Philadelphia is a rich Mecca of community development corporations (CDC) and community organizations, some which have placed a great deal of effort into transforming vacant lots. One such CDC is New Kensington CDC, which was featured at this year’s annual Flower Show. "From Blight to Blossom" is the name of the exhibit, and its conception was the result of a partnership between the New Kensington CDC and Philadelphia's Office of Housing and Community Development. Its intention, according to a press release describing the project, is to "tell the story of an urban side-yard transformed from a vacant lot into a garden" (http://www.flyingkitemedia.com/devnews/blossom0308.aspx). Instead of allowing blight to fester in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, New Kensington has viewed vacant lots and abandoned homes as areas of potential beauty.
What can be done with vacant lots? One potential use of such space is to create new affordable housing sites, the foundation upon which Habitat for Humanity has built their organization. Other possibilities include using the spaces for parks, community gardens, recreational centers, and even centers of community art. Some projects such as New Kensington Vacant Land Management Program and Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Community-Based Vacant Land Maintenance Program have dedicated their efforts towards cleaning and creating parks and community gardens throughout the city. While the end result is transforming space, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s project partners with nine community organizations, including Ready, Willing & Able and SELF, Inc. to employ individuals making the transition back to work after experiencing drug addiction and homelessness. The Mural Arts Restorative Justice program has also helped with these efforts by employing ex-offenders in cleaning and transforming vacant lots. The great aspect of these projects is people are given the opportunity to transform themselves through the process of transforming the land.
The Village for the Arts and Humanities is another organization that has transformed a great deal of space in North Philadelphia. On their campus alone, they’ve transformed over 150 vacant lots into gardens, green spaces housing collections of community art and a two acre farm. In this particular community, the Village for the arts and Humanities has worked organically by recruiting the help of community residents. As the Wallace Foundation states: “With a phantasmagoria of mosaic sculptures, murals and gardens glimmering with giant angels and creatures no zoo has ever seen, the Village offers vibrant testimony to the role that art can play in bringing a desolate urban landscape back to life and engaging youth and families in the arts.” As a result, neighbors are given the opportunity to connect and build relationships, while working together towards a common goal. In addition, the two acre farm has given the community access to fresh and healthy food options.
The Southwest Community Development Corporation also provides a community beautification project that includes a community garden. One of the 2011 graduates from the MA in Urban Studies, Regina Broomell-Young, assisted the Southwest Community Garden by facilitating research investigating is it was needed in the community: Her researched concluded that the garden was absolutely needed in the community for both health and community organizing purposes.
While the potential for transformation is available to each of Philadelphia’s 40,000 vacant and abandoned properties, it is a large endeavor from start to finish. Before starting, there is often the task of acquiring land or permission from owners, which makes the process a laborious one, especially in the cases of those lots privately owned. For those ready and able for the task, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society has developed a guide entitled Reclaiming Vacant Lots: A Philadelphia Green guide. This guide not own provides practical tips on gardening and landscaping but also highlights steps for the project from beginning to finish.
- Resolving Ownership Issues
- Mapping Community Resources
- Assessing Site Conditions
- Developing a Site Plan
- Outlining a Maintenance Strategy
- Cleaning the Site
- Implementing Site Improvements
- Performing Ongoing Maintenance