Philadelphia is home to approximately 40,000 vacant lots spread over 4,000 acres. Some have been turned into gardens by devoted community members, but many sit unused, collecting trash or growing over with weeds.
Jerome Shabazz has a vision for something better.
He’s working to turn a collection of vacant lots into what he calls a “disconnected park system” in the West Philadelphia neighborhoods surrounding the nonprofit Overbrook Environmental Education Center, which he and his wife, Gloria, opened two decades ago in an effort to foster sustainable and livable communities.
The project aims to transform a series of carefully selected parcels into neighborhood mainstays, each with a distinct approach to public service, ranging from lots focused on fitness, play and renewable energy to those that could contribute to heat island effects and stormwater management — all linked by the center’s educational mission.
Shabazz calls it “a very elegant system to protect, preserve and reuse open space for the benefit of the public good.”
If he has his way, it would ultimately be adopted into Philadelphia’s much larger park system, addressing inequities in access by bringing small-scale parks right into some of the communities that need them most.
The idea of turning vacant lots into an interconnected system with benefits for both the natural and human environment is “radically new,” said Alexis Schulman, an assistant research professor at Drexel University and director of the Environmental Studies and Sustainability Program at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
“These lots,” Schulman said, “can become something more than just a blight or something that’s talked about in the future tense.”
A ‘collective systematic benefit’
To help develop a plan for the disconnected park system, Shabazz turned to Jeffrey Doshna, program head of planning and community development at Temple University, whose master’s students in city and regional planning designed a method to assess the lots that best fit the Overbrook Center’s needs, including proximity to schools, transit and other parks.
The same methodology could be used going forward in a broader effort to unite more vacant lots in the disconnected park system.
“People sometimes get scared away from doing a single-lot intervention because they think it isn’t going to have much of an impact,” Doshna told Billy Penn. “If we can prove how scattered small-lot interventions can have benefits as open space and bring educational and other interventions to a neighborhood, that’s going to be an advantage to the lived experience of residents.”
Shabazz has also been collaborating with the National Audubon Society, which shares many of the Overbrook Center’s aims, including the preservation of spaces that benefit both humans and wildlife.
“We built up the built environment to make it easy for us to travel and for our own conveniences, but we miss the human impact of having green space,” said Aneca Atkinson, Audubon’s Delaware Watershed program director.
As one of Overbrook’s partners on the disconnected park system, the Audubon Society offers a window into what it looks like to link seemingly disparate parcels of land into something bigger.
With nearly $1 million in grant funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and partners including Thomas Jefferson University and the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, the Audubon Society is working on the Philadelphia Pollinator Project, which aims to create 50 gardens full of native plants that will attract pollinating bees and insects that will, in turn, give migrating birds the welcoming habitats they need to continue their journeys. Fifteen gardens are already completed or nearly there, full of native milkweed, ragwort and sunflowers, including the project’s flagship hub at the Cecil Street Community Garden in Kingsessing.
The pollinator project is an example of the “collective systematic benefit” at the core of the disconnected park system, Shabazz said, so it’s only natural to link the two ideas by including pollinator lots as part of the system. At the heart of both projects is a recognition of the importance of green spaces in urban environments — and the need to spread their benefits to neighborhoods that don’t have equal access to the city’s established park system.
“We’re allowing individuals in these communities that were left out of the environmental movement to understand how they can be part of it,” Atkinson said. “We want them to own it and steward it.”
Small lots contribute to the bigger picture
The disconnected park system grew out of an environmental education grant the Overbrook Environmental Education Center received from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with the support of state Rep. Morgan Cephas and City Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr.
In the effort to increase public awareness about environmental issues and offer community members a chance to take action and make informed decisions — part of what Shabazz calls “citizen science” — the center turned to Schulman and her colleagues at Drexel to engage West Philadelphians and determine what they would most want out of redesigned lots.
Shabazz’s partners at Drexel organized a series of focus groups with community members to learn how they feel about issues including vacant lots, domestic toxins, air quality and brownfields. Conversations informed the planning process for the project, guiding Shabazz’s thinking about the distinct programming to be included in each space.
The end result is an array of lot types Overbrook plans to include in the disconnected park system, each of which has its own purpose while fitting into a bigger picture of environmental investment in disinvested neighborhoods.
A cooling lot would offer shade and water to residents. A fit lot would bring outdoor exercise equipment into the community. An environmental monitoring lot would offer data on the quality of air, soil and noise at a site, while also inspiring environmental awareness in young people. Other lots would focus on the calming power of plants, urban agriculture, playful learning for children, and the importance of providing habitats for pollinators.
The project is defined by “the recognition of the intersectionality of all these issues and the focus on ensuring that this is community-led,” said Schulman, the environmental director at Drexel’s Academy of Natural Sciences. It’s the type of aspirational idea needed to upend the status quo, she said.
Shabazz expects the first lot in the disconnected park system to be created this fall, setting the stage for more to come.
In the meantime, he’s engaged with members of city government, including the Office of Sustainability, about ways to formalize the process as a policy in the long term, guided first and foremost by community input. The first reimagined lots could serve as an example of the benefits of bringing more dedicated green space into neighborhoods, as well as a model for community members and groups to duplicate, he said.
“People need access to nature and open space and they need a healthy integrated knowledge of how those systems work and need to be preserved,” Shabazz said. “These vacant parcels are at a scale that’s manageable on a community level.”