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West Philadelphia Garden Grows Sense of Community

Sandra Woods, 59, stands for a portrait in her neighborhood community garden in West Philadelphia on Monday, November 21, 2022.
Photo by Hannah Yoon

After living out of state for 30 years, Sandra Woods returned to her childhood home in West Philadelphia last year to care for her parents.

Many of the people she once knew have since moved, but the 59-year-old is forging new neighborhood bonds by tending a community garden.

“Two or three neighbors who may not know each other can dig together, pull weeds together and get the harvest together,” Woods says. “It’s beautiful.”

The AARP Community Challenge grant program awarded $14,051 to Thomas Jefferson University to build the garden near Fairmount Park. The school’s Park in a Truck program aims to foster resilient, connected communities by helping neighbors turn vacant land into green spaces for people to gather.

There are an estimated 40,000 abandoned lots in the city, and the hope is that the Fairmount Park garden will inspire other Philadelphians to convert more, says Kimberlee Douglas, director of the landscape architecture department at the university.

“It’s going to give people an idea of what they can do,” Douglas says. “There are also benches and tables, so people can just go hang out.”

The nonprofit LandHealth Institute’s urban nursery program is providing the native plants for the garden as well as an educational component and signage.

People need to enjoy the outdoors and have a chance to engage with their communities, says Yocasta Lora, AARP Pennsylvania director of advocacy and community engagement.

“It’s important for their physical and mental health,” Lora says. “It combats social isolation.”

Exploring plant variety

Inside the 25- by 30-foot garden, people can walk along gravel paths, play board games in a seating area, pick berries or tend to black-eyed Susans and ornamental grasses. It is located at 49th Street and Parkside Avenue, in LandHealth’s native nursery.

The garden is divided into four sections, each one demonstrating a different type of plan offered by the Park in a Truck program. For example, the “edible” quadrant contains strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries and Carolina rose plants, which can be used to make rose hip tea.

“You can sit there and chill out or forage for some fruit,” says Steve Jones, nursery manager for the LandHealth Institute.

A “sanctuary” area has a mix of shade and sun plants and the “vibe of woodlands,” Jones says. The “nature” design features mountain laurel, hornbeam and witch hazel, while the last quadrant is set up for events.

Jones gives talks on native plants and their importance to the environment—supporting insect pollinators and better adapting to natural conditions.

Woods says a sense of closeness has developed in her West Philadelphia neighborhood because of the garden. She goes there to learn about and tend to plants but also welcomes the opportunity to meet residents of varying generations.

Last spring, Woods gave a talk to local high school students about growing up in the area and then traveling internationally as a marketing manager for an information technology company. She wants students to know there is more to explore beyond their neighborhood block.

“I want them to know all things are possible,” she says.

Cristina Rouvalis is a writer living in Pittsburgh.

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