Environment: Philadelphia Agencies Work to Strengthen Green Spaces and Communities

A citywide network of City departments, nonprofit organizations, and public green spaces creates a patchwork of relationships that aim to connect people and food to strengthen the local community.

The City of Philadelphia’s Philadelphia Parks and Recreation is dedicated to operating the programming and maintenance of all of Philadelphia’s park systems. Fairmount Park Conservancy is one of the City’s nonprofit partners that supports numerous programs throughout Philadelphia parks.

As the Fairmount Park Conservancy’s senior director for community programs and partnerships, Jennifer Mahar oversees numerous park programs through the conservancy, ranging from public health to environmental awareness and more.

“The City department operates all our park systems, which is over 10,000 acres of land, about 13% of the city’s land area,” Mahar said. “The City department oversees programming and maintenance for about 500 buildings, 70 pools, seven watership parks, 150 neighborhood parks, and 150 recreation centers. The conservancy is one of the many nonprofits that support the city system.”

Mahar has worked with numerous city nonprofit partnerships in the past 14 years. As a result, she has become familiar with the ins and outs of the relationship between nonprofits and city services.

“I am part of the world that’s growing at the conservancy,” Mahar said. “I help oversee a bunch of different programs throughout the park system.”

One of the organization’s main garden partners is Farm Philly.

EmmaKate Martin is the Farm Philly coordinator at the Fairmount Park Conservancy. This is Martin’s seventh year working with Farm Philly, and she helps to coordinate programming for the conservancy.

“Farm Philly has about 20 community gardens throughout the city that are on the Parks and Recreation land,” Martin said. “Each garden has its structure and runs its own garden space and volunteer system. I support those gardens in connecting them to city resources or any larger scale problems they may have.”

Martin and Mahar noted the benefits of green spaces in Philadelphia and how those bring life and character to neighborhoods.

“Our public spaces, including all our garden spaces, are what make Philly neighborhoods what they are,” Mahar said. “These spaces are part of our identity. These gardens are filled with so much pride, I recently saw a block just coming together uniquely in this public space, and I was just so heartened thinking a lot about neighborhood identity and pride in relation to public space.”

Martin has seen the Farm Philly gardens program expand beyond food and has hosted numerous events for the local neighborhoods.

“Besides just growing food, often our garden spaces are community gathering places,” Martin said. “Some of our gardens host neighborhood barbecues or jazz festivals or movie nights. Farm Philly also runs an after-school and summer program called Junior Farmers. We’re at around 30 recreational centers in the city.”

Both Martin and Mahar emphasized how many cities, especially Philadelphia, struggle with maintaining a functional food system, and how these gardens help address the issue.

“Gardens, in most cases, are about producing hyperlocal growing for food or flowers, and anything grown for one’s use,” Mahar said. “We have a pretty dysfunctional food system in our country, so hyperlocal gardening is empowering. It’s self-serving, it’s an environmental justice issue.”

Many people do not have the opportunity to buy and eat local, fresh food because of the current food system.

“Another great piece of gardens is allowing people to have a choice over the food that they are growing and eating,” Martin said. “It can be food that you might not as easily have access to, or can’t afford a label of organic produce at the store. It gives you and your family a chance to grow food locally and that you want to be eating.”

These programs and garden spaces also work toward bringing environmental awareness to Philadelphia residents. One way Farm Philly accomplishes this is via partnerships with organizations such as PowerCorpsPHL, a program that gives youth who may be struggling a positive outlet to learn valuable life skills.

“We have an urban gardening track program where they come out and help us do some of our bigger gardening projects,” Martin said. “As part of the exchange, we teach them about growing food in the city and the basics of growing your food.”

Mike Herrmann, program manager of PowerCorpsPHL, cites the background and benefits for the youth he works with.

“Almost all of our members come from either the judicial system, foster care system, or alternative high schools,” Herrmann said. “We provide a way to build resume skills, communication skills, how to show up for work on time and stay through the day, how to work with a supervisor, that kind of stuff.”

The lessons learned from the program have helped many kids down the road in their lives.

“Many of our young people go on to find jobs and opportunities in parks and rec departments, water departments, landscaping companies and several other fields,” Herrmann said.

Martin feels what PowerCorpsPHL and Farm Philly bring to the table compliment one another.

“It’s a workforce development training program that partners between the Parks and Recreation Department, the water department, and AmeriCorps,” Martin said. “It brings youth between ages 18 to 26 into job training in environmental and outdoor work.”

PowerCorpsPHL also helps Farm Philly and the conservancy protect and preserve public green spaces.

“The program also works in a lot of the park’s natural land by helping trail maintenance, ridding of invasive species, and overall gardening,” Martin said.

Mahar and Martin explained how these spaces have a wide variety of benefits for residents and how the conversancy and the city worked together to launch a plan for the future of Philadelphia’s agriculture. First announced in 2019, Philadelphia’s Urban Agriculture Plan: Growing From The Root was launched.

“In December of 2019, we launched our first big public meeting about the urban agricultural plan for the city with a goal of uplifting Philly’s current history of urban farming and gardening, as well as hearing back from communities, gardeners, and educators on their needs,” Mahar said. “Whether that be resources, or policies, or processes that need to change, or programs needed to help support the future of urban agriculture and sustain it and make it more successful.”

The goal is to bring more support and awareness to Philadelphia agriculture. Though it was on pause due to the pandemic, it resumes with a second public meeting this May.

Martin and Mahar both stressed the importance of supporting and maintaining these public green spaces as a source of local food, community gathering, and environmental awareness.

“I believe in the empowerment of the power of public space,” Mahar said. “It’s where our communities gather, where we share information, where we go for support, for fun, for exercise. The more we can support and empower communities, the stronger our communities will be.”

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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