University City/West Philadelphia Canopy Restoration Project

(Philadelphia, PA) UC Green’s NeighborWoods-supported University City/West Philadelphia Canopy Restoration Project is designed to address the problem of tree canopy cover and the related environmental, social, economic, and health problems that have been linked to a limited tree canopy. The three sub-projects are strategically placed in parts of the neighborhood with less then 10% tree canopy coverage.

Category: Community Development
According to American Forest’s Urban Ecosystem Analysis study, the recommended minimum tree canopy coverage is 40% in urban areas. UC Green’s targeted neighborhoods had less than 10% tree coverage, with some areas having less than 1% tree canopy coverage. The University City and West Philadelphia communities also qualified as underserved for demographic reasons. Together, their population of 47,000 had an average household income of $33,250, with 33% of the population below the poverty line. The racial profile is 40% African-American, 39% Caucasian, 16% Asian/Pacific Islander, 5% other/Hispanic. More than half the housing stock is circa 1900 – 1939.
This urban community was particularly unique. Due to the proximity to three major universities (University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and The University of the Sciences), there is a very high student population and low percentage of homeowners (18%). The enormous student population is transient in nature, rarely concerned with long-term initiatives or property values commonly found in most communities. The neighborhood is also extremely diverse and international with many different ethnic populations. This diversity also brings with it many varied perceptions about trees, plants, and community. By offering shared goals and benefits that can bring these multiple populations together, UC Green has been successful in developing stability and pride to the community.
An associated effect of the limited canopy coverage is that 50-95% of surfaces are impervious, resulting in an overtaxed storm water system and flooding. While the first priority of the project was to increase the tree canopy, by converting some of the impervious surfaces to pervious- though the removal of concrete to plant the trees- UC Green also impacted the stormwater runoff problem and helped watershed health.
UC Green recognized that the energy and efforts of most of the civic organizations were being consumed by issues related to crime such as gun violence, robbery, prostitution, abandoned buildings, and collapsing structures. The immediate needs related to this focus left little time and energy to include a greening component as a part of the associations mission or activities.
Crime has been shown to decrease in “greened” areas. A 2001 University of Illinois study showed that compared with apartment buildings that had little or no vegetation, buildings with high levels of greenery had 52 percent fewer total crimes, including 48 percent fewer property crimes and 56 percent fewer violent crimes. Even modest amounts of greenery were associated with lower crime rates. Also, a recent study by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania showed that a single tree can raise property values by 9%.
Greening is an area that needed attention turned out to be a niche market that UC Green could fill. UC Green’s mission is to build community through volunteer greening opportunities and to partner with other organizations to help build capacity so that they can begin to take projects on themselves. They work with community organizations to help them incorporate a greening component to their agenda, and to repair the social fabric of the community by offering opportunities for diverse constituencies to interact and work on shared projects, promoting ownership and fostering respect for our built environment and public landscape.
UC Green targeted two areas in specific:
First, the Kingsessing Recreation Center. As part of a revitalization project, the city of Philadelphia invested several million dollars into renovating a West Philadelphia community center with playing fields, playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts, and organized sport opportunities. Recognizing that trees had been left out of the planning, UC Green convinced the city to invest in planting 150 trees around the exterior of the center. As an aside, they hoped that by getting neighbors involved in the planting and maintenance of the trees in and around the center, interest in trees would spill over onto the surrounding community, where there were currently barren stretches of treeless concrete for blocks and blocks. It worked.
The second targeted area then became the infill housing is being built on the 5000 block of Springfield and the 1000 and 1100 block of 52nd Street near the center. They were able to encourage 20 residents of the neighborhood to start meeting monthly to discuss community issues and concerns as well as develop a vision for the neighborhood. New block captains signed up and a community day and health fair was held during the summer. From this group, UC Green also recruited neighbors for the Tree Tenders classes in the fall so they would be ready for the spring planting.
During UC Green’s first 5 years, they worked with the areas closest to the universities where the population was more conducive to greening. This project represented the first stages of their move into areas that have been devoid of trees for nearly 2 decades. An entire generation has grown up without the benefits of trees.
Property owners were required to sign a tree maintenance agreement as well as sit for UC Green’s educational component (pre-planting training session, leave-behind instructions). At the conclusion of the training, they were provided with water buckets and tree gator drip bags with instruction on their use. Buckets also had a simple graphic added to them to remind property owners of UC Green contact information with the message “I am watering this tree!”
As needed, UC Green provided technical assistance and landscaping plans. During the summers, they lead a weekly Pruning Club to tend to recently planted trees, teach proper pruning practices, and develop core of volunteers.
Three local community/civic organizations were indispensable to this project: People’s Emergency Shelter CDC, Powelton Village Civic Association, and West Powelton Concerned Citizens. They helped to build capacity and excitement around the tree plantings by organizing meetings, providing education, managing volunteers, providing tools and expertise, and supervising the tree planting event. Other partners included:
* TreeVitalize – Providing B&B trees
* Morris Arboretum – Tree selection, diversity and quality oversight
* PA Horticultural Society Tree Tenders – Education for tree care and planting
* City of Philadelphia Fairmount Park – Street tree approvals, arborist support, provision of mulch
* City of Philadelphia Department of Recreation – Approval and support of Kingsessing Recreation project
* Philadelphia Water Department – Provision of recycled biosolids compost
* University City District – Equipment assistance, moving tools, trees, mulch, safety ambassadors
* People’s Emergency Center CDC – Outreach to neighbors on value of trees, corridor revitalization
* American Cities Project Neat – Outreach to neighbors on value of trees for storm water management, volunteer recruitment, assistance with concrete removal
* YouthBuild Charter School – Students can assist with off-loading and tree distribution to planting sites as a part of their community service requirement
* Drexel University, University of Pennsylvania, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia- Student volunteers, equipment assistance to unload and distribute trees, deliver mulch, public safety assistance
* Participating Community Organizations will provide volunteers, community support, publicity, and ongoing maintenance.
* Powelton Village Civic Association, Saunders Park Green, West Powelton Concerned Citizens, Cross Kingsessing Tree Tenders, Kingsessing Recreation Center Advisory Council, Cross Baltimore Tree Tenders, Spruce Hill Community Association, Cedar Park Neighbors, West Shore Community Association, Walnut Hill Community Association, Sansom Street Community Coalition, Garden Court Civic Association, Friends of Clark Park, Friends of Barkan Park, Malcolm X Park, University City Garden Club
With each successful, large-scale, volunteer tree plantings, other city groups take notice and ask UC Green to develop similar programs and help them get established. Through support from The Home Depot Foundation, UC Green has been able to grow its staff in order to support these requests and reach out to additional neighborhoods. Other results included:
* Planted 320 new mature trees.
* Hosted 42 tree planting, maintenance, and training events.
* Engaged 1,292 volunteers for 3,778 contributed service hours.
* Trained 89 new University City Tree Tenders and gardeners.
Lessons Learned
1. The key to the long term sustainability of the natural environment is to increase the number of people who consider themselves a partner in the process.
2. Engage arboretum experts to select high-quality, diverse, and native species for street tree plantings (in this case, Morris Arboretum).
3. Stay attuned to city plans for specific communities, and help neighbors to stay informed and organized.
4. Partner with organizations’ whose goals align with your needs. On this project, most of the curbside street trees required concrete cutting. UC Green partnered with American Cities Project NEAT, who handled the cutting and removal as part of their stormwater management initiative. Also, pits were filled with a mix of recycled biosolids compost and leaf mulch from the Water Department and Fairmount Park, respectively.
Contact Information:
Sue Pringle
Executive Director
UC Green
4613 Woodland Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19143
Phone: 215-573-4684
Fax: 215-898-2167