Like much of the research it draws from, the Green 2015 plan focuses broadly on green space without delving too deeply into the finer details of what specific functions it should serve. Community gardening and urban agriculture surface here and there, but in such general terms that they essentially come off as placeholders awaiting a more comprehensive treatment. They have a strong advocate in another member of Penn’s faculty, though.

Domenic Vitiello, an assistant professor of city and regional planning in the School of Design, has spent the last several summers investigating, with urban-studies lecturer Michael Nairn, Philadelphia and Camden’s community gardens in an up-close and personal way. (It becomes clear that there’s no other way to put it when he wakes up his desktop monitor to reveal a wallpaper photo of the Camden Men’s Garden, and says, “That’s where Michael and I want to retire.”)

“It’s very well established,” says Vitiello, that community gardens “are very effective tools for stabilizing neighborhoods, helping them be safer, more attractive, helping to encourage people to pick up trash more and invest in them … But its economic returns are very indirect. And that’s one of the reasons we went around and tried to count, and put some dollar signs on the produce of community gardens.”

The Penn Praxis plan mentions one of their findings: that community and squatter gardens yielded an estimated 2 million pounds of food, valued at almost $5 million, in a single summer. For Vitiello, though, the dollar signs don’t tell the whole story. Gardeners don’t just produce a lot of food; they give a lot away. Sometimes nearly everything they grow, whether to neighbors or food banks. They also get exercise (a big benefit, since so many gardeners tend to be older), help nourish cultural traditions (by growing hard-to-buy crops like pigeon peas and creole corn), and in many cases provide opportunities for kids on summer break to help with something productive.

So for Vitiello, the strongest case for urban agriculture isn’t really the economic one. “The impacts go well beyond food. They’re mostly social impacts,” he says.

“The whole conversation about why we garden and why we need urban agriculture changed when Susan Wachter did her studies of greening—which were not very much about urban agriculture—in the Fishtown area,” he says. “Then some scholars at NYU knocked off Susan’s methodology, but just for community gardens in New York, and found some really interesting things: that they raise adjacent property values. And it’s maybe unfair to say that’s all certain policymakers in Philadelphia care about, but for the most part, that’s what they care about.”

He worries that this perspective has pushed policymakers’ views about community gardening in the wrong direction.

“[Some people have the idea] that urban farming could be a really wonderful interim use for land that the RDA [Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority] holds, as a way to improve properties and sell them in three to five years,” he says. “That’s a great idea for the RDA. But I don’t know any farmer or gardener in Philadelphia, or any other city, who would really want that. Because what farmers and gardeners build is not really visible—it’s soil, and relationships with one another and their neighbors.”

For that reason, he hopes Philadelphia will think again about policies like the city’s new lease agreement for gardeners on public land, which would require gardeners to carry insurance on those currently vacant lots at the level of fully developed properties.

The capacity of community gardens to raise property values and therefore the tax base is all well and good, he hastens to add. But that shouldn’t be the only goal, or even the ultimate one. “Urban agriculture—farming and gardening—is great social policy,” Vitiello says. “It’s great public health policy. It’s good environmental policy. It’s the sort of thing that gets regular residents—as opposed to city departments spending tax dollars—to invest in cleaning up cities and make them more wonderful in many ways. So it’s a very efficient sort of investment.”

Like all of these sorts of plans, Green 2015 is more a vision than a shovel-ready project, as they say. But there are signs that it’s gaining traction. Since the beginning of the Nutter administration, 100 acres have already been greened or are under way. Another 105 have been identified for future work. The Penn Praxis report is chock full of GIS maps designed to shed light on where new parks might provide the most bang for the buck—highlighting areas where residents are under-served, where heat-related fatalities are highest, where tree canopies are insufficient, and so on.

Meanwhile, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) has begun a pilot project to ramp up enforcement on 143 properties in the Northeast, taking a harder line on property owners who fail to bring their derelict properties up to code. Other sections of the city have also seen an uptick in the ticketing of derelict buildings by L&I, sometimes instructing owners to either rehab or demolish them. Perhaps that will be a first step toward reclaiming Philadelphia’s vacant and abandoned land for something better and greener.

“I believe that it’s a way out of the post-industrial landscape that we have—the literal landscape, which is blighted in many places, inequitable in many places,” says Harris Steinberg of the Green 2015 plan.

“These small doses—in this case of green—I think can have a big effect in the aggregate,” he adds. “Perhaps as much as the creation of Fairmount Park initially did. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that ultimately it’s going to have that kind of sweeping effect, but in the end, when we’ve pieced together this kind of network of trails and greenways and access routes, we can really begin to think: Can we take these little archipelagos of parks, and really make them into one big system?”

A question, perhaps, to be posed when 2020 appears on the horizon.

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FEATURE: The Park of a Thousand Pieces by Trey Popp
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