Her gift to neighbors: green space that’s both refuge and food source

David Karas
Headed by Noelle Warford since 2016, the Urban Tree Connection has overseen the renewal of 29 vacant lots in Philadelphia.
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Noelle Warford had already spent a decade in Philadelphia’s nonprofit sector, working on everything from transitional housing to job development to after-school programs, when she swung her focus to a component of community wellness that she hadn’t fully recognized before: the outsize importance of open space.

In 2016 she became executive director of Urban Tree Connection, an organization that had been founded with a focus on improving physical spaces. The effect of a newer emphasis on urban farming and community development has already become clear. UTC has constructively confronted crime, dumping, and the food insecurity associated with living in a food desert. The area in which she works has reaped benefits, including access to fresh produce as well as neighborhood revitalization.

It supported the rise, for example, of Neighborhood Foods Farm, which repurposed a poorly utilized block. Its produce is distributed to members of the community by members of the community. UTC has transformed a number of other sites into community gardens and “pocket parks.” Memorial Garden sits where several young men were once lost to street crime. “[It] is kind of beautiful,” she says, “to see life growing there.”

Why We Wrote This

In a Philadelphia neighborhood, Noelle Warford is protecting green space. That's allowing the community to get fresh food, become friendlier, and find leafy, peaceful places to relax.

Some five years ago, Nefertari Muhammad was looking to make a change to her diet and the sources of her food.

“I have learned more about the food that we are eating, which is not healthy for us,” says Ms. Muhammad, who is concerned about genetically modified food products. “It is important for us to grow our own fruit and vegetables.”

She wound up volunteering for a community garden, and today she manages Queens Garden in Philadelphia. She’s seen that garden grow from just a set of beds to a space complete with irrigation, fencing, and a shed for the necessary tools. It’s all made possible through the Philadelphia organization that operates the garden: the Urban Tree Connection.

Why We Wrote This

In a Philadelphia neighborhood, Noelle Warford is protecting green space. That's allowing the community to get fresh food, become friendlier, and find leafy, peaceful places to relax.

Founded in 1989 and established as a nonprofit in 1997, UTC focuses its efforts in West Philadelphia’s Haddington neighborhood, where it works with members of the community to develop greening and gardening projects on vacant or abandoned parcels. It uses these projects to form bonds among members of the community, cultivate community leadership, and establish a local food system. And Muhammad is one of many who have reaped benefits, including access to fresh produce as well as neighborhood revitalization.

Noelle Warford has been UTC’s executive director since 2016. She had already spent a decade in Philadelphia’s nonprofit sector, working on everything from transitional housing to workforce development to after-school programs. But UTC has opened her eyes to another component of community wellness that she hadn’t recognized before.

“I have found just this thing that was missing,” she says. “Green space is so important.”

Ms. Warford and her team have seen the challenges in Haddington: violence, dumping, other crimes, and the food insecurity associated with living in a food desert. She notes that they work in a predominantly African-American community that faces a range of health issues.

With those challenges in mind, the nonprofit has transformed a number of sites into community gardens, pocket parks, and similar spaces. One in particular, referred to as Memorial Garden, is where several young men were killed. “Even in a space where something as tragic as that has happened, it is kind of beautiful to see life growing there,” Warford says.

Indeed, UTC began with a focus on improving physical spaces, with the emphasis on urban farming and community development coming later.

“A lot of the work that had been done in the first couple of decades was really around developing these abandoned and vacant lots into spaces that could really be used by the community,” says Warford, who joined UTC in the spring of 2015 as programs director. 

She notes that founder Skip Wiener, who served as executive director until she took the reins three years ago, was a landscape architect with a gift for envisioning better uses for neglected spaces. So projects like one early endeavor – tearing down a drug house and turning it into a pocket park – were common for the organization. 

One block’s transformation

In 2009, UTC and others launched Neighborhood Foods Farm, converting the interior of a poorly utilized block into a thriving food source. Produce that is harvested from the farm and other gardens is distributed to members of the community. The distribution takes place at neighborhood farm stands, which are manned by members of the community.

“It’s a pretty different approach – not only having farm stands where there is very limited food access, but having them operated and run by people who live in the neighborhood,” Warford says. 

In all, UTC has overseen the redevelopment of 29 vacant lots for communal growing and gathering. And last year through the farm stands, some 6,500 pounds of chemical-free produce were distributed primarily within Haddington, reaching more than 2,000 people ranging from youth to seniors.

For Warford, the work of UTC is personal. She grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, in a neighborhood she describes as similar to Haddington. Also, she was the first in her family to attend a four-year university.

“In a more traditional sense I have been able to be successful. I’ve been able to go to college,” she says. “But I feel a personal duty to make sure that whatever I’ve been able to learn or gain, it is to advance the plight of people who just don’t have the same opportunities afforded to them.”

Her work with land, especially when it comes to gardening, brings back family memories. “It makes me think of being in my grandmother’s garden [and] cooking with her,” she says. 

Protecting green space

Warford and her team are particularly mindful of private development in the neighborhood, and the importance of both securing and preserving land for community gardens and the like. 

“We don’t want to see these spaces that community members have invested in ... turn into a condo for people who don’t even live here,” she says. At the same time, she notes, they are careful not to interfere with efforts to develop affordable housing.

The presence of blighted lots in a neighborhood can diminish the morale of residents, Warford says, and the work to help members of the community reclaim those spaces is nothing short of transformative.

“It allows people to associate with their neighborhood in a different way – to operate with a sense of ease, to know there is this space that exists,” she says. “It is maintained, it is cared for, [and] it has also brought a lot of people together.” 

She adds, “A lot of our core community leaders have emerged out of identifying these spaces together.” 

One of those leaders is Muhammad, who is appreciative of what she has gained through her involvement with the nonprofit. 

“It is an awesome experience for the simple fact that the energy is positive,” she says, “and anything and everything that I needed in order to make it happen – they did it.”

Owen Taylor is the founder of Truelove Seeds, an organization that has provided mentoring to UTC staff for seed keeping. 

“UTC’s farms, gardens, and fresh food markets bring more than health and jobs to Haddington – they also bring a way for community members, young and old, to shape and literally grow their neighborhood in positive and nourishing ways,” says Mr. Taylor in an email interview. He also notes his positive impression of Warford: “Noelle is great to work with and has a strong vision for community-led change.” 

Another UTC partner is Chris Bolden-Newsome, co-director at the Sankofa Community Farm at Bartram’s Garden. Like Taylor, he sees Warford as a leader.

“She respects the community that she is in; that is huge,” he says, adding that he trusts her leadership and decisions.

UTC’s annual budget averages $350,000, with revenue derived mostly from foundation support, donations from individuals, and some government funding from time to time. And while much of UTC’s produce is sold for nominal prices in Haddington, the organization operates a stand at Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square on Saturdays during the growing season and sells produce at cost to help cover expenses. 

In her work, Warford is motivated by the needs that exist in Haddington and many other places, as well as what she describes as “an attack on social programs.”

“We are seeing that ... our communities are really experiencing suffering in the form of food insecurity,” she says. “We really need to think about our work in terms of how communities can come together to really take care of their own needs.”

• For more, visit urbantreeconnection.org.

Other groups with a link to agriculture

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects below are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. 

Helen Keller International aids vulnerable individuals by combating blindness, poor health, and malnutrition. Take action: Donate money to empower women through gardening. 

The HALO Trust is the world’s oldest and largest humanitarian land mine clearance organization. Take action: Financially support the removal of mines in Kosovo, making families and farms safer. 

Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen is committed to providing hot nutritious meals in the San Francisco Bay Area. Take action: Be a volunteer at this group’s community garden. 

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