Southwest Philadelphia either contains or is directly surrounded by almost 1,200 acres of preserved natural land.
The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, west of the Eastwick neighborhood, takes up 1,000 acres. Mt. Moriah Cemetery, about four miles north of the Heinz Refuge, spans 100 acres (the other 100 acres of the cemetery are technically in Yeadon). On the opposite side of Southwest Philadelphia by the Schuylkill River, Bartram’s Garden occupies 45 acres worth of community gardens and farms. And finally, the Woodlands Cemetery, just south of Baltimore Avenue on the Schuylkill River, is a 54-acre National Historic Landmark.
Behind all of these green spaces are people dedicated to spreading awareness about the benefits of a more environmentally sustainable community.
UC Green, a nonprofit organization that plants trees and practices greening mostly in University City and West Philadelphia, is partnered with both Bartram’s Garden and the Woodlands Cemetery.
Bartram’s Garden’s greening practices began in the 1700s with its founder John Bartram, appointed as the “royal botanist” by King George III of England in 1765, and became “America’s first botanist.” UC Green provides volunteers for Bartram’s activities and events, helps teach a Bartram’s youth education program, and holds tree giveaways at the garden. The next one is set for April 12 between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m.
According to the Woodlands Cemetery Company of Philadelphia, which bought the cemetery grounds in 1840, its mission was to preserve “the beautiful scenery from destruction and maintain the park-like green space” that was slowly being walled in by industrialization. Many plant and tree species on the Woodlands site were the first of their kind to be introduced to North America, such as the ginkgo tree.
“We were even sent seeds by Lewis and Clark during their famous expedition,” said Jessica Baumert, executive director of the Woodlands.
The cemetery company’s mission indicates that even resting places for the dead can provide a breath of fresh, oxygenated air in urban spaces.
Besides working with Bartram’s Garden and the Woodlands Cemetery, UC Green planted 303 trees farther south into Southwest Philadelphia between 2006-2008: 150 around the exterior of the Kingsessing Recreation Center in May 2006, 65 around B.B. Comegys Elementary School in April 2007, and 88 around the exterior of the Woodland Recreation Center in April 2008. (In the language of the Lenni Lenape Indians, “Chincessing” – now Kingsessing – means “a bog meadow,” to paint a picture of what the area looked like 500 years ago.)
So what if 303 trees have been added to city sidewalks in Kingsessing? What does it mean for the neighborhood?
According to a study by Susan Wachter and Grace Wong of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, one tree planted within 1,000 feet of a property in Fairmount potentially increased the value of that property and adjacent ones by 9 percent. Not to mention that tree planting has a variety of positive effects on the environmental health of an area and hence the health of its community members.
“Our ultimate goal is to have the largest canopy we can,” said UC Green Executive Director Sue MacQueen, adding that the current goal for Philadelphia is 30 percent tree cover throughout the city.
The partnerships fostered between UC Green and other organizations enable each to grow.
UC Green stores about $40,000 worth of planting tools at the Woodlands Cemetery, according to MacQueen.
Of course, the relationship is symbiotic.
MacQueen, the cemetery’s arborist, helped create the Woodlands Community Garden in 2009. Also, about five years ago, she started gathering 100 volunteers to clean up the cemetery, which she said had an approximately $19,000 value for the Woodlands in 2013.
By sharing space, volunteers, and knowledge about green preservation, both nonprofits save money, which is crucial considering how difficult it can be to fund the organizations.
“We might not have a lot of funding, but we have a lot of resources,” MacQueen remarked.
UC Green obtains funding from the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the University of the Sciences and the city of Philadelphia through the efforts of Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. But it still has to do a lot of legwork to meet its annual budget of $200,000.
“Corporate relationships take time,” said MacQueen, noting the importance of obtaining funds through commercial sponsors.
Another organization that UC Green partners with is CityLights, a nonprofit that helps Southwest Philadelphia community organizations and residents connect with one another in addition to citywide and nationwide organizations.
Lauren Payne-Riley, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for CityLights, leads most of the organization’s greening initiatives and networking among green-oriented residents and organizations, such as the Southwest Philadelphia branch of Tree Tenders.
She created a leaflet titled “Help Green Your Neighborhood” that explains why planting trees can significantly impact communities and dispels “tree myths” like, “A new tree will crack my sidewalk and interfere with my utility lines.”
“When you’re worried about getting your heat or electricity shut off, you don’t have time to think about trees,” she said about the ability of many Southwest Philadelphia residents to prioritize greening.
Payne-Riley feels that if more residents see how greening can improve their everyday lives by, say, producing cleaner air and potentially reducing neighborhood crime, they are more likely to engage in the process.