Pope Francis in the U.S.

This City Turns Brown Into Green, Just as the Pope Wishes

Philadelphia immigrants are transforming blighted lots into gardens, bringing nature back to the city, putting down roots, and providing food.

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Padam Gurung waters his vegetable garden in South Philadelphia, where he and three generations of his family set down new roots after fleeing Bhutan. The four-by-ten plots nestled among row houses are an important space for Asian refugee communities.

Editor’s Note: In this three-part series focusing on the pope and urban environments, National Geographic profiles the struggles of a neighborhood in each city Pope Francis is visiting: Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City.

In a lush pocket of greenery studded with orange flowers, Len Rem beams from beneath her straw hat. She shows off a basket of herbs she picked that morning: It’s chin baung, one of the most popular tastes in her home country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

For Rem, an essential part of putting down new roots in South Philadelphia has been the chance to grow the beloved sour leaves here, in a four-by-ten-foot bed among the tangled stalks and vines of more than a hundred other urban gardeners.

Pope Francis has written eloquently about the human need for green space: "We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass, and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature." He chided cities for providing “beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called safer areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live."

We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass, and metal.
Pope Francis

But when the pope visits Philadelphia this weekend, he will be touring a city that is striving to ensure that its green space extends to all 1.5 million of its citizens, including those in Rem’s neighborhood, which has one of the highest populations of Asian immigrants in the city. The poverty rate in the surrounding U.S. Census district is more than 30 percent. (Read “Blocks From the Pope’s Mass, a Dumping Ground for the Nation’s Capital.”)

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A new home towers above Philadelphia garden plots that have brought green to once vacant land. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has sponsored a trust to acquire some larger gardens to ensure that the land is not developed.

Philadelphia is known for its park space, including historic Independence Mall, one of the first places the pope will tour, and tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where he will celebrate Mass to conclude the World Meeting of Families on Sunday. That avenue connects Center City Philadelphia with Fairmount Park, which at ten times the size of New York’s Central Park is one of the world’s largest municipal park systems. (Read “Kids Struggle to Breathe in This Neighborhood on Pope’s Tour.”)

Nevertheless, more than 200,000 Philadelphians still live in neighborhoods—mostly in low-income areas—-with no public green space within walking distance.

In response, many neighborhoods, with the help of nonprofits, are creating their own gardens out of vacant lots. It began decades ago as a do-it-yourself anti-blight effort by neighbors who cleared debris and weeds from sites of demolished businesses and abandoned houses. Hundreds of community gardens have taken shape on these vacant Philadelphia parcels.

These spaces are really anchors in the community.
Jenny Greenberg | Neighborhood Gardens Trust

The gardens are “repairing the somewhat torn threads of social fabric in some of these areas, using agriculture as the glue,” says John Carpenter, deputy executive director of the Philadelphia Land Bank. The agency, just established this year, is responsible for restoring the city’s estimated 40,000 vacant lots to productive use.

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Nu Men is hoping to grow a better future for her children, Van Za Bawi, Suitling Par, and Suizen Men. One reason the nonprofit Nationalities Service Center helped establish the garden was to feed hungry refugees from Myanmar.

A University of Pennsylvania study has linked decreased crime and better health—less stress and more exercise—with the greening of more than 4,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia from 1999 to 2008. Nonprofit groups also point out that gardens yield fresh and healthful produce.

"These spaces are really anchors in the community," says Jenny Greenberg, executive director of the nonprofit Neighborhood Gardens Trust. "They are an oasis and focal point where urban residents can come together."

A City Built by Immigrants

It is fitting that in the City of Brotherly Love, founded and built by successive waves of immigrants, some of the most striking examples of this effort are in communities established by Philadelphia’s newest arrivals.

The garden where Rem grows her herbs and vegetables has become a place for Bhutanese and Burmese refugee families to plant tradition and culture in a new soil.

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More than 100 Asian refugee families tend plots at Growing Home Gardens in South Philadelphia, and another 200 to 300 families are on waiting lists. Nonprofits are working with the residents to create a larger garden on an abandoned factory site.

Beneath colorful murals that depict the land they left behind in Asia, Rem says it was impossible to find chin baung in Philadelphia stores when she arrived four years ago. She had to travel to New Jersey to buy it for five dollars a pound. The nonprofit aid group Nationalities Service Center, which helped find and establish the garden site for the refugees, assisted in the search for seeds so the immigrants could grow chin baung themselves.

It takes a very hopeful person to see a seed and envision a watermelon on the other side.
John Carpenter | Philadelphia Land Bank

When asked to describe how Philadelphia compares with her former home, Rem says through a translator, "In Burma, we worked, but we were still hungry." She was one of tens of thousands of ethnic-minority people who fled persecution by Burma's former military regime.

In fact, rampant malnutrition among the new arrivals was one reason Nationalities Service Center, Philadelphia’s largest provider of aid services to immigrants, decided to help the refugees establish Growing Home Gardens in 2011. "It became a way to help them stretch the dollar," says Juliane Ramic, the group’s director of social services. "But it has become a place to feel connected, to put down roots, and to give back."

Growers donate a portion of their produce to Philadelphia's needy through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's City Harvest program. Citywide, the program produces some 100,000 pounds of produce from neighborhood gardens each year; 50,000 to 70,000 pounds are donated to needy families, while the rest is sold at markets in communities that lack access to fresh foods.

"They're amazing growers," says Lisa Mosca, who runs City Harvest. "We have language barriers, but that's pretty much the only barrier. They are also great seed savers, which is something that is inspirational to many of our other growers."

Marigolds—important in Hindu festivals and ceremonies—decorate many gardens. Dropada Kafley, in a bright pink floral skirt, shows them off in her garden plot alongside her tomatoes, rice, and pumpkins.

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Batuli Dahal shows off her garden’s late season colors—red cherry tomatoes and orange marigolds, an important flower in Hindu festivals and ceremonies. Dahal is among tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis forced to flee Bhutan.

With her son, Sovit, translating, Kafley says she loves spending time in the garden, although, she adds, "it is a small space." Sovit, who grew up in refugee camps but now is studying engineering at Pennsylvania State University, explains that his mother’s family had much more land as farmers in Bhutan. They were among some 100,000 ethnic Nepalis expelled from the country beginning in the late 1980s when the government changed its citizenship rules. The family spent nearly 20 years in a refugee camp in southeastern Nepal—typical for the Bhutanese refugees coming to Philadelphia, says Ramic. Although they sometimes could try to grow food in Nepal, the government would periodically seize refugee gardens.

"We would have elders who would say, 'The Nepali government took our land, and the city of Philadelphia gave it back,' " Ramic says.

Protecting the Green Spaces

An older Bhutanese gardener, Devi Bista, buttonholes the staff to ask for another garden plot. Growing Home Gardens recently lost a portion of its South Philadelphia garden plot as private landowners reclaimed some land for redevelopment. A new house stands behind Bista's shrunken garden plot, where he was growing a special Asian corn variety with seeds he ordered from Bhutan.

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Batuli Dahal lifts a handful of tomatoes from her South Philadelphia garden plot. The gardeners here donate extra produce to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s City Harvest program, which serves about 1,200 needy families during the growing season.

Often vacant land is encumbered by tax liens, and as land values increase, the market pressure on private landowners to reclaim and build on the land is intense. That's why the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society established a trust that is negotiating with the city to acquire some larger gardens.  

One of the city Land Bank's missions is to ensure that development doesn't destroy all the green.

"I think at one time in the city, there was a hope that all these spaces would be built upon—that they would be turned into housing, and commercial development, and that industry would come back," says Deborah McColloch, director of Philadelphia's Department of Housing and Community Development. "But there's been a change in the point of view about vacant land—that it can be an asset instead of a liability in a neighborhood."

Despite these efforts, there isn’t enough green space to keep up with the demand. There’s a waiting list of 200 to 300 families in South Philadelphia seeking a garden plot. The horticultural society and Nationalities Services Center hope to offer some of them land at a large new garden they're establishing at an abandoned factory site just a couple miles west. The plan is to include a market stand, where gardeners can sell their produce, while providing fresh food for another neighborhood in need of green spaces.

"Gardening brings out the hopeful side of people's personalities," Carpenter says. "In my opinion, it takes a very hopeful person to see a seed and envision a watermelon on the other side."

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