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Transit + Food = Sustainability in Philadelphia

2012 September 5
by Catherine Calvert

(Editor’s Note:  This post originally appeared on the VIA Architecture blog, and exemplifies how transit agencies can do a lot more than lay the tracks and build the stations.)


Like many transit agencies, Philadelphia’s SEPTA has adopted ambitious goals for sustainability performance. However, unlike most other agency plans, SEPTA’s “Septainability — Going beyond Green” sustainability program has established a specific goal to improve access to local food via transit, supported by the following initiatives:

  • Identifying and studying Philadelphia’s food deserts and their access to transit, 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

< Walnut Hill Community Farm with 46th St Station in the background; photo: Philadelphia LISC >

The fourth and most interesting initiative is 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 for high-potential minority entrepreneurs. SEPTA provided the group with a 10-year lease and options for up to 20 years to use a 1/4-acre parcel that previously served as a staging area for station construction.

The property is divided roughly in half, with the south devoted to vegetable beds and the north to a vegetable stand and space for a future 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 on site, and also contribute to a 65-member CSA that is augmented by produce grown on other properties inside and outside the city limits.

< Walnut Hill Farm cisterns collect water from the station roof; photo: VIA >

Since the farm opened two years ago, understanding of the complexity in promoting healthful food choices has evolved.  Improvements in access to healthy food do not necessarily lead to healthy choices, and it has become clear that other factors are also important, such as budgeting, planning, and food preparation. To help close these gaps, the Enterprise Center is building a Culinary School nearby, which will provide meal planning and cooking classes designed to suit neighborhood cultural food preferences.

< Walnut Hill Community Farm; photo: VIA >

The Walnut Hill Farm provides multiple benefits to the community, including 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. For SEPTA, the farm is an opportunity to broaden its sustainability goals, create good will for the agency, and establish partnerships with a variety of groups including Drexel University, the US Department of Agriculture, the Delaware Valley Regional Food Systems Committee, the City of Philadelphia’s Get Healthy program, and the Kellogg Foundation. The connection between food and transit may not seem obvious at first, but SEPTA has provided an excellent example of how mobility and food access can be complementary ingredients of sustainable urban livability.


Catherine Calvert is Director of Community Sustainability at VIA Architecture