Philadelphia currently has roughly 40,000 vacant lots, but members of City Council have the ability to transform some of these areas into community green spaces.
Green spaces, like community gardens and urban forests, improve air quality, community well-being and mental health. They’re especially important in underserved areas, like North Philadelphia, because they can mitigate safety concerns and environmental injustices, the disproportionate exposure of low-income communities of color to environmental hazards.
Many council members are exacerbating these issues with councilmanic prerogative, the near-absolute power of each of the city’s district council members, to stall or permit local projects. Sales by the Philadelphia Land Bank, a public entity that manages land sales, must be approved by City Council, which rarely happens and results in council members hoarding land, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Members of the Philadelphia City Council must consider using their power to give land ownership preference of vacant lots to local organizations, like Sanctuary Farm Philadelphia and North Marshall Street Gardens, who work to increase green spaces.
Last month, the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department hired the city’s first forester, who will help oversee land, budgets, project plans and conservation workers. The department released the first Philly Tree Plan to add 300,000 trees to the city by 2025 and to increase Philadelphia’s canopy to 30 percent, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. The plan will also prioritize underserved communities that experience higher temperatures due to a lack of greenery.
“It is a 10-year strategic plan for the growth and care of our urban forest, The Philly Tree Plan aims to bring the benefits of trees to communities that need them the most, in the ways that support them the best,” wrote Andrew Alter, communications specialist for Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department, in an email to The Temple News.
So far, the City of Philadelphia allocated $2 million to The Philly Tree Plan, however, $25 million in annual funding could come from the federal government allocated through the Inflation Reduction Act in the future, Green Philly reported.
Philadelphia is experiencing a significant decrease in available tree canopy and green space due to recent development, lack of maintenance and invasive pests and many neighborhoods, like Kensington and Harrowgate, are disproportionately affected.
Some neighborhoods have less than five percent tree canopy, while others have 45 percent or more, Alter wrote.
Increasing green spaces would help absorb pollutants and produce oxygen, improving air quality in the surrounding areas. These environmental benefits are especially important in densely populated cities, like Philadelphia.
In 2019, the American Lung Association graded Philadelphia with an “F” in ozone pollution for the city’s failure to meet federal goals.
Green spaces can also serve as community gathering places. When Temple Community Garden was founded in 2009, one of its goals was to benefit both students and the local community.
“One of our main efforts this year and moving forward is trying to include as many people as possible and people that don’t just look like students,” said Daphne Wong, the vice president of TCG and a junior neuroscience major.
Community gardens can also reduce gun violence, according to a 2022 study from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. As of April 9, there have been 373 nonfatal and 92 fatal victims of gun violence in Philadelphia in 2023, according to the Office of the Controller.
Increasing tree coverage with The Philly Tree plan is essential, but council members must take the incentive a step further by granting vacant lot land ownership preference to grassroots community gardens.
Most vacant lots that have the potential to become a community garden or green space have been owned by the U.S. Bank since 1997. Council members, like Jamie Gauthier of District 3 and Councilmember At-Large Kendra Brooks, are advocating for the city to buy these lots from the bank to redistribute them to the communities they’re located in.
In 2021, Gauthier introduced the Public Land for Public Benefit bill, which would give land ownership preference to grassroots organizations owned and run by community members. These groups have more time to develop and receive finances for projects, like community gardens.
However, real estate lobbyists and other council members believed Gauthier’s bill infringed on councilmanic prerogative and prevented the legislation from being passed, Gauthier said.
“I think that some council members were nervous that giving community land trust automatic preference might impact their control over who gets land and who doesn’t, even though the bill doesn’t really do that at all, I think those were some of the hesitations,” Gauthier said.
Although Gauthier’s bill wasn’t passed, council members should give vacant land priority to members of the community that plan on utilizing the land as a community garden, especially as the Parks and Recreation Department is prioritizing funding for tree canopies.
Increasing green spaces in Philadelphia is a community effort. It requires the attention and support of both the Parks and Recreation Department and council members to be successful.
“I think there’s also no harm in a bunch of people working toward a common goal like helping other people,” Wong said. “I find it really rewarding to just work on something every week that’s not about me or my life, like it’s about benefiting other people and learning.”
Be the first to comment