Philadelphia – Creating a Green City

Drexel University yard-tree giveaway

Drexel University yard-tree giveaway. Credit: TreePhilly

Greenworks Philadelphia was a bold goal announced during Mayor Michael Nutter’s inauguration in 2008, when he declared that “[Philadelphia] should be the number one green city in America.”[1] The new mayor would form an Office of Sustainability, and a year after his inaugural address, the city would unveil the new plan designed to address sustainability throughout the municipality. The plan outlines 15 key targets, which fall under five categories: energy, environment, equity, economy and engagement. These targets address diverse sustainability issues, such as energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, solid waste in landfills, stormwater management, availability of locally grown food, tree coverage, green jobs, community engagement and more. As mentioned in the Greenworks Philadelphia Update and 2012 Progress Report, “Trees play an integral part in achieving several Greenworks targets, including reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality and managing stormwater.”8 But there are also specific targets around the city’s urban forest, including having a public greenspace within a 10-minute walk of every resident of the city.

To help reach the target of increasing neighborhood tree canopy to 30 percent by 2025, Parks & Recreation first conducted an urban tree canopy assessment with the help of the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Vermont Spatial Analysis Lab in 2011. This assessment revealed that it would be possible to reach Greenworks Philadelphia’s goal based on the land cover data, although it would mean removing impervious surfaces in targeted places. The other key finding of the assessment was that “one of the main opportunities for open space for planting of trees is in the front and backyards of row homes,” says Erica Smith Fichman, TreePhilly manager. “Realizing that you really need to work on a small scale and do outreach to individuals and on a community organizing basis is a pretty powerful thing.” Thus, Parks & Recreation realized that if they were going to reach the Greenworks goal for canopy coverage, they would need to engage private land holders, and TreePhilly was born.

TreePhilly, a Parks & Recreation program that partners with other tree-concerned groups in the city, officially launched in February 2012 with the goal of engaging Philadelphians in tree planting and maintenance efforts. “We wanted to make sure that we were hitting some of the areas that had high need, but also high opportunity for planting,” says Fichman. Through GIS analysis, TreePhilly identified eight target neighborhoods where the program felt it could really make a difference, and outreach began to make connections with residents, hold events and coordinate with “friends” groups already in existence. “We want to get trees into people’s hands who have the knowledge and experience to plant and tend to them,” Fichman adds. “There’s a nice network of people who are engaged with greening in the city, so we’re trying to tap into those people to do more volunteer plantings.”

Much of the city’s green network can actually be traced back to the nonprofit Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). PHS has been around for a long time — since 1827 — and aims to “motivate people to improve the quality of life and create a sense of community through horticulture.”[3] In 1974, PHS launched Philadelphia Green, which uses partnerships to engage in and promote green activities for urban renewal.[4] These activities take a variety of forms:

    • Community gardens that are run by PHS-trained Garden Tenders.
    • Landscape management for downtown spaces like City Hall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Wells Fargo volunteers plant new trees at the Oak Lane Library

Wells Fargo volunteers plant new trees at the Oak Lane Library. Credit: TreePhilly

  • The building of a network of friends of parks groups, which once consisted of three to five groups and now numbers more than 100. These groups join together with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation for landscape-improvement projects in parks throughout the city.
  • The Philadelphia LandCare Program, which is funded by the city and is designed to reclaim abandoned lots to eliminate blight and, therefore, spur development.
  • The Tree Tenders program, which is hands-on tree-care training and covers biology, identification, planting, proper maintenance and working within the community.

PHS also has a regional campaign for tree canopy coverage: its Plant One Million program, which launched in 2011 with a goal to plant a million trees throughout 13 counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware by 2020. Because Philadelphia sits on the border of three different states, a regional approach to tree canopy coverage seems natural, but requires extensive coordination. To help achieve its goals, PHS set up partnerships with the Delaware Center for Horticulture and the New Jersey Tree Foundation, as well as school districts, universities, municipal shade tree commissions, civic groups and more.[5]

Beyond improving the city and region’s urban forest, all PHS projects and programs share a major commonality: “A big component of our work is to build the capacity of citizens to become stewards,” says Maitreyi Roy, former senior vice president for programming at PHS. “We feel that there’s an opportunity to have a nice, robust relationship with community groups around landscape management without burdening them too much.”

For example, “Tree Tenders is a really powerful network,” adds Fichman. “You have these advocates in a lot of the neighborhoods in Philly, where they plant trees twice a year or have pruning clubs. It’s a nice network of community-oriented work.”

The only downfall to this work is that it’s not always the easiest to fund. Urban Forestry Director Blaustein relates that when it comes to public trees, the group receives capital funding for tree purchase and removal, but lacks sufficient funding for maintenance. Plus, capital funds only apply to tree plantings on public lands, as city funds can’t be used for work on private property. To meet the goal of increasing tree canopy in yards across the city, TreePhilly will give away 4,000 trees this year for planting on private residences through the support of Wells Fargo. In addition, Fichman’s position as the manager of TreePhilly was supported through a grant from the Fells Foundation in its first year. The program is also relying on its network of volunteers to make an impact.

University of Pennsylvania staff, students and volunteers with TreePhilly staff at a yard-tree giveaway

University of Pennsylvania staff, students and volunteers with TreePhilly staff at a yard-tree giveaway. Credit: TreePhilly

“One of the programs we’re doing is reaching out to communities through community development corporations and civic associations to do a survey of their street trees, specifically looking for opportunities where there are already open pits,” Fichman relates. “They return a spreadsheet to us with the addresses of open pits listed so we can work with our street tree team to get trees in those locations.”

Creating these partnership and networks is often one of the biggest hurdles that has to be crossed to find urban forest success. “Getting the right support behind you to implement something at a citywide level requires a level of risk taking and public-private partnership that is perhaps hard to convince everybody of,” says Roy. “Getting people to buy into what you think is possible is the biggest challenge.” But it’s a challenge that can pay big dividends in the end.

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[1] Media. Mayor Nutter’s Inaugural Address. (accessed Sept. 8, 2012).

[2] City of Philadelphia. Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. Greenworks Philadelphia Update and 2012 Progress Report. (accessed Sept. 9, 2012).

[3] Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. A History. (accessed Sept. 9, 2012).

[4] Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. About Philadelphia Green. (accessed Sept. 9, 2012).

[5] Plant One Million. About Plant One Million. (accessed Sept. 10, 2012).