May 31, 2007

‘Flower Power’: How gardens can transform neighborhoods

Like many suburbanites, we spent part of the holiday weekend planting and tending to new flowers around our house. Afterwards, our house looked so much cheerier and welcoming with the front windowbox bursting with impatiens and pots of colorful flowers in front and back. In the aggregate, it's simply amazing what flowers and other landscaping can do for a neighborhood -- and not just suburbs.

In Geneva, colorful flowers in window boxes are so important to the public streetscape that residents on some streets are required to have them, a friend told me! I doubt we'd ever go for that here in the States; but if you want to improve a neighborhood, even a run-down urban neighborhood, it actually makes great a great deal sense to give gardening incentives.

Can it work? The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Philadelphia Green program targeted one north Philly neighborhood that "had plummeted into a stunning cycle of failure, a cycle twirled by violent crack pushers and brazen whores, intermittent gunfights and wholesale urban flight," according to the PBS series Edens Lost & Found. "Tentatively, then firmly, [resident Iris] Brown was caught up in their ideas. She could learn to plant and tend trees. She could help make gardens bloom from trash piles. And: She could organize. . . .

"The people of West Kensington have reclaimed nature in half their derelict spaces. . . . Fifteen years ago, people called [Norris Square] Needle Park for obvious reasons and residents would not cross through, even to go to church on an early Sunday morning. Drug pushers and junkies owned the park, and a falling-down shack on its grounds was great for the sex trades. Trees were old and untended, and Brown remembers seeing large branches scattered after storms.

"Brown helped the horticultural society round up enough volunteers to learn tree planting and maintenance - 'the majority of people were afraid' to even consider the idea of wresting control over their large park and their treeless curbsides, she recalls."

"Soon neighbors were fixing up their houses, planting flowers in containers and window boxes, and cleaning up graffiti," according to a report by the National Gardening Association. "People started taking pride in their neighborhood. Gardening classes for kids replaced drug deals. New street trees replaced abandoned cars, and community festivals replaced street fights. 'This community went from being one of the most drug- and crime-plagued locations in the city where people were afraid to even leave their homes, to a beautiful, safe neighborhood filled with trees, gardens, playgrounds, cultural events, and pride,' says Eileen Gallagher, project manager for Philadelphia Green."

Streetscape and physical environment matter. Things that some people consider "frills," like trees and flowers, are actually critical to making an appealing community. When looking to revitalize lower income, more urban business districts and surrounding residential areas, it pays to remember that.

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