The Philadelphia Inquirer consistently publishes articles and op-eds that highlight the importance of green spaces as an essential urban tool to reduce crime, manage stormwater and provide a neighborhood respite to heat-retaining asphalt and concrete. Recently, the New York Times published a piece titled “Tiny Forests with Big Benefits” which celebrated the huge impact of native plants and trees clustered purposefully on urban lots – lots sometimes as small as the footprint of a row home. These so-called tiny forests deliver environmental benefits that include the absorption of carbon dioxide, the cleaning of our air, and the provision of habitat for wildlife. These precious green spaces also generate a communal vibrancy and cheer in the form of a mental boost to the people living in their proximity.
The article brought to mind the work that a small nonprofit in the Northwest section of the city – the Roxborough Manayunk Conservancy (RMC) – conducts every week through volunteer passion and labor. Our mission is to protect, enhance and conserve green spaces throughout the community. These small parks and slices of land have been adopted by RMC and its stewards -- often because the community and pocket parks that define the neighborhoods of the city depend upon this attention and management from residents and nonprofits to support the city’s limited resources.
As a board member of RMC and the steward of Gorgas Park, I intuitively knew we were doing the work of Mother Nature on a focused scale. But I didn’t realize all the advantages of establishing tiny forests -- or even bigger forests, such as at the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, a 34-acre decommissioned water reservoir reclaimed by nature. Over the years, volunteers have planted over 3,000 trees and transformed the basins there into natural wetlands and meadow habitats.
Our work has also included planting a tiny forest in Gorgas Park, filling it with beautiful native hardwoods that hail from the nursery of an RMC leader. Once mature, these tiny forests made up of native trees will serve as defenders against invasives while encouraging more local flora and fauna. And as the Times article stated, tiny forests can grow as quickly as 10 times the speed conventional tree plantations while requiring no weeding or watering after three years.
My parents’ yard is on the edge of a tiny forest and sits behind the Garden R.U.N, a Roxborough community garden with nearly 30 gardeners, a fish pond, a fruit orchard and bee hives. The steep hills and rock formations of Manayunk around it help defend against excessive human development.
I was working in their yard the other day, removing small mulberries and ailanthus trees, weeding the garden and maintaining the pollinator plants. Viburnums, rudbeckia, coneflowers, garden phlox, obedient plant, sneezeweed, milkweed, anise hyssop, bluestar, baptisia – all are thriving. I took a brief break, sitting in front of a strong fan blowing under the back porch. It cooled me off during the muggy afternoon and kept the hungry mosquitoes at bay.
Suddenly, nonchalantly, a golden yellow finch landed on a viburnum. A monarch butterfly came shortly later, hovering around a blooming milkweed.
My father asked me where all the birds and butterflies were coming from. I responded,
“You live in the midst of a tiny forest.”
John Boyce is a member of the Roxborough Manayunk Conservancy board and the president of the Friends of Gorgas Park.