Community development, environmental restoration, and educational reform must go hand in hand.
We seek partnerships among advocates for each in order to combine forces and resources. We believe that youth have a crucial role to play in this process. This conviction comes from three decades of work in low-income communities on projects that simultaneously address issues of poverty, race, deteriorated neighborhoods, polluted water, and troubled schools.
West Philadelphia Landscape Project
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Aspen Farms Community Garden
WPLP has worked with the Aspen Farms Community Garden since 1988. Aspen Farms has been the site of several important collaborative projects: a redesign in 1988-89, the installation of new features designed by students from the University of Pennsylvania and Sulzberger Middle School in 1999, and the Mill Creek summer program in 1997-1998.

Aspen Farms Community Garden

West Philadelphia
(Written in 1999)

Aspen Farms Community Garden and the blocks of homes around it are a well-cared for island surrounded by vacant lots, deteriorating buildings, and poorly-maintained public housing. The garden takes up half a block, and it seems like one or more of the forty-odd gardeners are always there doing something: digging, planting, or harvesting; cleaning, weeding, or building; talking, resting, or watching.

The gardeners range in age from 12-14 (students from the nearby Sulzberger Middle School) to Mr. Brown who turned 100 years old in 1994. Most of the gardeners are over sixty. “It’s an outlet for us senior citizens. It’s real therapy–you don’t have to take medicine when you’re gardening,” says Charles Clark. Other gardeners agree: “This is magic therapy,” says Joenelle Drayton, “it would hurt if I didn’t do anything.” “I’ve gardened from a youngster. My father was a landscape gardener, and I loved helping him,” remarked Rebecca Melvin.

Aspen Farms is a testament to the talent, knowledge, and energy that exists within the Mill Creek community. Esther Williams got some neighbors together in 1975 to clean up a vacant lot across the street from her front door. That was the start of Aspen Farm. Year by year, the garden has changed.

“If you can’t improve each year, why be here?” This statement by President Hayward Ford sums up the gardeners’ actions within the garden and the neighborhood. The list of improvements is impressive: a large mural of a red barn with cows grazing and horses playing in a pasture, an irrigation system, a greenhouse, a new fence.

The gardeners reach out to youth of the neighborhood: they host field trips to the garden for schools in West Philadelphia and give a scholarship each year to a student at a local school. They also give away much of their harvest of fruits and vegetables.

The redesign and reconstruction of Aspen Farms in 1988-89 was a collaboration between the gardeners, students and faculty from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, and staff of Philadelphia Green, as part of the West Philadelphia Plan and Greening Project.

The gardeners gave the students a tour of Aspen Farm, told them about what they had done and hoped to do, and welcomed them into their homes for a weekend stay. The next week, back at Penn, each student set to work on a design for the garden.

At first glance, the students’ task seemed simple. The gardeners had asked for a meeting place for themselves and for the tours from local schools. Several constraints emerged, however: the small budget and the gardeners’ reluctance to change quickly. In formulating their designs, the students had to decide whether to concentrate improvements in a small area or to spread them around. Concentrating the resources seemed a good idea, but then not all the gardeners would benefit equally. The students soon realized how strongly the gardeners felt about their own plots where they had improved the soil over time and formed friendships with neighboring gardeners. Relocation or the loss of even a small portion of their territory was a traumatic prospect. The strategies chosen by individual students diverged, and the gardeners were presented with a wide range of alternative designs from which to choose.

The gardeners chose a design that created a “main street” meeting place by widening the central path, thereby changing the boundaries of individual plots as little as possible. The designer, student John Widrick, returned to the garden again and again. As he got to know the gardeners better, he realized that what at first seemed one big community, was actually composed of many individuals and several smaller groups, each with its own territory. As Hayward Ford told him, “It isn’t all fifty beds of roses. There are fifty different people with fifty different ways of seeing things and fifty different ways of doing things. And everybody, of course, is always right.”

Widrick proposed that the central path become the meeting place so that each group’s territory would border that space and so that the common area was created from taking a sliver off many plots. The central path is now like a small street with benches where people can come out of their garden to sit, rest, watch, and chat. Benches form a boundary between the common path and more private, adjacent garden plots and the raised flowerbeds alongside are a place for individuals to show off their skills. The design provided only a minimal framework, permitting the gardeners to embellish it.

Aspen Farms is a successful community. Conflict and competition are inevitable, as they are in every community. When turned into a positive force, however, the entire community benefits, and this is what the design for Aspen Farm’s “main street” did.

Renewal at Aspen Farms, 1998-99

As part of the Mill Creek Project with Sulzberger Middle School, graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania and middle-school students from Sulzberger designed new features for the Aspen Farms Community Garden. Together with community volunteers from Aspen Farms, the students constructed their designs and helped tend the garden.

Update 2018

Over the past 30 years, Aspen Farms has grown and evolved. Since these stories were written in 1999, Hayward Ford, the long-time president of Aspen Farms, passed away, but Aspen Farms remains an important neighborhod asset for the Mill Creek community and WPLP is proud to coninue as a partner. The garden, located at Aspen & 49th Streets has repeatedly won the prize for “best community garden” in an annual city-wide contest.