Transforming Ground: Philadelphia Orchard Project

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In our next series post addressing reuse of vacant land, we look to an organization that is active in our own backyard: the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP). The organization has been greening Philadelphia’s underutilized spaces while strengthening communities and improving access to fresh fruits. Since its founding ten years ago, POP has made incredible progress. As of early 2016, the organization has planted 38 orchards and supported the establishment of over 50 more within Philadelphia.

Their model seems to be working. As Urban Arboreta gets set to launch our first tree nurseries this summer, we must ask: what can we learn from this example? What makes POP so successful within the landscape of Philadelphia and how can we translate these aspects to growing street trees and riparian buffers rather than fruit? In the effort to revitalize vacant land, it seems only natural to cross-pollinate with other organizations in the city and continue to test creative solutions. With over 36,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia, there’s certainly no shortage of opportunities.

Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP)

Philadelphia Orchard Project

© Philadelphia Orchard Project via Facebook

While urban community gardens have become a nationwide trend, POP offers a more targeted alternative. Their mission: “To plant and support community orchards in the city of Philadelphia.” Specifically, POP seeks to expand access to fresh fruit in low-wealth neighborhoods by repurposing formerly vacant lots, community gardens, schoolyards, and other underutilized spaces.

Given the higher cost and additional care often required of fruit trees, they are typically omitted from community gardens in place of inexpensive, readily available vegetable seeds. Acknowledging this gap in urban community agriculture, POP provides the plants and educates community members about the required maintenance in order to launch successful community orchards.

“What POP does is partner directly with existing community groups and help them to transform spaces in their own neighborhoods and communities,” explains Executive Director Phil Forsyth. “It’s the community groups that are doing the work. They are the ones maintaining the orchards on a day-to-day basis by doing the watering, weeding, and picking the fruits and distributing it within their neighborhoods. We are essentially a support organization that enables other groups to become urban farms and urban orchards.”

An orchard, or a tree nursery for that matter, does little for a neighborhood if it is dropped in place without engaging the community. POP has succeeded in creating a model for working with communities to implement these projects and ensure their longevity. By offering educational programs and job training in the nursery field, Urban Arboreta aims to act in a similar framework.

© Philadelphia Orchard Project

© Philadelphia Orchard Project

By providing the initial stock and education, POP empowers low-wealth communities to become their own source of fresh fruit and other produce. As some of these neighborhoods are also situated in food deserts, this has particular significance since fresh produce may be harder to come by.

“A lot of residents of the city don’t think beyond the corner store or the supermarket as the origin of their food,” says Forsyth. “All that food is grown somewhere. We give them a direct experience of peaches growing on trees, grapes growing on vines, blueberries growing on bushes. And this is a powerful experience for a lot of these people, especially kids. The most important thing we do is connecting urban residents with food systems.”

I can appreciate the need for such a movement. Prior to beginning graduate school this past fall, I served as a field assistant for the Nature Conservancy in Vermont. One of my roles was to supervise the group of LEAF (Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future) interns that descended upon the office for the month of July. Designed to provide urban youth with working experience in the conservation field, the LEAF program draws students from environmentally focused high schools across the country. On one of our field workdays at a nature preserve, I pointed out some wild raspberries and encouraged the interns to try them. One of the young women was particularly skeptical and, when I asked if it was her first time foraging wild raspberries, she told me that it was. In fact, it was her first time eating a raspberry, wild or otherwise.

While POP focuses on fruit trees, they also grow berry bushes, herbs, and even mushrooms, further diversifying the products of urban farming in the city. With a recent $100K grant, the Philadelphia non-profit is primed to further expand its influence across the city.

There is no doubt that POP is transforming urban agriculture in Philadelphia and putting vacant land to productive use. It raises the questions: how can we build upon the urban agriculture movement and further diversify it? Let’s continue to test the possibilities of producing food and other plants in our cities. What forms can urban permaculture, horticulture, arboriculture take? What spaces can these operations occupy? And how can these resources best serve the communities where they are located?

In later posts, we will continue to explore some creative solutions to vacancy that offer potential answers to these questions. As we develop and refine our project, the Urban Arboreta team is constantly looking for precedents and partners that further the thinking about what can be accomplished in these spaces. Is there something happening in your community? Please share your own examples with us.

Check out a map of POP sites: bit.ly/1OdpEbc

Watch a 10-minute video about POP produced by WHYY: http://bit.ly/1N68H0t