Urban Innovator of the Week: Maitreyi Roy

By Nicole Rupersburg

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and editor who covers business development & entrepreneurship, arts & culture, and food & travel for national audiences. She is the project editor and lead writer of Urban Innovation Exchange and Creative Exchange.


Who will you meet?

Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.

Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.


 

This profile was originally published by Urban Innovation Exchange in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, visit UIXCities.com and follow @UIXCities.

maitreyi-royMaitreyi Roy is the Executive Director of Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. A landscape architect by training, she has spent almost 25 years looking at community greening issues through the lens of urban development.

Established in 1728, Bartram’s Garden was the first botanic garden in the nation and is the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America. Situated on 46 acres along the Schuylkill River, the garden was stewarded by three generations of the Bartram family and was once an important center for research and knowledge around plants and horticulture until 1891, when control of the site was turned over to the City of Philadelphia after the industry that surrounded the garden lost its presence in the city, precipitating decades of decline.

Located in Southwest Philadelphia, the garden is in one of the most underserved parts of the city.

“The issues this community faces around its children, its families, their health and their safety are tremendous,” says Roy. “The opportunity to become the garden’s Executive Director was not only an opportunity for me to be much more focused on a beautiful piece of land with lots of potential, but it tied back into the public interest and public domain.”

Roy has served as Executive Director of Bartram’s Garden for four and a half years. When she first stepped in, she paid a visit to a public housing site that is the Garden’s closest neighbor, home to 200 residents. She attended one of their council meetings and was certain there would be interest in what the garden was doing, but only two or three people in the room had ever even visited it.

“That was really a flag for me that we need to completely change the relationship with the community if this garden were to have a future,” says Roy. “The questions that we then, as a staff and a board, had to ask were what is this garden’s role in this community and what can we do to support the needs of the community? As we asked ourselves those questions we started to ask our neighbors and community leaders those same questions.”

Founder John Bartram collected plants from all over North America and shared them with the world. His garden was the starting point for the lucrative horticulture industry, yet the garden where it all began was struggling. Roy knew it didn’t have to be that way; that the garden could once again serve and be served by the community, and once again be a valued asset and resource.

“Some things were immediately apparent: we had to really be very vocal about inviting people to be a part of the garden. That was missing. People didn’t feel welcome in the garden, and that was the first step,” she says.

Another major step early on was establishing a community farm at the Garden.

“This part of the city is one of the fastest-growing new immigrant communities,” Roy explains. “Giving families a chance to grow their own foods gave such passion to these immigrants from Liberia, West Africa, Cambodia, Vietnam – they were able to grow things that were a part of their culture.”

Bartram’s Garden now has 60 families with their own plots, in addition to its own community garden, that collectively produce 12,000 pounds of food each year that goes directly to families in Southwest Philadelphia.

“We’re working on big challenges, like getting people access to healthy food and a direct connection to their own food. That brings great power to a family, to know where your next dinner is coming from. It’s great way to bring families together and really change what is on people’s dinner plates.”

The gardens have also become an important hands-on educational space for local youth. As the only freshwater wetlands on the river, along with the urban farm, the upland forest areas, and the apiary that is also part of the gardens, the gardens have several different interesting ecosystems that are all part of their outdoor classroom. They use the history of the Garden to connect to lessons of sustainability – valuing the idea of growing your own food, as Bartram himself once did, and teaching children from elementary school to high school lessons in basic ecology and healthy eating. Youth from all over the city visit the gardens on field trips, while youth from the Southwest community visit on a much more intensive basis, with classes visiting once a week throughout the school year learning things like how to use power tools and building their own boats, which are launched into the river and become part of Bartram’s “fleet,” used for free family paddling programs.

Bartram’s Garden sees about 10,000 school kids throughout the course of a year. Some only visit on field trips; some are there year-round through all four years of high school. Bartram’s offers paid internships for local kids to get a chance to make some money while also learning various skills, and they are currently seeking funding to hire students to work on the farm and learn about farm production, paying them through the school year and summer to run the farm programs.

“The idea of turning this into a place where youth in the community can get hired and trained – those are the kinds of things we’re working on to make the Garden more relevant to people’s lives,” says Roy.

But beyond education, training, job creation, and growing and supplying food for the community, Bartram’s Garden has also become the community hub and gathering space that Roy envisioned from her first days as director.

“The place has become a place for dialogue, for exchange, and just for having fun,” she says. “We want to be very mindful that this is very much a place for local community life. We have thousands of school children that come to garden to learn about food and nature, and now we have made some serious headway to become a part of the social conversation with families coming on Saturdays for movie night or a concert or because they have a plot here. We’re making those vital connections.”

Currently the city is investing money to connect the gardens to the Schuylkill River Trail, also connecting to the Art Museum, Fairmount Park, and Valley Forge National Historical Park, which will be completed in the next few years.

“That will be a real game-changer for the garden and for the community,” says Roy. “Every neighborhood has a connection to Fairmount Park. Anybody can be in this beautiful park, except the Southwest lost its physical connection. Now with this portion of trails coming through they’re going to reconnect this neighborhood to the Center City and to the park system. It’s also a big opportunity to make right what went wrong years ago.”

Roy says the trail expansion creates a sense of urgency for the Garden to really become a part of the Southwest community’s daily life; to become “the family room of the community” while also rebuilding this important connection to nature.

“People used to avoid the river. Now we’re doing programming and education so people reconnect to the river through kayaking, fishing programs, lessons about the river ecology. We’re trying to tackle this issue of reconnection on multiple fronts. Some things work; others don’t. My mantra is try it out, fail forward fast, and move on to the next thing. We’re in this wonderful period of experimentation right now!”

At the heart of this experimentation, what Bartram’s Garden is ultimately trying to do is become a place that the community embraces as its own, a destination for families for summer barbecues, birthday and graduation parties, picnics, and other outdoor family events. Now, Roy says, when she attends a residence council meeting, more than half of the people in attendance have visited the gardens and the rest have heard about them and ask her questions.

“It’s really exciting to be out and about and people know what it is now!”

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

Pitching Your Place of the Future to Next Gen Talent

Pitching Your Place of the Future to Next Gen Talent

Why one city decays and another thrives can sometimes seem random. So, trying to foresee downrange why the future will happen in City A and not City B is hard.  Moreover, to imagine that there is one formula that all 7.8 billion of us should adhere to, wherever it is we live, is clearly nonsensical.

In our work, we study, research, and rank places to determine what the best practices are to increase economic prosperity, social equity, and quality of life. Ultimately, the question we want to answer is: What is it that makes a city a place of the future?  In our research, one thing has become clear to us: next-gen talent is the fuel for the future of place. And by extension, jobs of the future will happen in places of the future.

Digital Twins, Geospatial AI Help Bridge the Physical World and Digital World

Digital Twins, Geospatial AI Help Bridge the Physical World and Digital World

Digital twins and AI analysis would offer significant benefits to organizations across all sectors. By providing a comprehensive look at a geographical area and its infrastructure and assets, these technologies will enable smarter and more targeted field planning optimization. It could help digitize field surveys, offer new levels of remote engineering access, and enable contact tracing around COVID-19.

The focus will continue to shift away from the data itself and towards its relationships. The connections between data are where the most powerful insights lie. With enough data points, organizations can look to analytics to better understand the context and “see” the future.

AI at scale and emerging data technologies truly illustrate this connectivity and potential. Although it’s an emerging field, the benefits are limitless.

Taking a Look into Our Adaptation Blind Spots

Taking a Look into Our Adaptation Blind Spots

In my business, we’d rather not be right. What gets a climate change expert out of bed in the morning is the desire to provide decision-makers with the best available science, and at the end of the day we go to bed hoping things won’t actually get as bad as our science tells us. That’s true whether you’re a physical or a social scientist.

Well, I’m one of the latter and Meeting of the Minds thought it would be valuable to republish an article I penned in January 2020. In that ancient past, only the most studious of news observers had heard of a virus in Wuhan, China, that was causing a lethal disease. Two months later we were in lockdown, all over the world, and while things have improved a lot in the US since November 2020, in many cities and nations around the world this is not the case. India is living through a COVID nightmare of untold proportions as we speak, and many nations have gone through wave after wave of this pandemic. The end is not in sight. It is not over. Not by a longshot.

And while the pandemic is raging, sea level continues to rise, heatwaves are killing people in one hemisphere or the other, droughts have devastated farmers, floods sent people fleeing to disaster shelters that are not the save havens we once thought them to be, wildfires consumed forests and all too many homes, and emissions dipped temporarily only to shoot up again as we try to go “back to normal.”

So, I’ll say another one of those things I wish I’ll be wrong about, but probably won’t: there is no “back to normal.” Not with climate change in an interdependent world.

The Future of Cities

Mayors, planners, futurists, technologists, executives and advocates — hundreds of urban thought leaders publish on Meeting of the Minds. Sign up to follow the future of cities.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Wait! Before You Leave —

Wait! Before You Leave —

Subscribe to receive updates on the Executive Cohort Program!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This