Turning pavement into green spaces around Philly

Posted: May 10, 2012

Today, the school district makes an announcement that — at least for a moment — allows it to transcend the current messy and complicated conversation about its plans to cope with fiscal and systemic crises, and makes a positive step toward the future.

At the William Dick Elementary School in North Philadelphia, city and school bigwigs will announce a plan to replace acres of pavement with acres of green. The Dick School and the neighboring Hank Gathers Recreation Center will give the city more green space and its residents more room to breathe.

This forward-looking plan is part of Mayor Nutter’s Greenworks program, and is notable not just for the green aspect but for the fact that it’s a collaboration among the district, the Parks and Recreation Department and the Water Department, as well as the Trust for Public Land and the Mural Arts Program. This is not just a “feel-good” collaboration — it has great meaning for how interconnected these governmental entities are.

Parks chief Michael DiBerardinis aims to add 500 acres to the city, but not just because it’s his job to encourage parks: Green space is also important to the Water Department’s efforts to deal with stormwater runoff, and the district’s efforts to create safer and more healthy sites for the city’s children. It’s an “everybody wins” moment, and not least of those winners are the many residents of the city with no easy access to green space.

According to a recent report by Penn Praxis on the Green 2015 plan, 200,000 residents don’t live within a half-mile of a park or green space. To get perspective on what this means, imagine a city the size of Salt Lake City, or Des Moines, Iowa,without a park or a patch of green.

This is another chapter of Philadelphia’s tale of two cities: Many citizens can take advantage of the city’s huge Fairmount Park system, which boasts countless spots of beauty and serenity, and yet one in eight residents don’t live within a 10-minute walk of a public green space. And in those parts of the city, there are 62 acres of paved recreation center and underused parkland, and 426 acres of schoolyards — few if any of which boast trees, grass or plants.

The announcement kicks off the next phase of the “Green 2015” plan that “de-paves” many of these acres of concrete and green them. The benefits are numerous and long-term: a healthier population, and a more environmentally sound and beautiful city. The plan relies heavily on community input, and de-paving, greening and overseeing these new green spaces can actually help build community.

The “Green 2015” plan also tackles one of the bigger, more intractable issues confronting the city: a high inventory of vacant lots. The city’s vacant-property problem is a complicated issue, with migraine-inducing problems of overlapping jurisdictions, legal entanglements and outdated bureacracies, which is, at least, getting more attention of late. But if this greening plan can make even a small dent in the blight of vacancy in the city, it will bring a breath of fresh air not only to those residents starved for it, but all of us. n

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