Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Philadelphia's Community Garden History

war gardens

by Libby J. Goldstein

In 1897, 56th & Haverford was divided into 1/5th acre plots by the Philadelphia Vacant Lot Cultivation Association to afford gardening space in Philadelphia because "great distress prevailed in our city on account of lack of employment".

The Vacant Lot Cultivation Association provided land and technical assistance through at least 1919, encouraging children to garden and adults to begin for-profit market gardens on lots throughout Philadelphia.

From 1976 until 1989, Penn State Urban Gardening Program sponsored a half-acre community garden at 56th & Haverford. The area was gardened, developed, de-developed, gardened and, finally, redeveloped in one century.

During both World Wars, the government advocated vegetable gardening so that more farm products could be sent to the military. I remember 200 to 300 square foot plots in Fairmount Park not far from the old Woodside Park. Not so generous as the early "farms", but big enough for a family of four.

In 1953, Louise Bush-Brown organized settlement house workers, and garden clubs into the Neighborhood Gardens Association to sponsor horticultural beautification programs in low income neighborhoods and at public housing projects. Neighbors on the 700 block of Mercy Street, became "The first Garden Block in America" when they planted window boxes built at St Martha's Settlement.

Vacant lot gardens were added in 1960 through 4-H, Cooperative Extension's youth program led by William A. White. Some of today's active community gardeners like Alta Felton and Mabel Wilson began gardening in public with NGA. It had seen 850 blocks planted by its 25th anniversary in 1978 shortly before becoming part of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Philadelphia Green Program.

The most recent rash of "farming out" on vacant lots began in the Green 70's. 4-H gardens were growing vegetables as well as flowers. The Recreation Department was helping neighborhoods change vacant lots into flower and vegetable gardens, tot lots and basketball courts. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society began developing community vegetable gardens, and Penn State Urban Gardening Program provided technical assistance. By the late 80's, over 1000 vacant lots had become vegetable and ornamental gardens.

Farming out in the 90's is more than a great way to keep vacant lots clean, more than a source of food and flowers. It is a strategy for neighborhood development and organization.

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Revised October 22, 1997

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture