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Transit + Food = Sustainability in Philadelphia

Sep 04, 2012
Transit + Food = Sustainability in Philadelphia

by Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability, VIA Architecture

Photo credit:  VIA 

I had the recent pleasure of attending the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) annual conference on Sustainability and Public Transportation, held this year in Philadelphia.  Like many transit agencies, Philadelphia’s SEPTA has adopted a number of ambitious goals toward sustainability performance.  However unlike most agency plans, SEPTA’s “Septainability — Going beyond Green” sustainability program includes a specific goal related to Improving Access to Local Food via Transit.

In SEPTA’s case, this has taken the form of several initiatives:

  • Identifying and studying Philadelphia’s food deserts and their access to transit.  Access to local food is being improved through adjustments to the transit network, with a goal of having fresh food available within a 10 minute walk of 75 percent of Philadelphia’s population.
  • Partnering with local groups such as The Food Trust, The Enterprise Center, Farm-to-City, and  The Common Market to create farmer’s markets at four SEPTA rapid transit stations throughout the city.
  • Creating a “Farm-to-SEPTA” Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for its own employees, where fresh produce is delivered directly to the agency headquarters.

The fourth and most interesting initiative has been the establishment of the Walnut Hill Community Farm on SEPTA property, adjacent to the 46th Street Station on the Market Frankfurt light rail line in West Philadelphia.  SEPTA’s project partner is The Enterprise Center, a community organization that provides access to capital, building capacity, business education and economic development opportunities to high-potential, minority entrepreneurs. SEPTA provided the group with a 10 year lease with additional options up to 20 years to use the land, which is a 1/4 acre parcel previously used as a staging area for construction at the station.

Photo credit: The Enterprise Center


The property is divided roughly in half, with the south side devoted to vegetable beds, and the north part with a vegetable stand and remaining space planned for a city parklet.  Rainwater is collected off the 46th Street Station roof and is stored in two 1100 gallon cisterns, with irrigation pumps powered by a small photovoltaic panel mounted to the station wall.  Vegetables grown on the property are sold at the Friday farmer’s market at the vegetable stand, as well as contributing to a 65-member CSA that is augmented by produce grown on other properties inside and outside the city limits.

For SEPTA and the Enterprise Center, the benefits of operating the Walnut Hill Farm provide direct return to the community. These include access to fresh food, maintenance of green space, pride of place resulting in less graffiti and vandalism, educational and employment opportunities for youth, and overall capacity-building within the neighborhood.

Understanding of the complexity in promoting healthful food choices has evolved considerably in the two years since the project opened. At that time, access to fresh food appeared to be the primary issue, but even with improvements to the network of accessing food sources, many people are not following healthy lifestyle choices.  It is now understood that there are other missing pieces in making the connection between growing food and eating it, specifically knowledge around budgeting, planning, and actual food preparation.  To further support the local food network and close these gaps, the Enterprise Center is building a Culinary School nearby, which will provide meal planning and cooking classes that are designed to suit neighborhood cultural food preferences.

Cisterns store rainwater collected from the station roof. Photo credit: VIA

For SEPTA, the project is an opportunity to not only underscore and broaden its sustainability goals, but also a chance to build community partnerships.  Projects such as these not only create goodwill for the agency,but provide a chance to collaborate with groups such as Drexel University, the US Department of Agriculture, the Delaware Valley Regional Food Systems Committee, the City of Philadelphia’s Get Healthy program, and non-profits such as the Kellogg Foundation. The connection between food and transit may not seem obvious at first glance, but SEPTA has provided an excellent example of the way that mobility and food access can be complementary parts of a sustainable urban livability model.

46th Street Station with farm stand visible to the left. Photo credit: VIA

Photo credit: VIA

For more information on SEPTA’s Sustainability Program:

For more information on the Walnut Hill Community Farm: