Skip Wiener is using two of the loves in his life: working with children and landscape architecture—to revitalize inner-city Philadelphia. He is not only creating open green spaces in the city, but is also teaching Philadelphia's next generation about the beauty and benefits of plants.
Skip has a strong background in gardening, which he learned from his parents. "My father had a Victory Garden when I was growing up in Philadelphia and he took it very seriously," he says. "My chores involved taking care of the garden. Even though the work was hard, it instilled in me an appreciation for plants at a young age." Now it's Skip who is using gardening as a way to teach life lessons to inner-city children.
The Landscape Architect Skip didn't come to his current passion for inner-city green spaces until he was in his 30s. After a series of sales jobs he decided to go back to school. He loved the idea of designing buildings for a living, but with a young family he didn't have time to pursue an architecture program. Instead, he studied landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and received a master's degree in 1975. This emphasis on the community health would show up later in his life to help him fulfill his vision.
In the late 1980s, after a series of public and private landscape architect jobs, Skip started working with kids in urban areas around Philadelphia. With funds from a USDA Forest Service Civil Rights Grant, he was able to develop a tree nursery and create urban gardens, He also wrote curricula for teachers and students in the Philadelphia School District. Skip discovered he was adept at creating fun educational activities that would teach kids about ecology and the environment in the city. He enjoys working with children. "The tenor of my childhood was so serious. As an adult I can see and appreciate the hopeful, charming, and invigorating way kids approach life," says Skip.
The Urban Tree Connection Owing to his successful work with inner-city children in the impoverished sections of Chester, Pa., word of his programs spread and soon schools and neighborhood groups in Philadelphia were calling him for his expertise. Skip formed the Urban Tree Connection in 1997 and, working with the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, he has helped design green spaces and create teaching opportunities at high schools and on public land throughout the city. "I started out working with teachers to get kids involved in the community through environmental projects," he says. "After six years, working through the schools had become frustrating because we'd lose ground in the summer when the kids weren't around. Now I work with after-school programs and other youth groups and have had much more success maintaining and sustaining these projects."
Skip is now working more and more in the Haddington section of West Philadelphia, an area not too far from where he grew up. "It was mostly a middle-class neighborhood, remembered Skip, "but it has gone downhill in the past two decades because of drugs and violence." Working collaboratively with neighborhood groups, he has been designing and installing gardens in his old neighborhood. With neighborhood children and residents, he created a children's memorial garden to remember all the children in the community whose lives were lost to violence. He planted a rose garden at a senior center that is maintained by kids and senior citizens. His latest challenge is a block-long pedestrian walkway on Pearl Street that features habitat gardens along the edge, vegetable beds at the back and an orchard.
"I have local kids as apprentices helping to design and build the gardens," says Skip. "One thing I've learned is that fences don't stop vandalism," says Skip. "None of the gardens have fences. The best fence is the involvement of the local residents in the project," he says. Skip also finds himself doing more community organizing than gardening and is constantly in the area talking with residents and helping solve problems.
Teaching the Next Generation Skip believes that the key to solving the issue of derelict open spaces in the city is to engage the next generation of children. "With more than 30,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia, we need to change kids' attitudes about green spaces," he says. "Traditionally, places where there were trees, shrubs and vines were thought of as dangerous—places to be avoided owing to violence. But with good design, we can create green spaces that enhance a neighborhood and keep it safe at the same time," says Skip.
By working with these inner-city children, Skip is changing their negative attitudes toward green plants and instilling in them a love and appreciation for nature. It all begins with a strong community and that is what Skip is helping to build, block by block, in his native Philadelphia.
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