Philly’s Vacant Lots Will Be Vacant No More Once They’re Filled With Mini-Forests

The trees will later be transplanted throughout the city, helping to double its canopy cover.

Stand on certain streets in Philadelphia, and you’ll see a single dilapidated row house surrounded by nothing but empty space and weeds. Detroit might be better known for its urban blight, but Philly has some of the same problems, with over 40,000 vacant lots. A new project hopes to start turning those lots into urban forests.


“The vast acreages of dormant, vacant land in Philadelphia can be transformed into productive, inhabitable, performative landscapes,” says Tim Baird, a professor of landscape architecture at Pennsylvania State University, who won a recent Knight Cities Challenge grant to create a prototype for a vacant lot nursery.

Baird and his partner Deenah Loeb, the executive director of City Parks Association in Philadelphia, plan to demonstrate how vacant lots can be planted with trees that can later be transplanted throughout the city, helping meet the mayor’s goal of doubling the canopy cover in Philadelphia.

“In addition to making them productive, the tree production plots will become a component of the urban forest canopy, albeit temporary, thus increasing the canopy cover immediately,” says Baird. The city has also struggled to find some of the trees it needs for parks and street plantings, and by growing locally, the new nurseries can produce trees that are best suited to the city’s climate.

As vacant properties are filled with trees, they’ll also improve neighborhoods. Studies have found that more trees in a community help decrease crime and increase property values. By reducing pollution, they can also help reduce diseases like asthma. They can also make neighbors happier, help keep the city cooler in the summer, and slow down flooding when it rains.

The project isn’t the first to experiment with using vacant lots as nurseries. In Detroit, Hantz Farms is planting thousands of trees on empty land. In Philadelphia, too, other projects like the Philadelphia Land Bank are also working to plant mini-forests throughout the city, and will be a partner on the new initiative.

For Baird, the project is a chance to develop a model that can be studied and later replicated. “We envision this prototype as one that can be utilized in other areas of Philadelphia, as well as other cities struggling with the vacancy issue,” he says. He and Loeb will work with a team to map out lots this summer, and then students will help design the spaces in the fall. They’ll start planting next year.


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.