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ESF Helps Give Westcott Reservoir Expanded Purpose


The student team visited the Westcott Reservoir in February 2020 (before masking and social distancing mandates were enacted) to walk the site and observe existing conditions, including winter use activities.

By Karen B. Moore

A collaboration between the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) and the Westvale Neighborhood Association (WNA) will give an iconic area landmark an expanded purpose in the community.

Maren King, director of ESF's Center for Community Design Research (CCDR), with landscape architecture (LA) and environmental science (ESci) students developed landscape design and management plans for the Westcott Reservoir site that will improve its ecologic function, add visual interest and improve it as a setting for informal recreation activities.

The reservoir, located west of the city of Syracuse, is approximately 50 acres of mown lawn with very little other vegetation. Kevin Sullivan of the WNA reached out to King for help designing a landscape plan for the reservoir to improve the appearance of the site. King agreed and suggested that there could be multiple benefits through the development of a more diverse planting strategy.

The CCDR is an outreach program within the College's Department of Landscape Architecture that works in partnership with communities to provide technical assistance, educational programs, and research projects that build community capacity to manage sustainable futures. King is also part of the Pathways to a Net-Zero Carbon Future: Landscape Design for Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Mitigation Discovery Challenge project team. This team uses a multidisciplinary approach to identify and advance practical solutions needed by planners, landowners, communities, and policy-makers, from local to global scales.

"The Westcott project offered an opportunity to look at the ecological benefit of diverse plant communities and how you can improve the ecological function of a landscape that essentially has no ecological value while improving its appearance and community function," said King.

Work on the project began at the beginning of the spring 2020 semester as an independent study project. Students on the team were LA students Alexandrea Samoray and Mary Martin; and ESci students Daniel Patton, Jake Thiele, Kimberly Sobtzick, Madison Duncan and Timothy Cooke.

The team was introduced to community design principles and an environmental education process that engages community members and translates that shared information to develop goals and alternative design concepts. In February, the team facilitated a community forum that included a presentation about ecological function, environmental values, and how changes to the vegetation and the landscape could increase the ecological function of the reservoir. Through a series of hands-on activities, the residents shared their knowledge and use of the site and their preferences for landscape types and maintenance. It was evident that the site is highly valued for informal

recreational activities such as running and dog walking that takes place on the property.

The team also conducted an online presentation with a questionnaire to gather more input.

While such participatory community sessions are part of some landscape architecture studio projects, King said the environmental science students also learned from and enjoyed the process. The multi-disciplinary nature and different interests of the team members added to the richness of the experience.

"They discovered that while community members could appreciate ecological value, they were mostly oriented towards the attraction of wildlife, such as birds and other pollinators, and the positive aspects of that, and then the detrimental aspects such as deer that would bring ticks," said King.

"In some ways, the reservoir is an icon in the community," said King. "and it's part of the image of that neighborhood, so understanding those values is important in terms of developing appropriate designs or interventions."

"This project gave me experience taking multiple facets of my education and applying them to a tangible thing," Duncan said in an email.

COVID-19 restrictions in March prevented further in-person meetings. However, students Samoray, Martin and Patton continued to work on the project virtually during the summer. They presented the course design studies with Sullivan and Heather Duran from the WNA and prepared conceptual plans based on those discussions.

The students met with Steve Harris, ESF alumnus, and city of Syracuse arborist, who offered to help any way he could although there was no money in the city budget for the project. At Harris' recommendation, the group planned for a test planting of 10 trees in the northwest portion of the reservoir. They designed three test sites to provide the WNA with alternatives to choose from. Although the reservoir is located in the town of Geddes, it's owned by the city of Syracuse, so city officials also reviewed and approved the planting plans.

Along with the design work, Patton conducted a soils study on the site. Samoray and Martin created representations that illustrated the growth of plants from the size at planting to about 50 years. The students did additional fieldwork including staking the spots where the trees will be planted and selecting the trees at the nursery.

Patton participated in the Westcott Reservoir project to gain experience in ecological remediation, landscape design, and implementation. "It was challenging to incorporate and balance all the different ecological, societal, and budget considerations, so I learned a breadth of detail involved in landscape design," he said in an email.

"This was a perfect partnership in a way," said King. The WNA handled grant writing and fundraising securing $10,000 from the CNY Community Foundation, $2000 from the Syracuse Parks Conservancy, and another $2,000 from private donors; the city water department assisted in digging holes for the trees, and the students did the design work. "The students were the central team on the project," said King. With the number of funds and in-kind services donated, all three test site plantings will be installed this spring, coordinated by the Onondaga Earth Corps.

"We've been careful about maintaining the open space so people can still enjoy the recreational aspects of the reservoir," said King. "As open space, from community health and a sense of place, it's a really valuable feature, so you don't want to change that. You want to maintain it, while at the same time making this a more diverse and ecologically contributing landscape."