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Philadelphia’s Place of Peace

by Maitreyi Roy
In an increasingly disconnected world, how can Philadelphians build relationships with each other and with nature? Our answer is to become the city’s River Garden and a gateway for our neighbors into our vibrant public park system.

Twenty years ago it would have been hard to imagine that Southwest Philadelphia could connect directly into Center City. But the arrival of the Schuylkill River Trail to our door in 2016 has been a catalyst for a shift in our thinking.

The arrival of the Schuylkill River Trail is part of an effort led by the city of Philadelphia and the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, to reclaim our waterfronts as recreational spaces and places for true communities to form together. We predict that the trail will bring tens of thousands of new visitors every year from Center City and beyond. But before that happens, we are committed to becoming a resource and respite for Southwest Philadelphians, helping them reconnect to their riverfront and natural wonders. We will showcase the very best that our neighborhood has to offer through the power of local partnerships.

Bartram’s Garden is a true crossroads for Southwest Philadelphia with 45 acres of public green space and the only access on the tidal Schuylkill River. This work builds on the example set by John Bartram (1699-1777), America’s first great naturalist and explorer, whose home was a hub for discovery and sharing about plants and science. Bartram’s love of nature and welcoming spirit are at the core of our mission today.

We build community through environmental education, free river recreation, live performances and outdoor movie nights and an urban farm. With its partners, Bartram’s Garden hosts 60 community garden plots and produces 12,000 pounds of fresh produce through four farm stands and provides 60,000 seedlings to community gardeners through the PHS City Harvest program. Our community boathouse, which offers free kayaking and row-boating on Saturdays to the public, is powered entirely by 70 volunteers and reversing a historic avoidance by our neighbors against the river.

These connections spread. Places where people interact with nature and each other become outlets for growth and creativity. Often, the word-of-mouth is enough—people bring their friends to these spaces as places to gather and momentum builds. Other times, the connections extend outwards, as in the case of formal community partnerships: One of our programs with the Mural Arts Program brings gardening to a nearby residential street and provides small grants to local community leaders to nurture their projects.

What can a River Garden mean to a community that has only seen industry and little growth in the last several decades? A River Garden can invest back into its community through jobs and resources; it can be a place for family reunions and Easter egg hunts, or to grow your own okra and yams and prepare them at a communal dinner. It’s a place to try fishing or kayaking for the first time, perhaps see a bald eagle or wild turkey—or even find a beach that only reveals itself when the tide is out. But perhaps most importantly, a River Garden is a place to find all these things and allow them to recreate our neighborhoods and our city as a place of peace.

Maitreyi Roy serves as executive director of Bartram’s Garden.

Published (and copyrighted) in Philly Biz, Volume 1, Issue 10 (September, 2016).
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