Innovation as a Practice of Patience

As a member of the inaugural cohort in the Academy for Municipal Innovation in 2014, I learned a lot about what innovation is and how to think about my work with the City differently. Soon after graduating from the Academy, a colleague and fellow Academy grad, Moria Miller, and I were able to apply some lessons on innovation as co-project managers of the Plants Make Positive Places (P3) pilot project.

Funded through the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia’s Innovation Fund, P3’s mission is to test and measure the feasibility of expanding plant propagation, reuse, and distribution within the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation (PPR) system in order to expand plants’ positive aesthetic, educational, and ecological impact. P3 was inspired by an idea submitted by fellow City worker and avid horticulturalist, Dr. Alvin Powell of the Health Department. Dr. Powell saw an opportunity to reuse City-owned plant material to generate and grow new plant life in the City.

The Fund allowed the P3 Project Team to contract a P3 Coordinator to help us actualize Dr. Powell’s vision. We hired Eric Blasco of Erb Food & Garden, who has brought his horticultural expertise to P3. Additionally, we budgeted for perennial plant material which will act as a capital investment for the department and is designed to make returns back into PPR’s system each season through propagation by trained staff members.

Eric Blasco leading a training on cane fruit.

Eric Blasco leading a training on cane fruit.

Starting in May of this year, Eric installed cane fruit patches (e.g. raspberries, blackberries) at PPR’s in-house nursery, the Greenland Nursery. Through partnerships with Greenland’s manager, Max Blaustein, our Urban Forestry & Ecosystem Management Division, and the Department’s Farm Philly Program, we have begun to better understand the benefits of having a plot of plant material targeted for use by a specific program. This cane fruit will rejuvenate itself while supporting local ecology, PPR educational programs, and operations systems at the same time.

This month we approved a design for a plant menu to be used as part of the P3 project and to be recommended for adoption by PPR. The menu includes a list of perennial plants and modular garden designs for those plants. These garden designs can be arranged in different ways depending on the application (variations of shade, size of bed, etc.). The menu provides PPR with a platform to propagate by limiting the number of plants with which our maintenance staff will have to become familiar, while allowing for multiple combinations of each species of plant.

Part of the Plant Menu

Part of the Plant Menu

For the rest of this year, we plan to apply the plant menu to several sites throughout the city. By conducting site analyses, choosing sites with appropriate physical and community conditions, and then training existing staff on the menu and appropriate plant care, we will complete the first cycle in the P3 process. We look forward to formally adopting this process as a part of what we do as a department further down the line.

A lot of what we are developing with P3 ties into one of the lessons that was introduced at the Academy: Systems Thinking. While we are still building a systems model that represents P3, we have been able to realize one important systems thinking lesson: within each system are built-in delays. After completing the Academy and being able to apply its lessons to the P3 project, I have learned that innovation is not only defined by what you do, but also in having the patience to test your ideas and learn from their results. On behalf of the P3 Project Team, we are striving to do just that.

One thought on “Innovation as a Practice of Patience

  1. I have been doing a bit of this in an underused meadow near my PWD building. Starting last year with some spare milkweed to attract insects, I’ve expanded to include sage, coneflowers, daisies, black-eye susans, lilies, yarrow, joe-pye weed, and those seed packages PWD once passed out at special events. The milkweed is flowering (takes two years to mature) and next year promises to be bigger thanks to seeds spreading around. I think next year will be a good time to transplant some for use in other places.

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