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Cusano Environmental Education Center

Landscape Performance Benefits


  • Reduced stormwater runoff generation by 30% by creating meadow instead of a standard lawn.
  • Improved ecological quality of the area by more by creating meadow instead of a standard lawn. According to the Plant Stewardship Index, an assessment of biodiversity based on a site’s plant list, the meadow is 7.5 times “more ecological” than a standard lawn.


  • Offers 16 environmental education and outreach programs, including a professional curriculum development program for K-12 educators, twice the number of programs at a similar refuge.
  • Serves 135,000 visitors annually, a fairly high density of 112 visitors per acre.


  • Avoided $2,560 in annual mowing costs by creating meadow instead of a standard lawn.

At a Glance

  • Designer


  • Project Type

    Nature preserve

  • Former Land Use


  • Location

    8601 Lindbergh Blvd, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19153
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  • Climate Zone

    Humid subtropical

  • Size

    9 acres

  • Completion Date


The Cusano Environmental Education Center landscape restores and protects remaining resources on a significantly disturbed site adjacent to the Tinicum Marsh, the last significant remnant of freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania. The landscape uses native plant communities to restore soil health over time and exhibit complex natural habitats. Small, shallow wetlands and an “old field” meadow were created as important bird and butterfly habitat. Runoff from roofs is captured in cisterns, and runoff from roads drains toward surface swales that convey water to a new wetland exhibit. Porous pavement in the parking lot manages stormwater by promoting groundwater recharge.


After evaluating several sites for the building and parking, this site was chosen because it was the most disturbed and closest to existing parking and roads. The site is also adjacent to Darby Creek and the Tinicum Marsh, the last significant remnant of freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania. Despite this, the site is surrounded by urban land uses and comprised primarily of urban fill, including construction debris from highrise development in center city Philadelphia. Folcroft Landfill is immediately across the creek and residential and commercial uses are in the immediate vicinity. Oil refineries and Philadelphia International Airport are both within a mile of the site. 


The designers chose to build on top of the construction debris on the most disturbed portion of the site to prevent further site degradation. For the landscape, they chose a restoration approach, using native plant communities to help restore soil health over time. Meadow, woodland and small wetland communities were designed as educational exhibits and to help screen out the neighboring land uses and immerse the visitor in an entirely different, “wild” environment than the surrounding residential/commercial properties. The site design also uses porous pavement, cisterns, bioswales, and wetlands to reduce the stormwater footprint and limit the amount of water draining directly to Darby Creek.

  • A meadow or “old field” restoration was designed as a significant gateway feature encountered by every visitor to and from the center.
  • Small wetland pockets were designed within the meadow to increase habitat diversity.
  • The building was constructed on pilings to minimize its impact on the site and to resist the effects of flooding.
  • The project site includes woodland buffers to both Darby Creek and the surrounding residential areas. The buffers reduce the stormwater impacts to the creek and the migration of invasive plant species.
  • Porous paving in the parking lot allows rainwater to seep into the ground instead of entering an already overloaded urban creek.

The cost of mowing the meadow is substantially less than the cost of mowing a traditional lawn. For the 2009 season, labor associated with mowing meadow areas was $640. The labor for mowing an equivalent size turf area was estimated at $3,200/year.

  • Management of exotics can be a problem in a highly urbanized and compromised environment. Restoration projects need frequent follow-up inspections by landscape architects, ecologists, and/or botanists so that invasives can be identified and managed at early stages. In 2003, the Cusano Environmental Education Center meadow was originally planted entirely with native species; however, a 2011 plant inventory indicated that over 50% of the meadow is now over-run with opportunistic exotic species. This issue is beginning to be addressed by the refuge as a whole by developing a plan to reduce the invasive plant species and instituting an invasive species management program through the volunteer Friends of the Refuge network.
  • A ‘marsh machine’ demonstration wastewater treatment system was built inside a greenhouse off the education center. Although it was designed to treat wastewater and discharge it to the marsh, a permit for this discharge was not obtained from the State, so the system discharges to the municipal sewer.

Project Team

Architect: Susan Maxman & Partners, Ltd.
Landscape Architect: Andropogon Associates, Ltd.
Civil Engineer: Cahill and Associates
Structural Engineer: The Kachele Group
Mechanical Engineer: Bruce Brooks & Assocciates
Lighting Designer: Clanton Engineering

Role of the Landscape Architect

The landscape architect was responsible for siting the building, designing the approach to the site, site restoration, grading, and outdoor programming.


Stormwater management, Habitat quality, Recreational & social value, Educational value, Operations & maintenance savings, Wetland, Permeable paving, Biodiversity, Learning landscapes

The LPS Case Study Briefs are produced by the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), working in conjunction with designers and/or academic research teams to assess performance and document each project. LAF has no involvement in the design, construction, operation, or maintenance of the projects. See the Project Team tab for details. If you have questions or comments on the case study itself, contact us at email hidden; JavaScript is required.

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