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Drexel Helps Community Garden Spring Up in Mantua

October 30, 2013

Community members help build the garden.
Community members help build the Mantua Urban Peace Garden in September.

What was once a vacant lot in West Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood is now a vegetable-filled garden, thanks in part to Drexel. And with more help from the University, the site may be transformed even further in the future.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) early this month opened a new community garden at 37th and Brown streets. The 2 ½-acre site, which had been a vacant lot for years, is now called the Mantua Urban Peace Garden.  Drexel was among the partners that helped make it happen, as the University works toward its goal to be the most civically engaged university in the country. 

“It really fits into Drexel’s interest in being a good neighbor,” said Jen Britton, the associate director of Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and the interim director of the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships.

Drexel’s role in the project began when several officials (Lucy Kerman, vice provost for university and community partnerships, and Jana Mossey and Yvonne Michael, two faculty members at the School of Public Health) assisted with a neighborhood planning effort called We Are Mantua, during which residents expressed a need for access to healthy food like fresh produce and for more green spaces, among other things. 

A group of Drexel faculty and staff also helped PHS and Mantua residents with planning for the garden, which has 27 raised beds containing broccoli, cabbage, kale and other vegetables and herbs, with more soon to come. It also has a small tool shed and a shade canopy, and another group is constructing what will be called Sarah’s Butterfly Garden — named for the late grandmother of a nearby plot’s owner — to help draw pollinators.

University representatives helped PHS and Mantua residents with planning for the garden, which has 27 raised beds containing broccoli, cabbage, kale and other vegetables and herbs, with more soon to come. It also has a small tool shed and a shade canopy, and another group is constructing what will be called Sarah’s Butterfly Garden — named for the late grandmother of a nearby plot’s owner — to help draw pollinators.

Further plans call for educational programs at the garden, Britton said, to train residents to become gardeners, whether at their own homes or the community site.

“This will be a really great headquarters for people who don’t just have plots at the site, but want to green their own space,” Britton said.

Drexel’s contributions are far from complete. Gena Ellis, an architect and associate professor with a dual appointment in the College of Engineering and the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, has a hope for a transformable structure that could serve all sorts of purposes for the garden. She’ll be leading a multidisciplinary two-term course, starting in the winter, during which Drexel students will design and build it.

The goal will be a structure that can provide shade during the hot summer months to protect the fresh produce and can transform from a farmer’s market to a festival stage: a structure that can accommodate different kinds of community activities from small group gatherings to music festivals. Ellis said, “What if, like a radio’s dial, its acoustic properties could be “tuned” to focus inward for intimate storytelling and outward for community concerts?” It could serve as something beyond that for Mantua, too, she said.“The transformable structure could become a community landmark and place of identity for the residents.”

But whatever this structure turns out to be, she said, it will be planned and designed along with PHS and neighborhood residents in consensus.

“The hope is for it to be the community’s dream, not Drexel’s dream,” she said.