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Penn State Landscape Architecture Professor Wins Knight Cities Challenge

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Tim Baird Headshot

Tim Baird’s project, “Urban Arboreta: Tree Nurseries Transform Vacant Lands,” has been chosen as a winner of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Cities Challenge. Baird, professor of landscape architecture at Penn State and Deenah Loeb, Executive Director of City Parks Association of Philadelphia, co-authored one of the 32 wining proposals from an initial applicant pool of 7,000 that had been narrowed down to the 126 finalists who submitted detailed proposals.

Knight Cities Challenge is funding ideas to make the 26 cities where Knight invests more vibrant places to live and work. The challenge asks innovators to answer the question: “What's your best idea to make cities more successful?”  Winners will receive a share of $5 million to transform their communities.

“Not only did the Knight Cities Challenge uncover a wealth of new ideas to make our cities more successful, it will help strengthen a network of civic innovators who are taking hold of the future of their cities,” said Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation vice president for community and national initiatives. “These important connections will help create a pipeline for new approaches to city transformation and spark the type of collaboration vital to growing and spreading good ideas.”

“Urban Arboreta” proposes turning the vacant land in Philadelphia into tree nurseries for subsequent tree transplanting along city streets, in parks, and in depleted riparian corridors. This project will lead to the development of a “broader system of green infrastructure that includes stormwater management, bicycle and pedestrian circulation, soil production and composting operations, and remediation processes, along with active and passive recreational programming,” according to Baird. Another benefit of the project would be the opportunity for job training and hands-on work experience in the nursery trade for residents.

Baird considers the major goals of the project to be “repurposing vacant property into productive land and supporting neighborhoods as well as sustainability goals within the city.” He also hopes to make the project applicable to other contexts and cities with vacancy issues.

Baird’s project is sponsored by the City Parks Association of Philadelphia. His collaborators include Deenah Loeb, executive director of City Parks Association of Philadelphia, and Penn State alumnus Matt Langan (Class of 2006, bachelor of landscape architecture), a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates in Watertown, Massachusetts. Baird has taught studio courses in Philadelphia which helped develop the ideas for this project.

“The project emanated from the work produced by my students in design studios I've done in Philadelphia over the years and will likely include new design studios to implement these projects,” said Baird.

By collaborating with the City Parks Association and incorporating the Philadelphia Studio, “Urban Arboreta” will create educational connections between students and community members, while developing a hybrid landscape that will positively impact the urban fabric of the city.

“The urban forest must be understood as a vital infrastructure, necessary for the health and function of the city,” explained Baird. “Urban tree production systems will address several goals. As an interim reforestation strategy, it will generate economic growth and environmental benefits at the community and citywide scales, such as cleaner air and water, heat-island reduction, and carbon sequestration.”

One of the ways in which the project will begin is with the planting of blocks of nursery stock on city vacancies that would immediately contribute to the Philadelphia mayor’s goal of increasing tree canopy cover from 15 percent to 30 percent. This endeavor will not only generate an increase in canopy cover but will also secure the future urban forest, as these trees grow and are transplanted in parks and city streets.

Knight Cities Challenge winners hosted concurrent, digitally connected celebrations in their respective cities to celebrate the announcement of the winners on March 31. The winners will convene in Detroit, June 17-19.

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities, and foster the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit the Knight Foundation website: knightfoundation.org.

For more information about Knight Cities Challenge, please visit the Knight Cities website: knightcities.org.