Tuesday, June 5, 2012

From Brownfield to Greenfield

Liberty Lands Park.
It’s hard to tell that the two acre parcel that is now Liberty Lands Park in Philadelphia was once an industrial brownfield. And it's hard to believe that the surrounding Northern Liberties community used to be one of the only neighborhoods in Philadelphia without a public green space. Liberty Lands is now a vibrant, essential part of that community, and a symbol of what resourceful neighbors can do with a few shovels, some environmental know-how, and a commitment to making their community a better place.

What is now a park, community garden, playground and state-of-the-art model for water management was once the Burk Brothers Tannery. This former brownfield or contaminated land was made safe and usable after the hazardous materials were removed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1987.

After the pollution from the tannery was cleaned up and the contaminated materials were subtracted, biosolids, or nutrient-rich organic materials that are a bi-product from treatment of sewage at water treatment facilities, were used to improve the quality of the land. Biosolids act as a natural fertilizer, enabling the soil to retain more water and nutrients and made it possible for the growth of a community garden, an herb garden, and the more than 180 trees that the park now features.

In 1995, a development company planned to convert the land into loft apartments. When the deal fell through, the land was donated to Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association (NLNA). Since the community didn’t have a green space, neighbors envisioned and created designs for a park. In 1996, the NLNA and the project received funding from the Philadelphia Urban Resources Project.

Trail at Liberty Lands Park

Flowers in full bloom.

By the spring of 1997, with the help of other generous donations and volunteer labor, Liberty Lands was born. The park now has partnerships with Philadelphia Urban Resources Project, the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society (PHS), Philadelphia Water Department, Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection (PA-DEP), TreeVitalize, and the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

More recently, the park was selected for a storm water management project. The PHS designed the project and was funded by Philadelphia Water Department/PA-DEP with the aim of easing loads on local waste water systems. Additional community support has funded the instillation of a cistern that will allow for water efficiency and conservation as water will be diverted towards irrigation.

The storm water management system establishes methods that could be utilized across the city and once again demonstrates how Liberty Lands is a model of a sustainable green space and an excellent example of grassroots community building. (See more on Philadelphia's innovative new storm-water management and green infrastructure programs at our previous posts at Home Science and Designer In Exile).

Children's garden.
Green Infrastructure landscaping.

A Few Words with Liberty Lands Park Coordinator Liz Reed.

Many people have pitched in to turn the Northern Liberties lots into a green space. Among them is park coordinator Liz Long Reed. She and her husband William Reed, co-owner of the popular restaurant, pub, and entertainment venues The Standard Tap and Johnny Brenda's, have a great history putting together fun events at the park. Recently we chatted with Liz about her related experiences:

What do you think is the single most significant function of Liberty Lands?

I think the thing that makes Liberty Lands special is that it is versatile. It's lots of things to lots of people. Even with the addition of the stage and rain garden, we purposely thought about how it would be used when there wasn't a major music or rain event going on. We want people to explore and hang out in that area.

What, if anything, has been the biggest hindrance in making Liberty Lands what it is today?

I suppose that would be lack of funds. Regardless, I think we make the most of our time and our volunteers to keep the park safe and looking its best.

What is your favorite part of the park?

That would have to be where I get to sit back and just enjoy it with my neighbors. A close second is that we own it. If we find the ways and the means to make stuff happen, we can do what we want. Like today, my husband/dedicated park volunteer went out with three extension cords and a giant drill to fix a planter that some enthusiastic bunch tipped over and broke last year. Our neighbor will meet him later in the week with his bobcat to pick the heavy top up and place it so it can be re-cemented in place. It's our park, so we can be as creative with our time and energies as we see fit. It's like a big common back yard.

Does the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association have any new plans in store for the park or any other other green spaces in the area?

Yes to both. We hope to build a "potty shed." A neighbor designed it to house a port-a-potty on one side and a tool shed on the other. The idea is that people then can pay an annual fee to get the combo to use the toilet, and the fees cover the maintenance contract. If, for whatever reason, it doesn't work out, then we end up with one big shed.

In addition, the NLNA got a grant to green the area from 2nd Street to Delaware Avenue along Spring Garden Street. This includes planting 50 trees on April 17th. And the Philadelphia Water Department and Philadelphia Horticulture Society have started revamping the Dough-boy pocket park at 2nd and Spring Garden as we speak. It will include new storm-water amenities.

This article was posted previously on our sister site Designer In Exile.
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