The Urban Resources Initiative Legacy Fund
Est. 2020 by Lauren and Ben Heruska and Christopher Ozyck.
Trees have always been central to the identity of New Haven, renowned from its early days as the “The Elm City” for the spectacular canopy that once arched over its downtown streets and central green. While disease wiped out elms during the last century, an impressive inventory of maples, lindens, oaks, ash, sycamores, and various other species give neighborhoods shady comfort and a sense of place throughout present-day New Haven.
Urban Resources Initiative (URI) is the principal steward responsible for the monumental task of replenishing this urban forest, and for the spread of community greenspaces lending natural beauty and building neighborhood bonds throughout the city. In doing its work, URI partners with resident volunteers and offers paid green job training to adults and teenagers in need of opportunities.
“Ultimately, we are trying to connect people with nature in the urban environment,” said Associate Director for URI Chris Ozyck.
To ensure URI has the resources to sustain its work for years to come, Ozyck, together with longtime supporters Lauren and Ben Heruska, created the Urban Resources Legacy Fund.
“It’s so important to have the stability of funding to keep the operations running,” said Ozyck. “A lot of funding opportunities want new projects. Day-to-day dollars are harder to find. This fund will help URI continue its commitment to the environment and the community."
The fund’s creation continues a long relationship between URI and The Foundation that dates back to The Foundation’s Community Gardens and Greenspace program in the mid-1990s. URI managed the Community Greenspace part of the program, having already developed an innovative model for community greening projects. URI had developed as a program of the Hixon Center of Urban Ecology at the Yale School of the Environment. In 1991, it became an independent nonprofit in order to give local community members a governing voice and create a structure for establishing and implementing community-led projects. URI eventually took over running Community Greenspace as a core program of its own.
URI now provides technical assistance to 50 volunteer groups around the city, each maintaining a little urban oasis. The gardens and pocket parks offer more than passive beauty. They are a nexus for people to come together, strengthening the bonds that make communities hospitable and safe. Volunteers from one community greenspace will frequently visit the greenspace of another neighborhood to pitch in with planting flowers, watering, or weeding or cleaning up trash, says URI Executive Director Colleen Murphy-Dunning.
"To me, it's extraordinary that people come out on a weekly basis to do this work for their neighborhoods," says Murphy-Dunning. "These places undergo magical transformations. Children are now playing in parks that had been dumping grounds.”
Maintaining the urban forest requires a constant replacing of trees lost to age, sickness, and the saws of utility companies. To keep the city at replacement levels, URI, in partnership with the City of New Haven, plants up to 1,000 trees annually with planting teams of high school students and adults who also have a history of incarceration. The teams are paid and individuals learn forestry and landscaping skills that build their resumes for quality employment opportunities.
Ozyck, who earned his B.S. in Landscape Design from the University of Connecticut, started his career with URI, first as a volunteer, then as a trainer, eventually becoming manager of the Greenspaces Program. Now the associate director, Ozyck manages URI’s municipal relationship and recently oversaw the construction of 125 bioswales, which naturally filter pollutants from stormwater runoff. During the project, teenage and adult paid interns were taught highly technical aspects of stormwater infrastructure.
“It is a great learning opportunity for a population that would not otherwise have this opportunity,” said Ozyck. “What we do is good for the environment and is driven by social justice.”
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