In March, the Philadelphia City Council released "Narrowing the Gap: Strategies to alleviate and prevent poverty in Philadelphia.” This report is a comprehensive compilation of concrete and specific initiatives designed to address the city’s stubbornly high rate of poverty.
While most of the nation is seeing rising incomes and less poverty, Philadelphia’s poverty rate is stuck at 25.7 percent, ranking us highest among the nation’s big cities.
Poverty is directly linked to health outcomes. Although we can say “wealth equals health,” the link isn’t consistent. Location, level of education, and race are also factors that can affect a person’s overall health. In Philadelphia, more than most places, geography is a profound determinant of health outcomes. Being born in zip codes just five miles apart can result in a 20-year difference in life expectancy — 68 versus 88 years. Income and wealth are just one important difference between these neighborhoods. Other factors include unsafe and unhealthy housing, education, proximity to highways (pollution), and access to recreation and safe places to exercise. It’s this latter point that is particularly important.
We need to heal our city comprehensively. As the City Council’s report rightly points out, housing and employment are critical, but we must also address the environment in which children are growing up and people are living. Research conducted since the 1980s has consistently shown the benefits of being in and near nature. In multiple studies, exposure to natural environments significantly improved participants’ performance on attention, memory, and cognition tests when compared with either urban or indoor environments. In short: Nature heals.
In June, we wrote about a new idea to help communities convert empty lots into neighborhood parks. To our surprise and delight, the response was strong. Community organizations, real estate developers, governmental agencies, funders and political leaders reached out with offers of partnership and support and suggestions for potential sites for the program we’re calling Park in a Truck.
The Park in a Truck idea is simple: Give local residents the resources and training to design, build and maintain parks on unused land in their own neighborhoods. They decide whether it’s a place to grow vegetables, a setting to show off local art and culture, a space for child play, or simply a green place for rest and relaxation. Once they plan out their park, all the materials are loaded onto a truck and delivered to the site where volunteers build it — old-fashioned barn-raising style. The first official Park in a Truck projects are underway in Mantua and Southwest Philadelphia.
Green space initiatives such as Park in a Truck support all three of the major priorities of the City Council’s report: housing; jobs and education; and the social safety net. Parks increase equity because having ready access to safe and inviting green spaces increases home values and reduces crime and blight. Because these parks are home-grown initiatives reflecting the desires and values of the people who live there, there is less risk of gentrification and displacement.
Local residents — especially schoolchildren — can be taught the skills necessary to design and build parks and can work as park ambassadors to maintain the space and help visitors make the best use of all it has to offer. This is just another way where people in the community take ownership of the effort while also earning money from the project. In fact, new parks can even spur local business development. Imagine the park as a place to host a food truck festival or craft fair.
Finally, truly local parks — green space no more than a 30-second walk from the front door — bring communities together. They become a powerful symbol of collective action and source of community pride. A park-building effort can be the start of a real homegrown community development initiative.
We believe that local green space efforts like Park in a Truck should be an integral part of the Philadelphia City Council’s effort to address poverty and reduce the disadvantages too many of our neighbors live with.
Drew Harris is a member of the Inquirer’s Health Advisory Panel, health-care consultant and assistant professor at the Jefferson University College of Population Health. Kim Douglas is the director of Jefferson University’s Landscape Architecture Program and the Lab for Urban and Social Innovation.