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‘Greening’ Vacant Lots, a Tactic for Improved Neighborhood Health

Philadelphia has long been known as the City of Brotherly Love, but a much less flattering nickname is thrown around by critics from time to time: “Filthadelphia.” While we’d all just like to forget about it, the name is a comment on the city’s struggle to keep the streets clean of litter and other examples of urban blight. 

Much has been written about that uphill struggle, including just a couple of days ago in the Philadelphia Inquirer, but there is momentum. According to Philadelphia Magazine, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown recently proposed a plan which aims to cut down on litter by providing more trash cans to the public. There are also programs to help Philadelphians ensure the vacant lots (of which there are about 40,000) in their neighborhoods are properly cared for and, in some instances, converted into much more appealing green space.

According to a new study published online in the American Journal of Public Health by lead author Eugenia C. South, MD, MHSP, a physician in the department of Emergency Medicine at Penn Medicine, those green spaces do more than improve the city’s reputation and boost property values. They can actually lower the heart rate of their neighbors which may indicate lower stress levels for those who walk past. 

Dr. South and her colleagues used a heart rate monitor with GPS abilities to keep track of the vital statistics of people walking through two neighborhoods in Philadelphia, one which had vacant lots converted to green space and one in which the lots were untouched. In one analysis, the volunteers who walked past the renovated lots, the ones with trash cleared out and greenery planted, saw their heart rates drop by more than 15 bpm (beats per minute) while their counterparts walking by the untreated, control lots saw their rates stay steady. 

The study, connected with her previous work which showed that renovated lots made neighbors feel safer, suggests that “greening” vacant lots could be effective in improving health. Dr. South told WHYY’s Newsworks this tactic could provide the improvement without needing anything from the residents. 

"So, you put this green vacant lot in and people will get the benefit of it whether they intend to or not," Dr. South said. 

But what can you do to get that lot near your house or apartment spruced up? The city suggests calling 3-1-1 to start the cleanup process. From there, city employees will review the lot and if it’s privately owned, it’s up to the owner to clean it. If he or she refuses, the city will send a crew to clean it up, and will bill the owner for the work. 

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s LandCare program tackles the vacant lots across the city (including those in Dr. South’s study) by “cleaning and greening” them. The treatment includes removing all trash, weeds and overgrowth before workers add healthy topsoil, plant trees and install a fence around the perimeter. 

While the program doesn’t accept volunteers (it’s simply too large to rely on volunteer labor, according to PHS’s website), volunteers are always welcome to help out the PHS in a number of other ways. More info on that can be found here

Want to be even more proactive? Philadelphia has a Community Partnership Program which is available for community cleanups across the city. Through that program, you can borrow tools and supplies to make your block all it can be. They’ll also help you make sure your cleanup effort is a success. 

Rejuvenation doesn’t just happen on the local level either. It was announced earlier this month that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation were joining forces to pump $11 million into five park projects across the city, including the conversion of the abandoned Reading Viaduct just north of Center City into and elevated park. 

Cleaning up Philadelphia vacant lots takes work and money each year, but with each abandoned appliance removed and each tree planted, Philadelphia’s reputation moves a little farther away from “filth” and closer to its history of brotherly love.


Photo caption: Before and after of "greening" process, photos courtesy of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.


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