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How to turn your tiny Philly yard into a pandemic-proof ‘urban oasis’

Danielle and Wil Rivera’s 19-month-old twins play in their newly decorate backyard. (Courtesy of Danielle Rivera)

Danielle and Wil Rivera’s 19-month-old twins play in their newly decorate backyard. (Courtesy of Danielle Rivera)

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Nora Bradford completely abandoned her West Philadelphia balcony during the winter.

Then the pandemic hit and she realized the small outdoor space would be an ideal place for fresh air without taking any risks. She began collecting recycled furniture — “there’s lots of good trash in West Philly” — and transferring her plants from inside to outside. She added twinkle string lights and her space was finally complete.

“It’s been so nice to have an outdoor space that’s all mine,” Bradford said. “It’s certainly helped my mood throughout quarantine.”

Sometimes she sits outside and reads, other times, she talks (read: yells) with her neighbor on the roof next door.

Bradford is not the only person who’s been working on improving her small bit of outdoor real estate.

Nora Bradford’s balcony is covered in plants and lights and furnished with pieces she found all over West Philadelphia. (Courtesy of Nora Bradford)

All over the city, Philadelphians with porches, balconies and yards are transforming tiny outdoor spaces so they can spend time in the sun without worrying about the looming threat of the coronavirus.

With the weather warming up, we’ve sourced some creative design hacks from Philadelphians who are using their outdoor spaces to get creative, relax, have fun and spend time with their family and roommates.

Clean up

Philly backyards can be habitats for all kinds of critters and animals. Before you get started on creating your dream outdoor space, make sure to clean up and clear out any leaves or debris that have built up so you can have a hygienic slate to work with.

Create your own personal urban jungle

From plants and flowers to herbs and vegetables, adding greenery to your outdoor space can make a big difference and improve your mood. Especially if you live in one of the many Philly neighborhoods without much in the way of trees.

“I try to plant vibrant colored flowers and grow leafy vegetables like tomatoes and peppers to distract from all of the cement,” said Stacey Sottung, who lives in South Philadelphia. “In the heavy world we are living in, having an outdoor space that is cheery brings me joy.”

If you’ve never gardened or are unsure where to start, there are plenty of free resources and online supply stores that can help.

Stacey Sottung has brightly decorated her backyard with colorful plants, including flowers in a planter she built herself last year. (Courtesy of Stacey Sottung)

Fill your space with color

Whether you have a concrete wall or a wooden fence surrounding your yard, a bit of paint can instantly energize the space.

You can opt for a bold and bright color or one more tranquil, depending on your style. If you have kids, painting could be a fun project that they can participate in too.

Britt McLaughlin, who lives in South Philadelphia, opted for a mural, which was designed and painted pre-pandemic by her friend, artist Sean Martorana.

We wanted to incorporate a bold color to our South Philly Slab, to give us a little retreat,” she said. “It’s our own little urban oasis.”

Plus, it makes for a great Zoom background, McLaughlin added.

A mural designed and painted by Sean Martorana covers Britt McLaughlin’s backyard. (Courtesy of Britt McLaughlin)

Most hardware stores are open and places like the paint store Benjamin Moore are offering contactless pickup. But if paint is too much of an undertaking right now, you can always add pops of color through plants and bright decor or furniture.

Pro tip: If you have old paint hanging in your basement from the last time you painted a wall in your home, this is a great opportunity to use it.

Get the proper equipment: umbrellas and wifi extenders

If you are working from home and use a laptop, it can be nice to change up your scenery and accomplish tasks while sitting outdoors.

But you might run into an issue, like Emily Jacobs did.

“I’ve been trying to get some time during the work day on the patio to enjoy the fresh air,” said Jacobs, who lives in Point Breeze. “One problem though, it ends up being too bright to see my laptop screen. My space is too small for a normal patio umbrella… so I improvised temporarily with a golf umbrella.”

A beach umbrella can also work.

Emily Jacobs uses a golf umbrella to shade her laptop screen while she works outside in her yard. (Courtesy of Emily Jacobs)

But an umbrella wasn’t the only thing that helped Jacobs get work done — she also ended up purchasing a wifi extender to get a reliable signal.

“Highly recommended,” she said.

Take advantage of it

Doanh Nghiem and Stoio Kachev are using their outdoor space in Brewerytown for all kinds of things — they’re growing vegetables in their newly built planter box, cooking on their new fire pit and eating dinner outside. They use the concrete yard for composting and even exercising.

“I think it’s one of the only options we have now with everything going on,” Nghiem said. “But I’m glad we have spent more time outdoors. I’m not sure if we would have ever found the time to before.”

Stoio Kachev hangs out in a hammock in his Brewerytown backyard adorned with lush plants. (Courtesy of Doanh Nghiem)

Consider fake grass

Danielle Rivera has been staying safely inside her East Kensington home with her 19-month-old twins since the beginning of March.

“It’s been a challenging transition,” Rivera said, especially since her twins are used to a lot of outdoor time.

Enter the AstroTurf: Rivera and her husband decided to convert their “very adult party space into a kid-friendly yard.” 

They removed their grill and patio furniture, power washed the floors and then installed the artificial grass. They already owned the turf but it’s plentiful online and surprisingly easy to install. The new varieties are also softer and more permeable than older varieties. The Riveras added plants and a climber for the kids, too. A water table is in the cards as the weather continues to heat up. 

“We’re so happy with the changes and wish we had thought to do them sooner,” Rivera said.

Add toys!

Your kids will undoubtedly adore you forever if you build them a DIY swing.

According to instructions from Alex Gilliam, cofounder of the nonprofit Tiny WPA, “it’s easier and more affordable than you may think to make a swing for a young person.”

The entire process should take about half an hour and the total cost for the project is estimated between $5-$50, depending on what you already have on hand.

You can download instructions for free on Tiny WPA’s website.

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