In depths of Philadelphia, the garden plot beckons

Philadelphia’s newest urban garden is as urban as it gets.

Downtown, alongside one of Center City’s busiest traffic corridors, lying in the shadow of a skyscraper, stretches a quarter-acre plot of lettuces and peppers and flowers. The vacant lot in the heart of the city represents a new idea in creating green space.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society created the temporary, pop-up garden at the corner of 20th and Market streets, next to the glass tower of the Independence Blue Cross building. The lot has been vacant for over 20 years, surrounded by a high fence and filled with trash and debris.

Now the lot has raised beds for vegetables and herbs, a display shed made from recycled material in the style of modernist painter Piet Mondrian, flower beds and even animal topiary.

The herbs and vegetables will be sent to a handful of the city’s finer restaurants (R2L, Square 1682, Table 31, Sampan, Barbuzzo, and Paradiso) which will, in turn, donate proceeds back to PHS urban gardening programs.

Everything is designed to be pulled up, dismantled, and moved. PHS has the land for a single growing season. Next spring it will pop up somewhere else.

A temporary season 

Urban gardening is a fight for space and longevity in a place designed for development. The successful ones are based on a community of neighbors who protect the land from development.

But the pop-up garden acts as a stop-gap activity. The garden at 20th and Market may ultimately help the lot’s development.

“It reintroduced the site to the neighborhood,” said Gerard Sweeney, president of Brandywine Realty Trust, which owns the land. “Getting people to walk on the site, walk past it, seeing the site, it makes it a lot less foreboding than it was with the wood fence around it for so many years.”

Growing food downtown is not ideal. The wind whipping through the concrete canyon whisks away moisture, and car exhaust chokes leaves.

But like any broker will tell you, it’s all about location location location.

The crops may struggle, but the lot works well as a living, organic billboard advertising the allure of green space to downtown pedestrians, with its decorative flowers, demonstrations of recycled construction, and horticultural programming such as classes and tours. Only about a quarter of the lot is used for growing food.

Very much on display

The big wooden fence has been torn down, replaced with a gated chain-link fence. This first experiment in temporary gardening is meant to be seen.

“In Center City, each site is going to be developed,” said PHS president Drew Becher. “So rather than have a fenced-off, weedy lot, to have something pop up here for a season, do some good, then take it to another place.”

Almost no debris was removed from the lot. Designers used as much of the accumulated junk as possible to build beds and planters. The rest is sitting as a heap of rubble, waiting to be used for found-object sculptures.

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