Eric Fishel majored in biology at Johns Hopkins University, thinking he would go on to medical school. After working at the Maryland Zoo and Marshy Point Nature Center during college, he realized he felt more connected to the natural world. He detoured into the world of ecology, got a master’s degree in natural resources and traveled across the U.S. and the world for 10 years working on various research projects, mostly involving bird ecology. But he has always felt deeply connected to Baltimore, which has served as his home base. For the last five years, he has been thinking of a way to combine his passion for ecology, science and birds to help the city’s underserved communities.
The OSI Community Fellowship is helping Fishel make his dream a reality. Through his project Baltimore Foodparks, he will work to improve vacant lots, conduct scientific research, and help conserve Baltimore’s greenspace and wildlife all while educating and engaging communities. In underserved communities, vacant land is not always seen as an asset because it is overgrown or blocked off from the rest of the neighborhood. But even small patches of green space can serve an important purpose in the local ecosystem and can go a long way in improving a neighborhood.
“The most important thing to me is the community engagement,” he says. “I want to see more people get excited about nature.”
His passion for connecting people to nature has been evident throughout his career as a naturalist. While working at Marshy Point, Fishel noticed that native edible plants were a great way to engage people from the city in nature. Each year, the center conducted an edible plant walk for homeless families.
“Participants were terrified to step off the path into the woods at first,” Fishel says. “But within 10 minutes, they were jumping into nature looking for other plants they could eat.”
In partnership with the Patterson Park Audubon Center and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and with support from the community, he will convert vacant lots into high-quality greenspace complete with native edible plants such as raspberries, blackberries, walnuts, and chestnuts. He will engage community members and partner organizations, like Baltimore Greenspaces, around designing and building the greenspaces. He wants the lots to be assets in their communities, and food is both a great way to catch people’s interest and offer them something useful.
Once the lots are converted to green space, Fishel will work with schools and community groups to learn more about conservation and conduct migratory bird research. Working with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, he will be responsible for banding local birds and then work with community members to observe the birds in public green spaces such as the reclaimed vacant lots.
Through research, Fishel hopes to expose young people in Baltimore City to careers in scientific research and spark a passion for science and nature. Even if they don’t pursue a career in science, they will learn more about research and develop new skills in the process. During his time as a researcher, he often had the opportunity to present about avian ecology and research to students. After presenting to a friend’s high school class in Chicago, three students stayed four hours after class to talk about his career.
Fishel will start in the communities around Patterson Park, leveraging the relationships his partners have in that area. But he wants to work citywide in any community where people are interested in creating high-quality greenspaces.