A smiling man in a blue shirt stands in a residential neighborhood between two houses.
Dana Mitchell Dana Mitchell is the Maintenance Supervisor for Friends Rehabilitation Program (FRP) in Philadelphia. © Marc Steiner

Stories in Pennsylvania

Creating a Better Future: Green Jobs Training in Philadelphia

TNC is partnering with a local nonprofit to provide enhanced opportunities for green jobs training in Philadelphia’s Belmont neighborhood.

Editor’s Note: This article was written in the fall of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Friends Rehabilitation Program’s on-the-job training programs resumed in the fall of 2020 with social distancing and sanitizing protocols in place.

Dana Mitchell is an assistant pastor, a little league coach, a father of eight, a long-time Philadelphia resident with deep ties to his community, and he is worried about the concrete and asphalt blanketing his home city.

Mitchell has witnessed damaging floods, as rainfall, unable to seep into impervious surfaces, overwhelms the city’s sewer infrastructure and spills contaminated stormwater runoff into local waterways, roadways and buildings. But it’s the psychological impacts of the built environment that worry him the most.

“They call it the concrete jungle. For our kids to just see cement and buildings all of the time, it can make them feel very rigid,” he says. “When you see trees and grass—it lightens you. Being around green things, growing things, it makes you feel better.”

As the Maintenance Supervisor for Friends Rehabilitation Program (FRP)—a Philadelphia-based nonprofit providing affordable housing and social services in low- and moderate-income communities—Mitchell is on the frontlines of restoring environmental, economic and social balance within his community.

Being around green things, growing things, it makes you feel better.

Maintenance Supervisor for Friends Rehabilitation Program

From Community Gardens to Environmental Equity and Job Training

Mitchell started with FRP 20 years ago as a trainee in its jobs training program, and today, as a full-time employee, he manages a similar program focused on training returning citizens. Historically, program trainees have gained construction trade experience as they carried out building maintenance for FRP’s seven affordable housing developments across the city. But over the last five years, environmental equity and related jobs training have become a focus for FRP, based on the success of community gardens at the housing developments.

“We called it ‘garden TV’ because we found that a lot of residents, if they weren’t coming out to actively garden with us, would be watching us out of their windows. They found it more relaxing than watching the news,” says Rania Campbell-Bussiere, FRP Sustainability Director. “Those spaces were also providing fresh food for our low-income tenants. That program really changed the way we approached landscaping at our facilities.”

Today, FRP’s vision for ecological improvement has expanded beyond gardens. FRP is collaborating with The Nature Conservancy in Philadelphia's Belmont neighborhood, where FRP is the largest landowner, to create healthy, working landscapes that provide layered benefits to residents, like food production, flood mitigation and meaningful job training. 

Already, FRP, in collaboration with TNC, has created two urban orchards, planted street trees and removed dead trees in the Belmont neighborhood. Currently, FRP and TNC are co-creating and installing an aggregation of eight green stormwater projects on FRP-owned land across four city blocks that will soak up stormwater, restore beneficial habitat, create new gathering spaces, engender community pride and more.

Those spaces were also providing fresh food for our low-income tenants. That program really changed the way we approached landscaping at our facilities.

Sustainability Director of Friends Rehabilitation Program
A man kneels on the ground while holding the root ball of a small sapling. A group of students watch him in the background.
IT WILL GROW Volunteers with Friends Rehabilitation Program in Philadelphia prepare to plant trees. © Kat Kendon

Cumulative Benefits in a Neighborhood

“To have many projects across multiple blocks in one neighborhood, you start to get a cumulative benefit in terms of pollinator habitat, aesthetics, operations and maintenance and workforce development,” says Julie Ulrich, TNC Director of Urban Conservation. “We’re doing these projects intentionally, in a clustered way, because it can bring about the best ecological and social benefits.”

One important benefit is job experience, which emerged as a top priority for the community when conversations between TNC, FRP and local residents began almost two years ago.

As a trainee turned manager, Mitchell is a champion of FRP’s workforce development program, which often results in living wage employment—sometimes a union job—in building trades or maintenance for the returning citizen trainees. He credits the mentorship of former program leaders with helping him develop personally and professionally on his career path.

“We would have these conversations in the morning, before we started working. Talking with these older men who had been through the same things you were going through and who were able to give you direction or sometimes just listen to you just rant—that was a big help for me,” says Mitchell. “I try to incorporate that into who I am and how I teach now. I had somebody do that with me, and I think it would be wrong for me not to do that for somebody else.”

We’re doing these projects intentionally, in a clustered way, because it can bring about the best ecological and social benefits.

Director of Urban Conservation, The Nature Conservancy in Pennsylvania
A group of people planting trees. Two women in the foreground use shovels to dig holes for the small potted saplings.
Tree Planting Day Volunteers plant fruit trees with Friends Rehabilitation Program in Philadelphia, October 2019. © Kat Kendon/Kendon Photography

Greening with Meaning for Stormwater Projects

The stormwater projects allow FRP to train program participants in cutting-edge green infrastructure management while continuing to provide the traditional building maintenance skills and personal mentorship that has made the program so successful.

TNC both sponsored and joined FRP staff, including Mitchell and Campbell-Bussiere, in attending a 3-day intensive training around green infrastructure best practices. The training was in preparation for the upcoming installations and ongoing maintenance of these projects, which will include rain gardens, bioswales, asphalt removal, pervious pavement installations and other green interventions that absorb water and store it in the ground.

The green spaces will help replace the unyielding hardscapes like asphalt and concrete lots that repel contaminated rainwater runoff during storms, which leads to large-scale pollution of the city’s streams and rivers. As such, these projects align with the city’s 25-year Green City, Clean Waters plan to transform the health of local waterways through land-based green infrastructure projects. FRP and TNC’s ecological interventions throughout Belmont have the full support of city officials.

For Mitchell, the prospect of more community-led green spaces and local job training is incredibly important. Installation will begin this fall, and he is excited to dig in.

“I get to learn something new, which is always exciting for me,” says Mitchell. “And if I can do something to help somebody better themselves, I am all for that.”

A man greets a group of volunteers who have gathered in a city neighborhood for a tree planting event.
Tree Planting Day Carlos Claussell, TNC urban conservation project manager, greets volunteers during a tree planting event with Friends Rehabilitation Program in Philadelphia, October 2019. © Kat Kendon/Kendon Photography

A Path Forward: TNC’s Urban Conservation Programs in Philadelphia and Wilmington

For decades, cities across the country have been experimenting with solutions to legacy problems faced by many urban communities—problems rooted in the nation’s history of racial discrimination in housing and urban planning. 

For the past few years, The Nature Conservancy has worked with community-based organizations in Philadelphia and Wilmington to support two separate workforce development programs that combine environmental equity with jobs training. Sharing experiences, lessons, science and best practices both locally and globally is what sets TNC apart.

Read the companion article, The Social Impact of Community Conservation in Wilmington about a similar partnership in Delaware’s largest city.

Now that TNC's conservation efforts in Philadelphia and Wilmington are being integrated into one program, TNC stands to have a greater regional conservation impact, embedding both cities into the broader landscape of the lower Delaware River.

As the nation works to rebuild the global economy, the recovery process must include opportunities not only to resume our old way of life, but also to rebuild businesses, industries and jobs in ways that enhance equity, strengthen resilience and support a healthy environment. Economic recovery and environmental action must go hand-in-hand. Nature’s future is our future.