Approximately 40,000 lots sit vacant in Philadelphia, leaving many neighborhoods blighted and desolate. But residents and community groups are revitalizing their communities by reclaiming vacant land and establishing “pocket parks.”
Like many urban areas, Philadelphia neighborhoods suffering from a vacant land problem are often perceived as unattractive to developers, and the lots can become hotspots for crime.
But residents of Francisville, a tiny North Philadelphia neighborhood, are determined to transform their community into a hotspot for growth instead.
“When the neighborhood was very trashy, blighted and dirty, the perception from the outside was that it was dangerous,” says Penelope Giles, founder and executive director of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp. (FNDC). “It was not a place where anyone would want to relocate, open a business or live.”
To combat the symptoms of urban decay, Giles and other FNDC members embarked on a “Cleaning and Greening” initiative that they say transformed the neighborhood.
“We have a lot of vacant lots in our neighborhood, but now they’re mowed and cleaned,” says Giles, a lifelong resident of Francisville. “The visibility is better. You don’t have situations where drug dealers can hide in an enclave because it’s so overgrown that people can’t see what’s going on.”
The crowning achievement of the “Cleaning and Greening” effort is the newly-constructed Ogden Park, which was once 10 separately fenced lots until Giles and FNDC tore down fences and cleaned up trash.
“When [Giles] came to me with the idea for that park, I never thought it would work,” remembers Sharon Hale Jenkins, a 35-year resident of Francisville and treasurer of FNDC. “It was so overgrown and filled with garbage, but now it’s beautiful.”
Not only has the park made the block more beautiful, but it also spurred property sales on surrounding streets, Giles says.
“When we put that park in, the area just blew up,” Giles says. “Properties started selling. It was a great thing.”
Lots are primarily cleaned by what Giles dubbed the “Francisville Clean and Green Volunteer Team,” along with a staff of five to 10 paid employees of FNDC.
Most of these employees are local men with a spot or two on their record who needed some help finding a job, Giles says.
FNDC also established an orchard, a senior garden and two additional pocket parks in the neighborhood.
The orchard is home to apple, peach, walnut and fig trees, as well as patches of blueberries, strawberries, and other fruits and vegetables, says Giles, who says FNDC plans to expand their food production network this summer.
“Expanding our food production is a great goal in terms of reconnecting people to the environment and getting them to understand that you don’t have to buy everything from the grocery store,” Giles says. “Through this whole initiative, people who didn’t even know how to recycle are learning horticulture, landscaping and how to care for the environment.”
In addition to expanding food production, members of FNDC have their eye on a few remaining unclaimed lots.
“We have a few more lots that we need to stabilize this year,” Giles says. “Our goal is to have a pocket park in every section of the neighborhood.”
While Francisville hasn’t completely rid itself of past problems, cleaning and greening has gone a long way toward improving safety and attracting investment into the neighborhood.
And Giles says if this model can work in Francisville, it can work anywhere.
“We are going to be looking to the city and to other funders to help us implement a program that could be a replicable model for other communities,” Giles says.