Park in a Truck Toolkit Allows Community Members to Transform Empty Lots Into Green Spaces

The Jefferson initiative helps to beautify neighborhoods across the city.

The city of Philadelphia boasts that 95% of residents have a park within a 10-minute walk from their homes. However, many of these “parks” are underdeveloped patches of grass, and the distance is too far for many people to walk.

Kim Douglas, director of Jefferson’s landscape architecture program, has been working to disrupt the status quo when it comes to high-quality green space in under-resourced neighborhoods. In 2018, she and professor Drew Harris brought together the College of Architecture and the Built Environment with the College of Population Health to create the Park in a Truck program to convert empty lots throughout the city into community parks. And now, four years later, Park in a Truck is releasing a toolkit to help others do the same.

Douglas is passionate about creating green spaces because of the inherent need for humans to connect with nature. “Children in urban environments need nature, but historically, redlined neighborhoods—or those that have experienced the withholding of certain services—don’t often get resources from the city to create these spaces,” she says. “That’s why we wanted to create this toolkit, to share the resources needed to build a park from scratch, without assistance from the city.”

Park in a Truck
Through Park in a Truck, landscape architecture program director Kim Douglas helps convert empty lots into community parks. Here, she works with students from Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia. (Photos by ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services)

Park in a Truck created its first park in the Mantua section of Philly in 2019, and it became a mini-catalyst for the program. “We worked with the community to create a 2,400-square-foot park that they would use,” Douglas says. “Giving people a place to gather really unifies the neighborhood.”

In 2020, Park in a Truck started training youth park ambassadors—teenagers who learn how to plan and take care of the park.

“These kids are learning how they can make an impact on the environment around them,” Douglas says. “They become planners themselves after receiving training on the ecology and history of their neighborhoods, and they start to look at their surroundings differently—identifying which blocks could use more trees for shade or which storm drains need cleaning.”

Community input is critical for Park in a Truck projects to succeed, stresses Jefferson’s Kim Douglas, who plans expand the program nationally and translate the toolkit into different languages.

A Resource for Everyone
The Park in a Truck toolkit is a simple-to-use resource written so people of all abilities can turn local empty lots into parks. Douglas stresses that community input is critical for these projects. She and her team worked with the Mantua community to develop the toolkit.

The toolkit takes planners through six steps to building a park in their community: acquiring a lot, forming a park committee, assessing the lot, designing the park, building the park and maintaining the park.

Each section is filled with helpful resources and information to guide even the most novice planner in their journey to create a green space. The Park in a Truck team has hosted community workshops on the toolkit, using Miro to design a park with puzzle pieces.

Park in a Truck
The Park in a Truck toolkit is written so people of all abilities can turn local empty lots into green spaces.

As for the future of the toolkit, Douglas hopes to make it widely available. “I would like to create a physical toolkit that someone can go to a library to borrow, including a printed version with a measuring tape and puzzle pieces to use for design … a sort of park-in-a-box,” she shares.

Douglas also hopes to expand the program nationally and translate the toolkit into different languages.

The toolkit will be a living document—one that evolves with time, Douglas says. “There are many layers to this project. In the 2.0 version, we’ll add more ecological resources. For instance, we’re now working with horticultural organizations to design parks that help bees, butterflies, birds and other pollinators thrive.”

Learn more about Park in a Truck and download the toolkit.

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