Over the past 50 years, Philadelphia has made impressive efforts to turn itself around in sustainable directions. Significant progress has been made to improve the public schools. The city's economic base is shifting from industry to tourism. Environmentally, the city is using vacant lots to capture and purify precious rainwater and reduce toxic runoff into local waterways.
But the biggest challenge lies in remaking old inner-city neighborhoods hit hard by the downturns in Philly's fortunes. In 1999, Philadelphia's Mayor John F. Street undertook a massive campaign—the $295 million bond-funded Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI)—to do something sustainable for these trouble spots in his city.
NTI's mission: to halt the decay of vacant lots around town by planting green spaces. The land may someday be sold for development, but for now, it must be transformed into a "clean and green" space, to begin to change the perception of the lot, the block, and the entire neighborhood. "When I became the mayor we had literally, I guess probably 30 to 40 thousand abandoned buildings in this city, we had vacant lots all over the place, many of them were trash-strewn lots, some of them hadn't been cleaned, you know, in 15, 20, 25 years" (Mayor John F. Street ).
When NTI takes over a lot, the area is planted with grass and trees and its boundaries are gently defined with wooden fences. The organization works with a number of minority contractors and nonprofit neighborhood groups, partnering with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to maintain and plant trees.