Mt. Airy neighbors transform SEPTA eyesore

by Tom Beck
Posted 8/2/23

An unkempt piece of land will soon become a community hub where Mt. Airy residents can plant vegetables, tend to trees and explore nature. 

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Mt. Airy neighbors transform SEPTA eyesore


What started as an unkempt piece of land covered in nothing but Japanese knotweed and the kind of dumped refuse that’s all too common in Philadelphia – refrigerator parts, mattresses and empty beer bottles – will soon become a community hub where Mt. Airy residents can plant vegetables, tend to trees and explore nature. 

In fact, the process has already started. About a month ago, volunteers working in collaboration with West Mt. Airy Neighbors started clearing out all the weeds and illegally dumped materials in the 200 by 100 square foot lot next to SEPTA’s Carpenter Lane train station, replacing the discarded materials with wood chips. And that’s just the foundation for what’s to come. They met each Friday evening in July, planning for the future of that lot – about six raised flower beds for gardening, a space for rainwater collection, and a micro-nursery to support greater biodiversity and pollinator patches, which will consist of plants that attract local pollinators like bees and butterflies. 

“It's an experiment in what we can do as a community to promote widespread mindfulness about climate and sustainability,” said WMAN’s executive director, Josephine Winter. “It's an experiment in practicing soil remediation, growing trees, and native species propagation, but also in providing an example of what it would mean to move toward the model of an ecovillage.”

The ecovillage will also have an “edible hedgerow,” which will consist of apple trees, pear trees, fig trees and trees that grow serviceberries, mulberries and chokeberries. There will be about 25 trees in total, some of which have already been planted.

The project came about when Winter, who had heard about community organizations partnering with SEPTA to create community gardens in the past, sent the transit agency an inquiry about using the neglected land next to the station for a WMAN project. It took some back and forth, but eventually SEPTA allowed WMAN to use its land for a community space.

SEPTA still owns the land, but WMAN now has written permission to use it. 

“Basically if you have an engaged community that's willing to put in the work, SEPTA will allow you to utilize the land for community,” explained Winter. “There's precedent for them doing that with other organizations.”

After Winter nailed down SEPTA’s permission, she also obtained a non-monetary grant from the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) program. It’s a program that her neighbor, Mallory Zink, just so happens to work for. Instead of money, the grant provides free consultancy from two NPS consultants. Zink is one. The other, Tomas Deza, is the project lead.

“I live in the neighborhood so I get to come here a lot, which is really fun for me because we're a regional program,” Zink told the Local. “Usually I don't get to see my project partners as much, so this is really special.”

The project, said Deza, is seen as a pilot for community spaces that could appear throughout Mt. Airy.

“I think project partners are serious about addressing the inequities in parks and recreation facilities, programming, and investment that can be seen between West and East Mt. Airy,” he added.

NPS’ RTCA program is designed to aid locally-led conservation of outdoor recreation projects across the United States, and it assists communities with tasks like creating outdoor recreation opportunities and programs that engage future generations in the outdoors. The project in Mt. Airy is currently the only one in Philadelphia. There are only 13 total in the entire state of Pennsylvania. Other projects seek to preserve trails, cultivate open spaces and revitalize neglected parks.

The last RTCA-related project in Philadelphia was completed from 2014 to 2016. That project, titled the Philadelphia Living Classrooms Partnership, engaged students in under-resourced neighborhoods throughout the city in active learning and character development through recreation, conservation and nature exploration in their communities.

Stakeholders told the Local that for this project, the NPS has been very helpful in helping the community achieve its goals.

“Anytime we've asked them for anything, the answer's been ‘yes, and how soon do you want it?’” said Rick Hock, one of the project’s volunteers. 

The Local asked Winter and Zink when they expected the project to be complete.

“Never,” they both said.

“It’s a continuing community project,” Zink said. “There will always be something to work on.”