Rain garden in Strawberry Mansion holds water — and makes students safer

Tonnetta Graham is president of the Strawberry Mansion CDC. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)d

Tonnetta Graham is president of the Strawberry Mansion CDC. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)d

Students from James G. Blaine School in Strawberry Mansion started the school year on the right path. Literally.

Before summer vacation, the intersection of Berks Street, 30th Street and Sedgley Avenue had no clear crosswalks, markings or signs showing drivers which way they should go. It was a huge pavement triangle kids had to navigate carefully heading into and out of school.

Tonetta Graham, director of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corp., said cars speed up on Sedgley, which goes through a former industrial corridor with vacant lots and a couple of old factories, and that people make U-turns and drive in different directions in the triangle across from the school.

“Which is kind of dangerous because the traffic was going so fast,” Graham said. “You have parents escorting their kids. … It was really tough to navigate through some of the traffic.”

A new rain garden in Philadelphia’s Strawberry mansion neighborhood made a dangerously wide street safer. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The intersection isn’t part of the city’s High Injury Network, and there were only two crashes there from 2014 to 2018, according to a PennDOT representative. Still, Graham said, given the situation, accidents were waiting to happen. Neighbors had been asking the Streets Department for traffic-calming features for years, she said.

“So we were just hoping and praying that nobody gets hurt in trying to cross the street,” she said.

This summer, neighbors got relief in an unlikely form: a $1.6 million stormwater project, including a large rain garden and other green infrastructure with the capacity to absorb 158,000 gallons of runoff during a 1-inch rainstorm, or a total of 6.7 million gallons per year.

A new rain garden in Philadelphia’s Strawberry mansion neighborhood made a dangerously wide street safer. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The garden’s main goal was to absorb stormwater, but after about three years of design and community outreach, it included a curb extension with the rain garden in the middle — in the shape of a triangle — as well as new sidewalks, a pedestrian crossing, and six new Americans with Disabilities Act ramps. The crossing was reduced from 135 feet to 69 feet.

Crosswalks were installed the same time as a rain garden at 30th and Berks in Philly’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It was sort of an area of trouble, I guess you could say,” said Maura Jarvis, a community outreach specialist with the Philadelphia Water Department. “So we saw it as an improvement all around.”

The garden uses native trees, such as Eastern redbud, Kentucky coffee tree, Prairie Fire crabapple, and Chinkapin oak; grasses, herbs, shrubs, and flowers like spring crocus.

“Usually, the trees and flowering plants are what most folks are interested in when we’re asked about plantings,” Jarvis said.

Laughing, longtime neighbor Diane Davis said the garden changes “our driving habits” a little but looks very nice.

“It does make it a little safer, it gives you more curb space,” Davis said.

A lot was fenced in on Sedgley Ave. the same time as a rain garden was put in at 30th and Berks in Philly’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A trench to absorb water runoff was installed directly across the street from the rain garden, next to an empty lot. Graham said there was a lot of dumping there and overgrown weeds. Now, a new sidewalk is in place and a fence to stop trucks from unloading trash into the lot.

“Walkability, walkability, walkability, right? It’s one of the key things I hear about in Strawberry Mansion. We want to be able to walk to the store, we want to be able to walk. Some of us have to catch SEPTA, so we want to be safe walking to the bus stop, not twisting the ankle,” Graham said. “Across the street from this rain garden, this was an eyesore, and you know, a place for dumping, so it’s really fantastic that the pavements were made over, and that this lot right here it’s been fenced, so that kind of deters dumping.”

The rain garden project is part of the city’s green infrastructure program Green City, Clean Waters, which uses plants and trees to absorb stormwater and reduce runoff coming into the sewer. That prevents polluted water coming from the streets and people’s homes from ending up untreated in the city’s streams.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.