Green cities advocate, Corboy, dead at 58

Mary Seton Corboy at Greensgrow (photo via planphilly)

Mary Seton Corboy at Greensgrow (photo via planphilly)

One of the pioneers of urban farming died over the weekend.

Mary Seton Corboy, 58, was co-founder of Greensgrow Farm in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. She passed away from cancer on Saturday.

Corboy had an awkward start to her career. She fell into cooking while going to Villanova University for graduate school because she needed money and didn’t know what else to do. Later, she worked as a property manager for the artist Andrew Wyeth, accidentally driving his lawnmower into a river. Wyeth kept her on, even painting a portrait of her in a fur hat (“The Liberal”).

But once she had a vision of growing food on abandoned urban lots, she hit the ground running.

“The question that kept coming up over and over: is there any reason why you have to be in a rural area to grow food, given the fact that most of the market for the food is in the urban area?” she said in a 2005 interview.

In the 1990s, Corboy bought a one-acre brownfield in Kensington with partner Tom Sereduk. After a few years of adjustments, rethinking, and not a few missteps, Greensgrow became a national model of urban farming and put Corboy at the forefront of the green cities movement. She not only figured out how to grow tons of food each year for residents and restaurants in the inner city on post-industrial land, but she made it profitable with two-dozen paid staff.

“In spite of the careful planning to ensure me a clean-fingernail future, I find my job is digging some version of a ditch,” Corboy wrote in an essay about physical labor, for WHYY’s “This I Believe” project.

“Some of these ditches are metaphorical, but others are the old-fashioned, move-the-dirt-around kind,” she wrote. “That’s alright with me. That’s what I want.”

Corboy never married. She is survived by seven siblings and 12 nieces and nephews.

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