worth, creating a park worthy of being the First State’s first National Park.
This piece also ran in The News Journal on Sunday, August 26. A public meeting related to Delaware’s national park designation is scheduled for Tuesday, August 28 in Greenville.