Community Gardens and Senior Health

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Philadelphia Corporation for Aging keeps older adults active and engaged by connecting senior centers with gardening programs.

Identifying the Issue:
Of the ten largest cities in the United States, Philadelphia is home to the second largest proportion of elderly residents, right after New York. Of the 270,000 older Philadelphians, aged 60 and over, 38% live alone and 43% live within 200% of the poverty level. Many of these seniors rely on an integrated network of community services to stay healthy, active, engaged, and safe in their homes and communities. One way the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) is helping community organizations to improve the quality of life for older adults is by encouraging gardening programs at local senior centers and housing sites. This effort began through GenPhilly, an organization sponsored by PCA, comprised of young adult emerging leaders who are connecting with older adults through their work and personal lives.

Putting the Program into Practice:
In 2010, through a PCA nomination, the Pennsylvania Department on Aging granted funds to Nationalities Service Center (NSC) in order to start a garden program. NSC is a non-profit organization in Philadelphia that provides legal, educational, social services and senior services to immigrants and refugees so that they can participate fully in American society. Many of these older adults were agricultural workers in their countries of origin, and many have not had access to places to grow food or use their skills and expertise.

The funding NSC received helped the senior center to establish a garden program on the grounds of a local church. Since 2010, NSC has operated the garden program with the goals of empowering center members to have a voice in what kinds of foods they are eating and engaging older adults in meaningful volunteer roles as teachers as well as caregivers for the garden space throughout the growing season. There are three separate garden areas, all in raised beds to accommodate every senior center member interested in participating. One garden is to grow vegetables for the center’s congregate meal program, one is for members to have their own plots and grow what they like, and one is for other local non-profits, neighbors, or community partners to grow vegetables and fruits. NSC has partnered with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society/City Harvest program, a local farm, and a garden center.

Understanding Stakeholders and their Needs:
In 2011, GenPhilly organized an event called “Germinating Partnerships: Connecting Seniors to Community Gardens at City Hall.” In attendance were almost 100 professionals from the aging network as well as organizations that are greening the urban landscape and improving access to fresh food in the community. At the event, several garden coordinators from senior centers and senior housing facilities expressed a need for a formal evaluation on the impact of the existing senior gardening programs. PCA researchers conducted focus groups in three low-income senior housing projects, and GenPhilly had twenty-eight community organizations respond to a community survey on access and interest in gardens. Half reported having access to a garden, while the other half said they did not have access to a garden. Most respondents said they were interested; however, they cited a number of obstacles like not knowing where to start, needing partners and volunteers and a lack of funding and supplies.

Assessing Impact:
Studies have confirmed that gardening is beneficial to the physical, mental and social wellbeing of seniors, promoting physical activity, socialization, relaxation and better eating habits. The research conducted on behalf of PCA by Wang and Glicksman reflected the same findings and also added to our knowledge of seniors and urban gardening, especially in the community context. Data from the focus groups revealed that more than the perceived mental health benefits, participants most frequently mentioned the tangible benefit of receiving the fruits and vegetables from their efforts as a major reason for participating in the programs. Participants were excited about the cost savings, the good quality of the food, and the access to food that they wouldn’t ordinarily have. On top of individually perceived benefits, many participants also reported sharing their fruits and vegetables with other residents who did not garden, implying a direct benefit for the larger community.

Leveraging Lessons Learned:

  • To share lessons from NSC’s garden project and others, GenPhilly developed a toolkit. The toolkit walks interested stakeholders through the phases of planning, starting, and sustaining a garden, as well as the tools needed.
  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfield Initiative used GenPhilly’s toolkit to inform their fact sheet on the topic of elder accessible gardening. 
  • On the same website as the toolkit, GenPhilly also shares resources like maps of existing parks and gardens by neighborhood, the opportunity to join a seniors and community gardens listserv (called the Seniors and Garden Exchange, or SAGE), and a guide of partners and helpful websites. 
  • In June 2013, GenPhilly hosted Garden Gallivants to showcase gardens and introduce new stakeholders, like potential volunteers, community members, funders, and other looking to replicate the model, to the programs.
Kate Clark
Planner for Policy & Program Development & Chair, GenPhilly
2013-15 Atlantic Philanthropies Health and Aging Policy Fellow
Philadelphia Corporation for Aging
215.765.9000 x5072

USAging Fact: Learn about your peers’ work—and how it can fit into your agency’s goals! The AIA Awards recognizes successful and innovative programs that USAging members have developed to serve older adults. Get inspiration from our 2023 winners!