Animal sculptures, poems, and QR codes: Juniata Park’s new River Alive! Trail teaches families about nature

Tacony Creek Park in Northeast Philadelphia’s Juniata Park neighborhood is home to a new bilingual and outdoor exhibit that offers families unique ways to learn about the natural environment.

The public art project from Philadelphia-based artist Miguel Horn was unveiled Wednesday near Ferko Playground along Cayuga Street. The exhibit, which features six benches with animal sculptures, is a part of the new River Alive! Learning Trail and based off the River Alive exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum.

Residents from Juniata Park helped to shape the project and participated in its creation and installation too. (Photo courtesy of Dariana Garcia)

“This is creating an educational experience that’s right down the street from people in a very welcoming way,” said Julie Slavet, the executive director of the Tookany/Tacony Frankford Watershed Partnership. The benches will be beneficial for the park — in both recreational and educational ways.

“We know a lot of people already come here to chill out and to spend time with their families,” said Slavet. “The idea is to create some spaces within this park where people can … also spend some time learning about animals in the park … especially with young children.”

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A community collaboration

After the success of the River Alive! exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum, the concept was expanded to bring the museum experience to a neighborhood level, with a focus on early childhood education.

During the project’s planning phase, local families visited the exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum and children offered their input on the animals they wanted to see.

The benches and animal sculptures were designed by Horn, who created the ContraFuerte public art piece in Center City last year. Horn collaborated with artist Jay Coreando, planning and design studio Habithèque Inc., and had construction help from Philadelphia high school students who are members of the Youth Volunteer Corps (YVC).

Earlier this summer, sounds of hammers, fans, and music filled the West Philadelphia studio where Horn and YVC students worked to assemble and polish the benches.

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Covered in sawdust amid the construction, YVC member Malcolm Miller was beaming.

“It was really great when we were reaching the end and everyone started being like, ‘Wow it looks like a bench!’” said Miller. “I could tell that everyone was as impressed with our work as we are, so it’s definitely really great when you can actually see it come together and you know what it’s gonna look like before it’s even done.”

The volunteers were all smiles as they saw the pieces of wood come to life, draped in the summer sunlight that peaked through the studio’s garage door.

“I think there’s a lot of satisfaction that’s drawn from seeing it come together, creating the benches, and seeing those components from the first designs and iterations to the final process,” said Horn. “Seeing the kids really engage at every step of the way … I thought was pretty cool.”

When it came time to install the benches and sculptures, community members pitched in too.

“It’s a beautiful day to spend time in our local parks,” said resident Kristen Mertus on installation day. “We wanted to help out with this cool thing that we’ll be able to see when we go on our hikes.”

An exhibit with poems, QR codes, water, and more

The new Tacony Creek Park exhibit, which was funded by the William Penn Foundation, captures the fluidity and structure of nature.

The light blue benches have a unique wavy design that evokes water. Each is accompanied by an animal sculpture: a turtle, a water snake, a river otter, a red-breast sunfish, a fox, and a great blue heron.

Members of the Youth Volunteer Corps explore the River Alive! Learning Trail sculptures at Tookany Creek Park after their unveiling on Sept. 14, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Deeper in the park sits a bench with the great blue heron, surrounded by a stunning mosaic base with varying shades of blue, green, and orange. There’s iridescent tiles, too, with a verse in white letters that represents each animal.

On the base of each animal sculpture is a QR code that redirects users to an upbeat song produced by the local band City Love. All six benches have signage in Spanish and English and include a poem dedicated to each animal.

One of the signs at the River Alive! Learning Trail at Tookany Creek Park. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Each sculpture also features a water element as part of its design.

Young children are encouraged to interact with the animal sculptures by pouring water over them and observing the water flow into their bases.

“I hope that it’s engaging and inspiring to young children,” said Horn. Learning about animals in the watershed could act as a bridge, he said, for young children to get “a little bit more curious” about the ways every living being in the watershed interacts.

In the near future, a scavenger hunt will be posted on signage to motivate families to learn hands-on about nature on the trail.

“That’s how kids learn,” said Slavet. “It’s really important.”

Additional resources like reading and science programs will be offered along the trail in the fall and spring, including Free Science Saturdays!, which kick off on Sept. 17 and run through the end of October.

For Slavet, the project creates “a space where parents and siblings and grandparents can spend time with their kids,” while also learning.

Community members are eager to see the impact the project will have on the neighborhood and the way people interact with nature.

Javier Antonio Cruz and his family live nearby and helped decorate the mosaic base.

“I’m excited to see what the future holds,” Cruz said.

This story was reported in collaboration with WHYY’s education department and its Pathway to Media Careers program. 

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