Transforming Vacant Lots into Climate-Resilient Pollinator Gardens in Philadelphia

As climate change-fueled flooding and heatwaves become ever increasing threats to both wildlife and humans, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and its partners are exploring creative solutions to lessen the impact of a warming climate.

To create a healthier and more resilient Philadelphia in the face of climate change, the NWF Mid-Atlantic Regional Center has partnered with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) to transform under-used vacant lots in Philadelphia into valuable, climate-resilient pollinator habitat.  These wildlife habitats provide stops for migrating pollinators, beautify local spaces, and can even absorb heat and mitigate flooding.

Providing crucial wildlife habitat for pollinators creates a more robust food web that supports and sustains the rich biodiversity of urban areas. The recently installed pollinator gardens in Philadelphia are simultaneously creating a stronger ecosystem while mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change.

Butterfly weed (Asclepius tuberosa) and Prairie dropseed (Sprorobolus heterolepis) being planted at one of the fifty pollinator gardens in Philadelphia (Credit: Jeanine Pohlaus)

PHS LandCare is a nationally recognized model of landscape treatment and urban revitalization that addresses the widespread challenge of land vacancy plaguing the city’s neighborhoods. As part of a strategic approach to neighborhood redevelopment, PHS works with community-based organizations and city agencies to transform Philadelphia’s vacant land into neighborhood assets. The LandCare program cleans, greens, and stabilizes vacant lots to help return them to productive use. To date, this initiative has installed and maintained interim landscape treatments to over 12,000 parcels covering over 16 million square feet of vacant land in key transitional neighborhoods.

“The clean and green treatment that we normally provide with our Philadelphia LandCare Program to vacant lots already has a great impact on the physical, social, and environmental health of a community. Now with the addition of special projects like these pollinator gardens, these vacant lots serve a greater purpose for our health and environment” said Samir Dalal, PHS Landcare Program Manager.

The goal of this project is to transform a network of vacant lots in West and North Philadelphia into climate-smart urban pollinator meadows that improve the connectivity and diversity of habitat within the urban core of the city.  This project will serve as a model for how cities across the country can use vacant land to improve the climate resilience of vulnerable ecosystems while realizing significant co-benefits for human communities.

Building upon PHS’ network of vacant lots, NWF and PHS installed 50 pollinator gardens in the Strawberry Mansion and Mantua neighborhoods of North/West Philadelphia in the fall of 2019.  Through this project, we installed 15,000 native plants on 26 vacant lots, converting 15,000 square feet of lawn into pollinator habitat! 

Recently planted Giant Coneflowers (Rudbeckia Maxima) in front of a Monarch butterfly mural in Mantua, Philadelphia (Credit: Jeanine Pohlaus)/

“These pollinator gardens provide an added asset and value to what would normally be an un-occupied and un-used space. The community appreciates the natural beauty that the gardens bring, local community garden groups are excited for the support of pollinators in the ecosystem, local landscape contractors and community groups appreciate the extra employment and skill-building opportunities it brings. The pollinator gardens are an added value to the entire cross-section of the community” said Samir Dalal.

Working with a professor from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, we will monitor each pollinator garden to identify the most climate-resilient plant communities.  We will do this by measuring plant survivability, plant height, and soil compaction/moisture. Based on these data points, we will be able to make better informed decisions to further vacant lot restoration work in cities across the country.

People often think of urban areas as biological deserts; however, cities and suburbs are home to nearly two-thirds of all North American wildlife species!  The opportunity to combat climate change and strengthen communities by creating wildlife habitat on vacant lots should be a best practice seen in cities throughout the country and this project helps to do just that.

To learn more about wildlife habitat in urban environments, visit www.nwf.org/gardenforwidllife

To learn more about vacant lot restoration and the work of PHS, visit www.phsonline.org

This work is made possible by a grant from Wildlife Conservation Society through the Climate Adaptation Fund.  Support for the Climate Adaptation Fund was provided through a grant to Wildlife Conservation Society from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

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