Celebrating a New Haven ‘Blessing’: Two Decades of Urban Resources Initiative
Written by Dylan Walsh
Nobody could have predicted the success of the Urban Resources Initiative, or URI, when it started in 1995, a few hundred volunteers spread over a handful of New Haven neighborhoods. But two decades later, more than 270 community groups have participated in URI’s Greenspace program. Every summer, more than 1,000 volunteers join together, working across the city to convert unused lots into small parks and maintain those that have already been renovated.
“When we began in the mid-nineties, New Haven was plagued by trash-strewn vacant lots and neglected parks,” said Colleen Murphy-Dunning, Director of the nonprofit URI, based at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), which fosters community-based land stewardship and environmental education. “The visible change to the landscape is remarkable. The city has undergone a real transformation.”
Last fall, URI celebrated the milestone with community leaders, volunteers, board members, donors, and former interns at the house of Yale President, Peter Salovey. Speaking to the crowd that evening, Marta Moret, wife of President Salovey, wove the work of URI into a larger narrative about making New Haven a healthy city.
“It is wonderful to have a project that gets communities together around being outdoors, around an activity that is healthy for the air, that may even reduce gun violence and crime,” said Moret, who graduated with a Master’s degree from the Yale School of Public Health. “This is an organization that brings communities together and makes them more like communities.”
In Edgewood Park, for instance, miles from campus, about 25 volunteers routinely meet, led by founder of the Edgewood Park Greenspace group Stephanie Fitzgerald. They plant trees in the 120-acre park that curves narrowly along the West River. They lay down mulch, maintain gardens and park entrances, clear hiking trails, and ward off the growth of invasive species.“Whoever wants to come out has weight in what we do,” Fitzgerald said.
“It’s a blessing that Greenspace even exists,” said Thomas Burwell, a lifelong Fair Haven resident who first joined the Fair Haven Neighbors in Action group three years ago.
This past summer, he founded his own Greenspace, Friends of Quinnipiac River Park. “The program just matches so well with the needs of the community,” he said. Beyond tree planting and trail maintenance along the Quinnipiac River, Burwell and other volunteers have helped lure the Farmers’ Market, absent for years, back to the riverbank on summer Thursdays.
During the 20-year celebration, F&ES Dean Peter Crane, described the essential role URI has forged at F&ES over the past two decades. At a time when the work of the School is increasingly global, he said, URI maintains a deep local connection between the school and the community. New Haven Mayor Toni Harp noted the service URI has provided as a city partner, both historically and today.
Jody Bush, a URI board member, rose to single out the heroic efforts of Colleen Murphy-Dunning. “She is humble, ambitious, dedicated, kind,” Bush said.
For Murphy-Dunning, the vision of the project is simple but far-reaching. “My hope is that we can continue to find ways for our Community Greenspace work to engage people in meaningful ways with nature while also making New Haven a resilient, livable city.”