The city of Philadelphia has some 450 urban farms and gardens.
Five Loaves Two Fish
Urban gardening can offer a green respite for residents who want to grow food and find community.
Philadelphia recently announced it would buy 91 properties containing green spaces and gardens.
Studies show urban gardens can help keep neighborhoods cooler and perhaps reduce gun violence and depression.
This story is part of “Advancing Cities,” a series highlighting urban centers across the US that are committed to improving life for their residents.
Victor Young breathed a sigh of relief earlier this summer.
The urban garden he helped start nearly a decade ago on abandoned lots in West Philadelphia was finally protected.
In June, the city announced it would buy 91 properties where gardens and green spaces had flourished but were at risk of being sold off for development — including a garden Young had cofounded named Five Loaves Two Fish.
“We’d been working to keep that garden growing as much as possible,” Young told Insider. “The threat of developers coming in and taking that land after all that we had built was frightening.”
Over the years, Young had secured most of the land through the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, an organization that works with locals and city officials to obtain long-term leases or ownership of community green spaces.
Victor Young is cofounder of Five Loaves Two Fish.
The last lot, however, was owned by US Bank because of a failed property deal with the city of Philadelphia dating to 1997. Thousands of properties tied up in the deal sat neglected for decades, and locals transformed some into urban gardens. But as the city gentrified, these lots became more valuable and drew the interest of real-estate developers.
Young, a board member of Neighborhood Gardens Trust, is part of a coalition of urban growers, advocacy groups, and local officials in Philadelphia trying to protect and expand the city’s 450 urban gardens and farms. There is growing evidence that these spaces not only improve food security in many Black and brown neighborhoods but also reduce violence and the “urban heat island” effect that’s exacerbated by the climate crisis.
“The problem in Philadelphia is that gardens are not seen as permanent use but temporary,” Ash Richards, who in 2019 became the first urban-agriculture director at Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, told Insider. “A solution is to make policies that provide a pathway to preservation that lowers barriers to access and ownership.”
Over the past few years, Richards collaborated with a grassroots coalition of Black and brown growers called Soil Generation to come up with the city’s first-ever plan to support urban agriculture. The plan, named “Growing from the Root,” was finalized in April and includes nearly 90 recommendations for the city government to secure and support community gardens.
The urban-agriculture office has a $290,000 budget this fiscal year, Richards, who hopes to increase funding in future years, said. One of the first priorities is establishing a resource center that provides training for growers and offers seeds, soil, and tools needed for gardens, Richards added. The office is also trying to make it easier for growers to apply online to lease land owned by the parks department, and it’s translating the application into five languages.
A portion of Five Loaves Two Fish was at risk of being sold off.
Five Loaves Two Fish
But the changes must go beyond Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Richards said. Ensuring urban gardens aren’t sold out from under growers who don’t own the land — yet have been tending to it for years — requires additional actions by the City Council and other agencies. That includes Philadelphia’s Land Bank, which was set up in 2014 to revitalize both public and private property left vacant or underused.
“The budget my office received is a start, but we have to make sure the work is funded and staffed,” Richards said. “We can’t rely on people volunteering their time for the next 10 years to get this done.”
Implementing the urban-agriculture plan could yield more benefits than a boosted supply of fresh, local food, Richards said. Many Black and brown neighborhoods don’t have enough green spaces, which makes residents more susceptible to extreme heat. Gardens can help keep people cool and improve air quality.
Jenny Greenberg, the executive director of Neighborhood Gardens Trust, said research had found that green spaces in Philadelphia reduced gun violence and feelings of depression.
“Having empirical evidence has made a big difference in being able to make the case that urban agriculture has economic benefits, as well as social and health benefits,” Greenberg said. “Then there’s the more-intuitive knowledge that these places build community and strengthen people’s sense of connection.”
“The garden is a place where people can commune, and it keeps negativity down in the neighborhood,” Young said.
Five Loaves Two Fish
That kind of connection is what Young set out to achieve at Five Loaves Two Fish with his cofounder, Beverly Giles Carter. They just held a going-away party for local high-school graduates who had worked at the garden for years, Young said. Now that the site is secured, they want to set up a larger program for students.
“We’re growing food and building connections with the young and the old,” Young said. “The garden is a place where people can commune, and it keeps negativity down in the neighborhood. So it’s served its purpose as a place to feed people, rest, and communicate.”