William Penn was known to say that for every acre of city street in Philadelphia, care should be taken that five acres of green should lie beside it. This is what Penn called a ''fine Greene Countrie Towne.''
Penn's vision seemed to have been lost, as is shown by the city's often neglected inner-city blocks. But Blaine Bonham, director of Philadelphia Green, an inner-city gardening project, says the last several years have brought a surge of enthusiasm for urban improvement as a tribute to William Penn's idea.
Such projects are under way nationwide, he adds. Ken Nicholls, president of the American Community Gardening Association, says he knows of 1,100 community efforts, ranging from New York to Detroit to Los Angeles.
In Philadelphia, the residents of 88 blocks of a primarily minority section were once surrounded by a trash dump and numerous abandoned houses. Now, under the auspices of a program sponsored by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, they enjoy sitting gardens, vegetable plots, curbside concrete planters, window boxes, and street trees.
All the work on the city-owned property has been done by the residents. The result has been to make the area, now known as Point Breeze, an inviting place for picnickers and teachers who walk their schoolchildren through the gardens. In addition, groups of children have painted colorful murals on the surrounding buildings.
The program works this way: A block ''garden club'' of at least six people is set up, which is in charge of the project in its area. The garden club pays a membership fee of $25, designed to indicate commitment on the part of the members, and 85 percent of the area residents must sign a petition in support of the project.
Lisa Stephano of the Horticultural Society notes that the most important aspect of the project is that ''residents are now proud of where they live. They have worked very hard to plant and care for these gardens. The younger members of a family are staying in Point Breeze, whereas before they were likely to move out if they could.''
Not only are people less likely to leave the area now, but the Horticultural Society points out that the improvements are also a deterrent to vandalism.
Neighbors are getting to know neighbors by working the soil together. Haroldline Trower, board member of the Point Breeze Federation and chairwoman of the beautification committee, has lived in this area for 35 years.
''In that time of living here,'' she reflects, ''I knew people by face and would say hello on the street. But now we really know each other from gardening together.''
Several thousand residents now have participated in the program, and enthusiasm runs high. Some residents have been reported as working as much as 13 hours a day. A woman who had not left her house for three years after an illness now comes out to watch her neighbors till the soil.
''This really has turned the community around since people are caring for their homes,'' Ms. Trower says happily. ''Older people, who were maybe just bored before, now have a common interest. I'm not saying it is perfect. We have much more to do, but it is just thrilling to see the results.''
''We can't claim it has been all roses,'' adds Lisa Stephano, noting that some residents were reluctant to take part in the project. ''But they were the minority. Most of them see the results and are then supportive of the program, especially at harvesttime.''
The Philadelphia Green program has generated considerable support. In addition to nine full-time employees, part-time staff and garden interns work with the community groups. Staff members consult with 750 now-independent groups and are currently helping 120 new clubs.
An advisory board of 40 volunteers works on committees handling city garden contests, harvest shows, public relations, and the publication of a monthly newsletter. Philadelphia Green also conducts fall and winter workshops on indoor gardening projects. The program sponsors lectures and informs its participants of horticultural events around Philadelphia.
The last weekend in July will bring a dedication and celebration for the Point Breeze segment of the Philadelphia Green. Visitors will journey through the area by trolley car.
They'll also watch the residents of Point Breeze receive a giant wedding cake in the specially designed ''wedding garden.'' Several hundred balloons will be freed to the sky at this colorful celebration in the ''Greene Countrie Towne.''