Farm for the City, a pop-up community garden in Philadelphia.

Photos: Design Trust for Public Space

In September, a group of past and present Design Trust fellows set out from Penn Station to Philadelphia to spend a day looking at a number of community initiatives. The excursion was initiated by Tavis Dockwiller, a Philadelphian and the past Landscape Architecture Fellow on the Park Design for the 21st Century project, who, along with her firm Viridian Landscape Studio, worked to design and install Farm for the City, a pop-up community garden on the plaza that wraps the city’s Municipal Building. A program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), Farm for the City was the first stop for the group and Tavis, Tammy Leigh Dement of PHS, and Stanley Morgan, one of the lead farmers, shared the story of the farm and it’s evolving role in the community.

The garden was meant to serve as an advocacy tool that would bring urban farming right under the noses of Council Members, showing them that in a city with high rates of food insecurity the community gardens are not vanity projects pioneered by a hipster elite, but long-running places of food production with deep community support.

The space transformed over the summer into an area that brought comfort to the people who come to the Municipal Building every day, many of whom are Philadelphians who are housing insecure or experiencing life traumas. As Dee, an urban farmer noted, “I’ve been farming at historical sites and in suburban areas since 2009 but working in the city center is totally different. It’s a spot with a lot of intense things going on.” Dockwiller noted that the garden held over 89 events over the summer, and worked to provide shade in the summer heat, food for surrounding nonprofit organizations, and a space for urban farmers to meet and exchange info.

The garden sits on a modernist plaza that is hollow and immediately below one finds Hub of Hope, a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) police station that has recently been renovated and turned into a hospitality center that caters to the housing insecure, run by Project HOME. It is not a typical homeless shelter, but a place for people to get a hot meal, wash clothes, and take a shower. Soon it will also be home to a dental clinic.

Dockwiller notes that when Viridian began work on the garden above they had not thought much about the population Farm for the City serves. “Even our most wonderful public spaces can be kind of inhumane to those in need,” she noted. “At their best designers can be emissaries to those who are most distant.” Of course this means re-thinking the constituency of a public space and designing in a spirit of inclusivity. 

The group continued on to Broad Street Ministry, a church and food hall that serves fresh, high-quality meals to those in need inside of a former sanctuary. The organization is grounded in the concept of “radical hospitality,” those who come to eat are “guests” and the servers who get food out and ensure their operation’s smooth running are “concierges.” Food from Farm for the City, and other urban gardens, heads to Broad Street for preparation by high-end chefs who use versatile recipes to make sure that no one is turned away and, simultaneously, that there is little to no food waste. 

All of the proceeds from The Rooster, a haute-cuisine diner that serves Montreal-style meats, milkshakes, and local beers go to Broad Street Ministry, so it was a natural spot for our group to sit down, eat, and discuss the challenges of planning and programming Philadelphia’s green spaces. Additionally, we strategized on new ways to connect urbanists and public space advocates along the I-95 corridor. 

The day ended back at Farm for the City where our group had the privilege of sitting in on an urban agriculture roundtable led by Soil Generation, a group of gardeners of color working to make city policy friendlier to urban farming. The meeting modeled what a truly inclusive space for community organizing looks like with participants exchanging information, discussing regulatory problems, and planning future actions in an open and democratic way. This meeting, directly under William Penn’s giant statue and the brutalist Municipal Building, showed some of the challenges urban farmers from some of the city’s most low-income and isolated neighborhoods face, but the forty-strong participants were also a testament to the building strength of this grassroots movement.

The Farm for the City pop-up garden operated as an educational space, a homeless service provider, an active public space and as an opportunity to combat food insecurities for the most vulnerable people of Philly. Remarkably, the homeless organization right below Philadelphia City Hall created a sense of belonging for people who typically don’t feel welcomed. Our trip made it very apparent that building a network of urban farms in connection with service organizations is vital to combating the intersection of homelessness and food insecurities. It also helped me to think critically about how the interconnectedness of these Philadelphian organizations can be transferred into our work here in New York moving forward.