Featured Project: Temple I: North 16th Street

In 2009 Land Stewards was hired by 1260 Housing Development Corporation to design and install a series of low-maintenance, drought resistant landscapes as part of a larger affordable family housing project along N 16th St in North Philadelphia, just a few blocks away from Temple University’s Main Campus. The project, Temple I: North 16th St, involved the historic restoration of 22 townhomes along one block, restoring and enhancing the beautiful brick and stone work of these classic houses and transforming their interiors into healthy, energy efficient homes. From the start the project aimed to adhere to and obtain LEED certification standards and upon completion 1260 was awarded a LEED Gold rating for the project, just a few points shy of Platinum. The following phase of this project, Temple II: N. Gratz St. did in fact earn a Platinum rating (the largest affordable housing project in the country to do so).

The scope of the landscape work done in Phase I consisted of the rear yards of the rowhomes as well as the reclamation of 6 vacant lots throughout the block. 1260 desired for the spaces to be low-maintenance, requiring minimal watering, pruning, fertilizing or mowing. This would reduce the energy and resource demands typical of a conventional residential landscape.

The design was developed around low maintenance perennial gardens for the residents to enjoy with places for kids to explore and play, while also providing quiet spaces for relaxing. The individual backyards behind the units have been opened up into communal garden spaces with long meandering paths. Sight-lines where kept open in order to maintain views into the gardens from the street, ensuring pleasant views for those passing by as well as safety for those within. Work on the landscape began in October 2010 and was completed just two months later in early December.

 Installation of Meadow Planting and Raingarden,
The boardwalk through the raingarden also
provides access to a small blueberry patch.
Lot 1736/1738 N. 16th St

The project features a palate of native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses and vines.  Native plants were selected for their suitability to the local climate and rainfall patterns.  In an urban environment like this one, invasive weed pressures are very high, so many of the plants were also selected for there ability to reseed quickly and out-compete the exotic weeds that would quickly take over urban spaces.  The palate of native plants contributes to greater biodiversity throughout the landscape, creating a healthier more balanced ecosystem that will provide food and habitat for dwindling populations of native wildlife. 

Natural stones, boulders and cairns were placed throughout the design for climbing and sitting.  These stones also create micro- climates, creating more varied habitat for plants and animals.

As part of the design, each lot has a series of raingardens and swales intended to divert rainwater from the city’s combined sewer stormwater system, slowing it down and allowing it to seep into the ground, hydrating the soil.  The beds have all been graded with subtle undulations, using the forest floor as a natural analog.  This create a diversity of drier upland areas and lower, water absorbing pockets.  In these pockets you will find native wetland plants, like Golden Ragwort (Senecio aureus), Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) and Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

In the drier areas of the site, sweeps of native meadow grasses and wildflowers were planted to provide year-round interest, as well as habitat for local wildlife.  Stands of Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Bushy Beardgrass (Andropogon glomeratus) sway in the breeze, providing year round color and movement in the landscape.  These tall grasses develop deep root systems, permeating the tough soil and allowing the ground to absorb and hold more water.  Throughout the season the plants will also drop bits of dead vegetation that will compost down, adding organic matter to the soil.  As the plants grow and the soil develops it will increase its capacity to function as a water holding reservoir.  In drier times plant roots will be able to tap into this reservoir, making the landscape much more resilient to periods of drought.

There is no irrigation required anywhere on site, once the plants were in the ground they relied solely on natural rainfall.  This forces them to develop deeper roots, seeking out water for themselves in the soil rather than relying on resource intensive irrigation systems.   they have already gone through an entire year like this  and have done very well.  Many have started to spread out and make themselves at home, all the while spreading their seeds to fill in around themselves.

Another objective in our design was to provide opportunities for the children moving into these homes to experience nature in their own backyards.  Places to explore safely right outside their doors.  All throughout the year the gardens will provide a changing landscape, with new interesting flowers, textures and colors to observe as the seasons change.

After one growing season the plantings have shown a lot of promise. While some patches have fared better than others, the overall impression is that the plants are beginning to fill in and hold their own. We look forward to see how things continue to develop in 2012. More pictures to come as the year progresses!

Also stay tuned for the second phase, Temple II: North Gratz St., which achieved LEED Platinum status.

Photo Update July 2012: