On a block in West Philadelphia, a corner lot had sat empty and unused for 20 years. But over a series of weekends last fall, community members used a new kit of parts—part of a new program called “Park in a Truck”—to quickly convert it into a low-cost park.
Philadelphia has more than 43,000 vacant lots, many of which are city-owned. In the past, Kim Douglas, a landscape architect at Thomas Jefferson University, had struggled to try to work with these spaces, even though the demand for green spaces in the city is obvious. “We work mainly with under-resourced communities, and we kept hearing from people in these communities that they wanted more parks,” she says.” In some cases, the city promised her use of a lot, but then something fell through. Even when they received permission, building a typical park is also expensive. As Douglas tried to work with students on projects that lasted a semester, that timeline wasn’t necessarily long enough to build community support. “I just thought there had to be a better way,” she says.
The new Park in a Truck model—which Douglas developed along with Drew Harris, a population health professor at Thomas Jefferson University—is designed to speed up the process help communities build parks themselves. By offering a kit of parts designed to be easy to install, it means parks can be constructed without any expertise. First, neighbors can pick various pieces to create the design. “Part of what we’re trying to do is predesign pieces of the park that are interchangeable, so you could pick from column A, column D, or column C, and they all work together, but you get different components,” she says.
While building a typical park might involve excavation, laying concrete, and other complex construction, the design options for Park in a Truck include elements like a gravel path that can be installed with shovels. The benches and tables are connected so they won’t be stolen, but they aren’t installed into the ground. Trees and native plants can come from local nurseries.
When Douglas and Harris first wrote about the idea in 2018, a developer reached out and offered a 2,400-square-foot lot next to what will become a new building with low-income housing and a community center in a West Philadelphia neighborhood called Mantua. At the same time, a nonprofit called the Greenfield Foundation offered to fund the first park. Designers worked with neighbors to decide what to include in the park; while the neighborhood had some playgrounds, it didn’t have a place for elderly residents to relax. The design includes tables for playing chess, trees for shade, and benches custom-designed to make it easy for elderly people to stand up. It’s also designed to support local wildlife and to absorb stormwater in heavy rains.
The kit “doesn’t require expensive excavation, and it doesn’t require permits,” says Douglas “And it’s all designed, built, and maintained by the community. We can do these parks for between $10 and $12 a square foot, as opposed to . . . three or four times as much.” In a series of six Saturday mornings, neighbors and university students completed the installation.
For the idea to scale, it wouldn’t be possible to design custom parks from scratch for each neighborhood, but the system makes it possible for the community to choose features that make sense for the area, such as a place to grow vegetables, or relax, or for children to play. Then they download the design, with a cost estimate, layout plan, and building instructions. “The park components come on a truck [and are] delivered to the site, and the community’s there to build the park,” Douglas says. “And then they’re also responsible for maintaining it.”
Philadelphia has a relatively high “parkscore,” according to the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which ranks cities based in part on how easily residents can get to a park: 95% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of one. But Douglas argues that’s not close enough.
Multiple studies have quantified the benefits of living next to green space. Living near parks can reduce stress and make people happier. Kids that grow up near greenery are less likely to suffer from mental illness as adults. As trees absorb pollution, they help reduce the risk of asthma. The more trees there are on someone’s block means that they’re less likely to have diabetes or heart disease. Spending time outside in green spaces also helps reduce symptoms of ADHD in children. “I think that having access to these types of spaces would help kids in school, and then it would help break that cycle of poverty,” Douglas says. Philadelphia’s poverty rate is 25.7%, higher than other large cities in the U.S.
Three more parks are now in planning, and Douglas is meeting with the city’s planning department to talk about how the program can expand further. She envisions a network of parks covering the city, perhaps using a tenth of the city’s vacant lots. “What we would like to do is come up with metrics to determine which should stay parks and which ones should be built on so that there’s some strategy, and then we could see these green networks developed,” she says. The team is creating a final tool kit now that anyone can use.