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IBX Insights

Urban Nature: Finding the Green in Philadelphia

By August 16, 2017May 25th, 2022Fitness Volunteerism Well-being
Harry O’s Passyunk Gardens, a volunteer-run community green space in South Philadelphia

Harry O’s Passyunk Gardens, a volunteer-run community green space in South Philadelphia

As a committed urbanite, I regularly find myself debating (with myself and others) whether life is better in the city or in the suburbs. My usual argument is that there are pros and cons to both, but that I prefer living in the city due to things like walkability, restaurants, nightlife, and cultural diversity, to name a few.

If we are looking at my list of drawbacks to city life, however, there’s one thing holding the top spot: It’s hard to enjoy nature and wildlife surrounded by all this concrete and asphalt. That’s true for city-dwellers as well as commuters who spend a majority of their work days in the concrete jungle.

Note that I said “it’s hard,” not “it’s impossible.” Many cities, including Philadelphia, are pouring millions of dollars into greening our urban centers as well as improving access to natural environments. This is great news, because recent studies have shown that spending time interacting with nature has a positive effect on our well-being.

Here are some ways you can immerse yourself in the natural world while still enjoying the benefits of the city you love:

Adopt a Baby Tree

TreePhilly is a Philadelphia Parks & Recreation-sponsored initiative dedicated to planting as many trees as possible, in collaboration with citizens and businesses. If you are lucky and have some urban yard space, you can request a free young tree during TreePhilly’s Spring and Fall tree giveaways. You’ll be in charge of planting your new tree and caring for it — make sure to pay attention to their instructions! Baby trees need lots of care when they are transplanted.

Beautify Your Block

Another option is to request a street tree to help beautify your block. Though city contractors will be the ones to come out to cut your concrete and plant your tree, you’ll be in charge of providing an environment in which it can thrive.

Whichever you choose (or just get both like I did), both yard and street trees provide opportunities to foster urban nature and enjoy the benefits of nurturing a tree and watching it grow over the years.

Become a Tree Tender

If you find that you are passionate about planting and caring for trees, you might consider becoming a Tree Tender through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. It’s a great way to get active in your community and help restore essential urban nature and expand the tree canopy!

Exercise Your Green Thumb

Besides beautifying your exterior living spaces, working with plants and dirt and sunshine and water has many health benefits, including stress relief, exercise, and nutrition (if you are growing edible fruits and veggies). If you’re a commuter, and have a moderately sized suburban backyard, you may be able to build raised beds and plant healthy edible plants (just figure out how to keep the squirrels out).

If you have a smaller city yard, you can create relaxing, peaceful environments with potted flowers, succulents, and all kinds of other plants. Most people find they become rather attached to their little gardens, which is a great way to maintain a link to nature.

Volunteer in a Community Garden

In the city, most people don’t have even a small yard; but that doesn’t rule out gardening. Many neighborhoods have community gardens that offer the chance to get your hands dirty. If your neighborhood isn’t one of them, consider volunteering for an organization like Share, whose Nice Roots Farm provides affordable, fresh produce to families in neighborhoods where produce isn’t readily available. It’s a cause near and dear to our Blue Crew volunteers.

Schedule a Daily Walk in One of Philly’s Urban Nature Spots

Maybe you’re not the gardening type…or you just work in the city and need a break from skyscrapers and concrete. Stepping away from work for a brisk walk is great for your health and your productivity. In fact, walking is so good for you that National Walk @ Lunch Day is a key IBX well-being initiative.

If you’re able to slip away and enjoy nature during your daily jaunts, so much the better. City parks like Rittenhouse Square offer a chance decompress and take in the green. Or, you can swing by one of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s two Pop-up Gardens for a taste of Philly’s hidden green space.

By integrating urban nature into your life as much as possible — whether it’s by caring for potted plants and street trees, taking a green-break in your workday, or occasionally escaping the city into the surrounding parks and woods, you can improve your general well-being and make your city beautiful for years to come.


Brendan Huffman

Father of three kids in the city, interested in sustainability, food, cycling, music, exercise, and anything that has to do with the future and our evolving relationship with technology. I love to explore and write about change, renewal, and growth, be it personal, local, or global.