Vacant lots, widespread in many American cities, offer unique opportunities to insert diverse forms of nature into existing urban fabric. Philadelphia, a case in point, has over 40,000 vacant sites within an urban area that is greatly lacking green space and is plagued with storm-water issues.  In recent years, Philly has developed impressive plans, including its Green City, Clean Waters action plan that re-envisions the city in dramatic ways: proposing to de-seal one-third of the city’s impervious surfaces. This is a bold goal, but a sensible one. It is motivated largely by a need to better manage the city’s stormwater (and to address its serious Combined Sewer Overflow problem, a significant problem for other American cities also). Additionally, it will also have profound positive impacts on the neighborhoods in which this greening will happen.

One strategy for eliminating impervious surfaces within a city is to re-envision its vacant lots as green spaces—community gardens, urban orchards, or pocket parks.  In Philly, several groups are working hard at this transformation. The Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP) is one of these impressive efforts. Since its inception in 2007, POP has created over 29 orchards in the city, planted hundreds of fruit trees, and educated many citizens on their value and care.

On a recent visit to Philadelphia, I had the chance to interview Phil Forsyth, the director of the program and to see in action one group of neighbors learning the art and science of trimming, maintaining and caring for fruit trees. I quickly learned that establishing a new orchard requires neighborhood participation and buy-in. “We do not directly own or maintain any sites ourselves,” Forsyth tells me. “We more or less act as an extension service for perennial crops in the city. We provide design help, and plant materials and then organizing…and long term support in terms of training and good advice.”

The orchard site where Phil and I spoke is adjacent to the Woodford Mansion, within Fairmont Park, and serves the East Park neighborhood. It already consists of apple, mulberry, sweet cherry, peach and pear trees, as well as other fruit-bearing shrubs and perennials, including gooseberry, raspberry and currants. The orchard has been the center for a number of food-centered community events, including a summer peach festival and a fall apple festival, and fruit tastings that involve local school kids.

These orchards not only provide needed food and shade but have the potential to be powerful drivers of neighborhood transformation.  “Food is a very powerful way to build community,” Forsyth says.  Recent research by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Public Health has documented the very positive effects of tree planting on vacant lots in Philadelphia: reductions in crime, gun violence and vandalism. In that study, residents in areas adjacent to lots that had been greened also reported experiencing less stress and more physical exercise in their lives (See “A Difference-in-Differences Analysis of Health, Safety, and Greening Vacant Urban Space,“ in the American Journal of Epidemiology, November, 2011).

The acts of clearing garbage and planting trees and greenery created reasons for residents to be prideful (not worried about) these spaces.  It also provided new reasons to visit them—such as picking fruit—that would aid in reducing crime and vandalism. So the study, though a first of its kinds, yields results that are sensible and believable.

The neighborhood transformative value of these fruit trees is tremendous indeed. Under the selection criteria, orchards will only be planted where the resulting fruit will advance the food security of the neighborhood.  “We like to see that all these orchards are increasing access to fresh foods to people who otherwise have limited access…That means most of the orchards are in low-income neighborhoods.” In the case of the Woodford Orchard, the East Park Revitalization Alliance is the community partner, distributing the fruit to the community and generating the volunteers who help plant and maintain the orchard.

Though a private organization, POP does work with the city of Philadelphia, including partnering with its parks department to establish orchards on parklands, which they have done in the case of the Woodford Orchard. Recently, it partnered with the Philadelphia School District on Greenfield Elementary, where fruit trees and berry bushes were planted as part of an effort to de-seal and green the schoolyard there.

Forsyth notes that more could be done, and the potential for further expansion of orchards in Philly is almost limitless. In addition to the thousands of vacant parcels in the city, there are approximately 10,000 acres of parkland that might accommodate fruit trees. Other cities should take Philadelphia’s examples to heart, and begin to cultivate, literally, the abandoned and leftover spaces that often abound, and in so doing we can begin to re-imagine the city as both bountiful and verdant.

Post By Tim Beatley

Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, UVA Department of Urban & Environmental Planning