It’s a story that anyone who has spent time at Penn in the past couple of decades knows well: By the early 1990s, the neighborhood around Penn had fallen on hard times. Crime and poverty were on the rise, shops were shutting doors and schools were falling behind state standards.
With these big problems looming, planting a few trees and greening the neighborhood may have seemed to some like fiddling while Rome burned.
But planting those trees turned out to be part of something much bigger. Those initial greening efforts were a key component of Penn’s investment in its West Philly home, and a tangible way for members of different communities to work together towards a common goal.
Founded in 1999 as one of Penn’s West Philadelphia Initiatives, the purpose of UC Green was to unite community organizations already working on greening projects with city agencies, Penn students and residents.
“There were some very good organizations that had been doing greening. ... Also, there were a series of initiatives in the neighborhoods, including the creation of the University City District. There were a lot of neighbors that wanted to go even further,” explains Esaul Sanchez, the first UC Green director from 1999 to 2002. “We have a beautiful part of the city and we have to take this moment to make this a garden. The charge of UC Green was to put these things together, create alliances with all the groups out there and with the students at Penn, and create a beautiful place.”
The goal hasn’t changed much. “Our mission is cooperative community greening, and it has been from the very beginning,” says current UC Green Executive Director Susan Pringle, who has run the now-independent nonprofit since March of 2008.
The one thing that has changed is the landscape of the neighborhood. Sanchez, who works as a real estate manager in Penn’s Division of Facilities and Real Estate Services, says when UC Green began its planting efforts, the neighborhood was filled with very mature trees, many of them London Planes, that had been planted years before and neglected ever since. Many trees were in desperate need of care, despite dedicated efforts from groups like Baltimore in Bloom and Philly Green.
“People never stopped in their vision and their enterprise for really making this a great neighborhood,” Sanchez says. “When UC Green came in, it was able to put a lot of alliances together and take this to a quantum leap. Students were able to participate in plantings by the thousands.”
Of course, the group faced obstacles, too. Not everyone was happy to take ownership of a young tree in front of his or her home. But as people started seeing the obvious benefits of a fleshed-out treescape, other blocks wanted in on the greening, too. It was a contagious movement of the most positive kind.
“[People] very quickly understood that you could very quickly leave a legacy,” says Sanchez. “They continue to have had that experience of, ‘I planted that tree.’”And people continue to take pride in that experience. As of July of 2008, UC Green reports that it has engaged 5,000 volunteers in more than 15,000 hours of greening, planting close to 3,000 trees and more than 15,000 bulbs and perennials.
Today, the organization continues to host tree plantings, has a pruning club and provides plenty of support to neighborhood residents, including design assistance, plant selection, tools and organizational advice. The nonprofit also runs the Green Corps, which is a greening program designed to train young people and adults how to care for the trees of Philadelphia’s urban landscape.
Pringle says UC Green is moving its organizational model to other universities across the region with the hope of strengthening those town-gown relations and beautifying their neighborhoods. “Groups that we’ve never met before are wanting to talk to us because of who we are,” she says. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
Originally published on April 22, 2010