[urban orchards] are fantastic! They bridge the urban/rural divide: Fruit and nut trees are a non-timber product, so you can have them in an urban setting—you don’t necessarily have to grow them on a farm.”
As far as reforestation, “if the only trees added are fruit and nuts, it’s not enough, because you need canopy trees to provide the full benefits,” explains Michael Leff, program manager of TreeVitalize, a public-private partnership to help restore tree cover in Pennsylvania. But as the orchards mature, they’ll add to Philly’s overall tree cover, so they are “another piece of the puzzle. We need as many trees as we can get.”
According to the U.S. Forest Service, benefits of urban trees include cooling heat islands, improving air quality, reducing stormwater runoff, and improving social connections. Indeed, the very first POP orchard, initiated by United Communities Southeast Philadelphia (a nine member agency serving low income youth), has been spruced up with picnic tables and is used as a neighborhood meeting spot. “It’s a huge deal, because there are so few parks and playgrounds,” says Cory Miller, who works with UC member Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative.
Moreover, recent studies are supplying the metrics to put the role of urban orchards into perspective. For example, a November 2010 report on “The Economic Value of Protected Open Space,” by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and outside consultants looked at 200,000 acres of protected lands in five Southeastern Pennsylvania counties. It found that such green space generates the equivalent of billions of dollars in benefits, including $133 million annually in “avoided costs” for environmental services, such as carbon sequestration, and an average $10,000 per household in added property value.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
As for POP’s role in Philadelphia, it fits well with city and regional greening trends, both grassroots and official. POP’s goals overlap with Mayor Michael Nutter’s six-year Greenworks Philadelphia plan, which aims to make Philly “America’s Greenest City” by 2015. The ambitious, 15-target agenda includes increasing tree cover to 30 percent by 2025, increasing access to local food to within 10 minutes of 75 percent of residents, and adding 500 acres of new public land. The city’s Parks and Recreation Commission is primarily responsible for those three goals, according to Director of Urban Forestry and Ecosystems Management Joan Blaustein. “Orchards are another way to plant trees where they were not traditionally thought about,” she says.
As part of a demonstration project, the department arranged park access for the Woodford Orchard, a dell in the dilapidated Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. Installed in 2008, it is a collaboration between POP, the Fairmount Park Commission, the private Naomi Wood Trust, and the nonprofit East Parkside Revitalization Alliance (EPRA). Tended by kids in EPRA’s youth programs, the orchard features recently planted hardy nut trees including pecan and chestnut. Last spring, the local community harvested some 100 pounds of strawberries.
How these trends play out depends on resolving the ongoing debate within city departments about the best strategic use of city lands. “We need to answer the question ‘what should urban agriculture look like?’ and establish a policy that doesn’t change with the mayoral administration,” says Prof. Vitiello. Logically, that policy should include official protection for orchards and community gardens.
Beyond Philly’s boundaries, people in other cities, including Pittsburgh and St. Louis, have been contacting POP and following its lead by planting orchards. And municipalities including Chicago, with its Rarities Orchard Project to plant public heirloom fruit trees, and Seattle, with its 2010 Year of Urban Agriculture, have been independently initiating their own, more comprehensive citywide programs.
Paul Glover—who has stepped down from POP to coordinate new grassroots green-jobs and health-care initiatives—has no doubt that it is all for the best. “Trees are our best citizens,” he maintains. “They are the food for soil, and soil is food for food.”
—Miranda C. Spencer is an independent journalist and editor based in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia Orchard Project
The site includes a complete list of orchards, information on what and how POP plants, and a downloadable model application form and checklist for people who want to start their own similar programs.
Alliance for Community Trees
“The only national organization solely focused on the needs of those engaged in urban forestry.”
Helps people find and share fruit on public and private trees in urban areas around the U.S.
This article was published in the Winter 2011 issue of American Forests magazine.