Environment: How One Local Organization Supports Community Gardens

“In 2003, neighbors came home to a big ‘For Sale’ sign on the garden fence,” Tracy Levesque said. “We immediately went into action to save it. It was a four-year-long process and on July 11, 2007, the garden official became part of the Neighborhood Gardens Land Trust.”

Levesque has been a member of Bodine Street Garden (BSG) since 1999 and now manages BSG’s website and waitlists. She’s also the primary contact between the garden and Neighborhood Gardens Trust (NGT), a nonprofit organization that works toward acquiring and preserving community gardens and green spaces around Philadelphia.

BSG became one of NGT’s partners back in 2003 after threats of developers taking over their land.

Jennifer Greenberg is the executive director of Neighborhood Gardens Trust.

“We’re a land conservation organization,” Greenberg said. “We focus particularly on making sure that community gardens have secure access to their land so that they’re not lost in development activity. We really want to enhance the quality of life in Philadelphia neighborhoods.”

When these green spaces begin to struggle financially or environmentally, they will often reach out to NGT for assistance. NGT takes the land into its hands and helps get the green space back up and running.

“We work with gardens that are already established and have been cultivating the land but don’t have secure land tenure,” Greenberg said. “We have an intake process to figure out if they’re a good fit for long-term preservation with us.”

Once the NGT secures a relationship with partners, it helps them in any way it can to ensure their land doesn’t get taken away.

“We fund certain garden improvements like maybe putting in a new water line or a new raised bed,” Greenberg said.

In the more than six years Greenberg has been with the NGT she has had the opportunity to see the organization work with and preserve numerous gardens and green spaces around the city.

“Since I have started, we’ve been able to preserve about 20 gardens,” Greenberg said. “There are 20 gardens in the city that used to be in jeopardy for their future. Now they have peace of mind because they know NGT holds their land securely.”

Bel Arbor Community Garden is another partner of NGT. Carla Puppin is the president as well as one of the founding members of Bel Arbor. In addition, she also serves as chair of NGT’s board and is one of the garden representatives.

It was back in 1995 she and her husband rallied the neighbors to start a community garden. Eventually they got permission to use a vacant lot and worked out an agreement with the owner to use the land for five years for gardening. The group ended up asking NGT to hold the lease agreement.

“Through a series of fortuitous events, the owner donated the land to NGT in December 1999,” Puppin said. “So the land is preserved in perpetuity as a gardening space.”

Altogether, the NGT has preserved 49 gardens around Philadelphia but Greenberg is always looking to bring more gardens into the trust.

“At the same time, we have to keep up with the gardens we’ve already preserved, making sure they’re safe, and things are running well.”

Even through COVID-19, NGT assisted the gardens in surviving.

“Last year, most of the plots were well-tended and provided a safe outdoor activity,” Levesque said. “Since we are a small garden, social distancing has not been a big issue. We did have to put a pause on events, but hopefully, as we achieve herd immunity, we can have events again.”

With Philadelphia continuing to grow, more and more space is being developed. Smaller green spaces run the risk of getting pushed out due to real estate projects.

“You know the real question is, will we be able to get some of the other gardens that we know are threatened into our protection before they’re lost to development?” Greenberg said. “I hope so because we’re pretty good at what we do. But there’s a lot of real estates market pressure, especially in certain neighborhoods, which creates a sense of pressure.”

Having a garden in a city may be difficult, but securing and preserving shared green spaces can be beneficial in more than one way.

“A lot of the gardens create compost, and a lot of them are very conscious of planting pollinators, which are good because we’re losing our bee population,” Greenberg said. “So they’re good for the city’s urban biodiversity.”

Puppin also finds tending to a community garden rewarding.

“The garden has so many positive benefits,” Puppin said. “First of all, at the individual level, it gives folks the opportunity to grow their own vegetables, herbs, and flowers. There’s such satisfaction and pleasure in nurturing and watering a seed or seedling into a mature plant that will yield tomatoes, peppers, greens, etc. that you can harvest and eat.”

Implementing green spaces also combats environmental issues by absorbing the excess heat buildings and concrete give off.

“Vegetation helps to cool the urban environment, which combats climate change and something called urban heat island effect, which is very important,” Greenberg said. “It becomes cooler near a community garden versus an area that doesn’t have green space.”

Puppin also expressed how the garden spaces benefit the ecosystem because of common areas with native trees, bushes, fruit trees, and vegetation.

“Those areas provide habitat and food for creatures other than humans,” she said. “There’s all kinds of insects including dragonflies, bees, birds, garden snakes, bats, even the occasional hawk or possum. In that sense, the garden is a mini ecosystem.”

Even water filtration is impacted by green spaces.

“Another environmental benefit is the stormwater that falls into a garden,” Greenberg said. “It works as a recharge to the aquifer rather than being like urban runoff that pollutes our waterways. All of these green spaces in the city make a difference.”

Gardens also help many get food to underprivileged neighborhoods that may be struggling in food deserts.

“The food is a major benefit, and it’s a safe place to be outside and be active,” Greenberg said. “Our largest garden is on 18th and Glenwood, and it’s almost four acres. They have huge plots, and the people there really know how to grow and produce a lot of produce to donate to families.”

Many point out the benefits of community gardening that have nothing to do with food. Puppin expressed how community green spaces bring individuals together, and teach neighbors about gardening.

“In a community garden, you get to know other people in the neighborhood in a unique way — through gardening,” Puppin said. “More experienced gardeners share gardening knowledge with those new to gardening and we all share our stories about what grew well one season, or did poorly.”

Levesque also knows how their garden has helped strengthen community ties and allowed people to become more familiar with one another.

“When I started gardening in 1999, over half of the garden was unoccupied,” Levesque said. “But as more people joined, the garden became a social hub for the neighborhood. Kids and adults from the neighborhood, regardless of having a plot or not, would hang out and meet each other, which has contributed to neighbors knowing one another.”

All of these aspects tie together to make the NGT a nonprofit organization with mutually beneficial relationships.

“I don’t think you can sort of rank the importance of these aspects, they’re just all super beneficial to the city,” Greenberg said. “Even some of the tiny spaces, like single house flats and maybe they’re flower gardens, but they’re still important. And they improve people’s quality of life and their spirits.”

Moving forward, Greenberg hopes to continue to help NGT secure green spaces in need of assistance.

“Because we own the land, as long as we’re up and running, they’ll be up and running,” Greenberg said. “Our whole purpose is to make sure they don’t lose their space. I feel pretty confident the gardens we’ve preserved will continue to be doing well.”

That sense of security is reassuring to those who tend to and care for community gardens. Puppin and Levesque both feel they are in great hands with NGT and have many years of community gardening to look forward to.

“Because the garden is preserved by NGT, looking ahead, it will still be here,” Puppin said. “Some of the gardeners will have changed, the bushes and trees will be a bit bigger, but the activities will be much the same. Each year growing vegetables and plants, and continuing to tend the communal spaces.”

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

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