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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Philadelphia Urban Blight

Air Date: Week of

During the past fifty years, the City of Brotherly Love has lost nearly a quarter of its population as many residents moved to nearby suburbs. That’s left Philadelphia with, what is perhaps, the largest problem of urban vacant land in the country. WHYY’s Julia Barton reports on what city officials and neighborhood residents are doing to attack the “urban blight.”


KNOY: With about 50,000 vacant lots and abandoned buildings, Philadelphia has more decrepit, unused property sites than any other major city. In the last month, there have been 59 full or partial building collapses, and the city has spent more than a million dollars in emergency inspections and demolitions of these and other properties seen as likely to fall. Philadelphia Mayor John Street won office last year on a promise to tackle this urban blight, and the mayor says he'll unveil a plan soon. In the meantime, though, neighborhood residents are already starting to turn abandoned properties into assets. Julia Barton of member station WHYY reports.

(Children yell)

BARTON: On the corner of Belgrade Street and Frankfurt Avenue in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown, about a dozen people are planting rose bushes and black-eyed Susans. A century ago Fishtown was packed with factories and row houses, but now almost every block has an abandoned lot or building. This corner had been an eyesore for years, says resident Ed Ellis.

ELLIS: And right next door is a sheet metal shop, a recycling plant where they take all the metal -- what they wouldn't buy was dropped right here. People coming along on Franklin Avenue were making sure it drops here, dumping stuff.

BARTON: Ellis and his son got tired of the mess. One day they were hacking weeds from mounds of trash when a member of the local community development corporation noticed their efforts. Sandy Salzman heads the nonprofit New Kensington CDC. Like others who grew up in the neighborhood, Salzman has seen the problem of vacant land spiral out of control.

SALZMAN: It's land that people have just walked away from, that the city has not taken responsibility for. That the properties have been demolished, and over a period of time people have come in, they've short-dumped there. Trash just builds up. Cars are dumped there. In some cases they become polluted by oil, and they're just horrible messes.

BARTON: New Kensington CDC has managed to clean up 350 lots in its neighborhood, including the one near Ed Ellis's house. It estimates the area has at least 700 more. The group works with government agencies and the community to find creative solutions for abandoned properties. For example, New Kensington helped turn the lot next door to Ed Ellis's home into a community park and garden. Elsewhere, a former factory site contaminated with chemicals was cleaned up and transformed into a hydroponic farm that grows vegetables on above-ground tables. Philadelphians are demanding more programs like New Kensington's. Patricia Smith is the city's director of neighborhood transformation. She says Philadelphia has to develop a range of strategies for each neighborhood.

SMITH: It's almost like an onion with layers. We probably need a long-term and intermediate and a short-term strategy, all at the same time.

BARTON: Some neighborhoods simply need shoring up, Smith says. Other areas have so many abandoned properties that their life as residential neighborhoods may be over. Smith suggests the city would save money by moving the remaining occupants and cutting services to the area.

SMITH: There may have to be some strategic relocations in some instances, where you may have one or two or three occupied residents on the block. I think you’re going to be working closely with those individuals. There are laws and regulations that govern relocation, and we have to abide by those. But really, to try to look at that creatively.

BARTON: Smith says the goal is nothing less than re-envisioning the city's future and acknowledging that its glory days may never return. University of Pennsylvania urban policy professor Mark Alan Hughes says with enough foresight, the city may be able to turn its vacant land into an advantage, especially as surrounding suburbs find themselves sprawled to the limit.

HUGHES: The thing that is less expensive to us is land. The thing that's more valuable to developers is land. The fact that we've got a lot of it and it doesn't cost us much, and that developers need this and it's worth a lot to them, that creates the basis for a deal.

SHUTKIN: Community organizations working hand in hand with local government need to get a message out that vacant lots are an opportunity to be exploited. Not randomly, not haphazardly, not blindly. But with a plan, with a vision.

BARTON: William Shutkin is president of New Ecology, a nonprofit environmental group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He says inner-city development isn't an issue for many environmentalists. But, he says, it should be.

SHUTKIN: To the extent, and here's the challenge to mainstream environmentalists, to the extent we can rebuild urban neighborhoods, our hardest-hit places, into ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable units, sustainable places, well, then, we can do it anywhere.


BARTON: Back in Fishtown, residents continue to clean up their corner of Philadelphia. Ed Ellis says the Belgrade Gardens project has changed more than just a trash-filled lot. It's also changed him and others who live nearby.

ELLIS: Before, we were neighbors. All right? Before, we were acquaintances. Now we're friends, which is the difference. So this little thing, everybody, a whole lot of good things come out of this little thing here.

(Children yell)

BARTON: Across the city, neighbors and policy makers are hoping such small changes can add up to a solution for a city with too much unused land on its hands. For Living on Earth, I'm Julia Barton in Philadelphia.



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