The most noticeable aspect of Penn Praxis’s Green 2015 plan is that, to a substantial degree, the new green spaces it envisions are not very noticeable at all. On a map of the whole city, they barely show up—certainly not the way Fairmount Park does, or the 843 acres of Central Park do on a map of New York. Instead, the plan envisions a sort of archipelago of revitalized green spaces—mixing public and private development—that range in size from the 24-acre Penn Park down to parcels as modest as the new one-third-acre Julian Abele Park in southwest Center City [“Window,” Jan|Feb 2011], or even as small as single vacant lots.

“In an era of constrained times,” says Penn Praxis director Harris Steinberg C’78 GAr’82, “and difficult political tensions between [City] Council and the [mayoral] administration … we really wanted to make this as easily digestible as possible.” Accordingly, they laid out a plan they feel is capable of having a “transformative impact, but on a series of small scales”—rather than the sort of grand vision a latter-day Robert Moses or Frederick Law Olmsted might dream up.

The crux of the plan is to draw from an asset that Philadelphia has in abundance: vacant and abandoned land. The report observes that Philadelphia contains more than 4,000 acres of vacant lots and abandoned buildings. About one-quarter of that total belongs to the city.

“The city is paying $21 million a year to manage all of that, regardless of ownership,” says Steinberg, noting that it costs money to seal off condemned buildings, respond to arson, and fight crime in row homes that have been abandoned to drug dealers. “And if you can start to redirect some of that to actually productive landscapes that can help increase property values,” he adds, “you shift the whole paradigm.”

As anyone who lives across the street from Central Park can tell you, the idea that open green space can enhance property values isn’t exactly novel. Nor is this the first time Philadelphia has tried to clean up derelict properties; former Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative tried with mixed success to do just that in some parts of the city in the first few years of the last decade [“Gazetteer,” Sept|Oct 2010]. But until recently, the notion that public greening could “shift the whole paradigm” of urban decrepitude was supported more by intuition than evidence—at least when it comes to measuring the effects of brand new parks, particularly those built on a much more modest scale. In the last several years, Wharton’s Susan Wachter has gone a long way to filling in that gap.

Wachter, who is the Richard B. Worley Professor of Financial Management and a specialist in real-estate economics, has been asking questions like, How much does cleaning up a vacant lot increase the market value of the house next door? and How much is a sidewalk tree worth? Tapping into the expertise of Wharton’s GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Lab and culling data from the city tax board and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), Wachter and her colleagues have come up with some compelling answers.

In a 2005 paper, she investigated the effects of a pilot program in which the New Kensington Community Development Corporation teamed up with PHS to implement a greening strategy in that depressed section of Philadelphia [“Gazetteer,” July|Aug 2005]. The program focused on replacing abandoned lots with tree-ringed landscapes of mowed grass, as well as planting sidewalk trees.

GIS software enabled Wachter to measure the precise distance of every home from a stabilized lot or tree planting. Coupled with sales data from 1980 to 2003, this permitted her to draw some striking conclusions about the impact of the greening pilot program (which had cleaned the trash from 18,800 lots between 2000 and 2003, and improved about 12,000 of them). “Vacant land improvements result in surrounding housing values increasing by as much as 30 percent,” she wrote. “New tree plantings increase surrounding housing values by approximately 10 percent. In the New Kensington area this translates into a $4 million gain in value through tree plantings and a $12 million gain through lot improvements.”

In that light, it seems fitting that her employer recently partnered with the city Department of Parks and Recreation to give away 300 free trees to faculty and staff living within city limits in a pilot program called “Creating Canopy with Penn.” Another new University initiative, more symbolic in nature but a sign of the zeitgeist nonetheless, is the planting of a different tree species every year—one specimen on campus and a second designated at the Morris Arboretum—to honor the graduating class. The Class of 2011 was commemorated with a sugar maple in April.

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FEATURE: The Park of a Thousand Pieces by Trey Popp
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