Philadelphia’s New Landscape Ordinance

20 February, 2023

And How It Impacts Development

The city of Philadelphia released a rewrite of its landscape ordinance in September 2022. Among the most impactful changes is a significant increase in the amount of landscaped area and the number of shade and evergreen trees required per land development project – meaning developers will likely need to spend more on landscape design and construction.

But a few key actions can help developers manage costs and keep their projects moving forward while meeting the new requirements. Before we get to those, let’s look at the ordinance.

Impacts to Landscape Design and Permitting

The new ordinance applies to all land development applications submitted for review since December 2022. Even minor applications, like adding street parking, installing a drive-thru, or improving site circulation, could be impacted.

Applicants must submit planting plans, that demonstrate a project’s compliance with the ordinance as part of their zoning approval package. These plans will now be assessed more closely than before and should include specifications and detailing to ensure a smooth approval.

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Specifically, the ordinance requires a significant increase in the number of new trees included in parking lot buffers, residential buffers, yard landscaping, throughout parking lots, and along streets. If the required number of trees cannot be planted, the applicant must apply for a waiver and pay an in-lieu fee, which is typically more than the cost of planting a tree.

For example, the ordinance calls for one shade tree per 200 SF of paved parking area. The in-lieu fee is $1,000 for every required parking lot tree not planted, whereas a new caliper shade tree 2.5 inches in diameter typically costs $450-$600 installed.

The ordinance also addresses replacement trees. It states that all trees 2.5 inches in diameter or greater that are removed for development must be replaced. It prohibits removing heritage trees, which are defined as protected species measuring 24 inches or greater.

The in-lieu fee for replacement trees is significantly higher than it is for new trees at $400 per inch. For example, if 100 inches worth of tree replacement is required but only 50 inches can be provided on site, the fee would be $20,000 (50 x $400).

Applicants can avoid in-lieu fees by obtaining a variance from the Zoning Hearing Board, but acquiring planting variances is expected to be difficult and could significantly lengthen the approval timeline.

Impacts to the Environment

The reason for the new ordinance is closely tied to its environmental benefits. Increasing tree count throughout the city impacts:

Stormwater Management

Trees absorb stormwater, reducing demand on existing stormwater infrastructure. This is especially important in areas of the city with combined sewers. Enough trees could also help reduce the size of necessary stormwater management facilities – a benefit for the environment and developers.

[It’s important to note that trees cannot be planted overtop of stormwater management facilities or utilities, so design teams must collaborate strategically with landscape architects on where they position trees.]

Heat Island Effect

Trees provide shade and can help reduce localized ambient temperature spikes caused by sunlight absorption into asphalt, roofs, and other surfaces. Essentially, trees help keep the city cooler.


One of the city’s goals is to create a greener, more inviting, and aesthetically pleasing environment. Many cities around the world, like Madrid and Chicago, have similar goals, and many city planning offices are trending in that direction.

Adapting to the Ordinance Changes

Developers are finding success under the new ordinance by shifting their approach to city projects. I recommend the following steps to keep your next project moving forward:

Add a landscape architect to your team at the conceptual stage.

The landscape architect can work with the site civil team from the beginning to:

  • Assess ideal use and yield impacts for a specific property
  • Provide cost/benefit analysis of the desired site layout against new landscape requirements and bottom-line costs
  • Guide site, utility, and stormwater management design so that more trees can be planted on site, limiting in-lieu fees as much as possible
  • Identify opportunities to use trees to offset stormwater management requirements wherever possible
Include a tree survey in your surveyor’s scope of work during due diligence.

The information within the survey will enable your design team to understand existing conditions and more accurately assess the design and project costs.

Retain an arborist as soon as possible.

The arborist can assess any trees that could be heritage trees (trees the city categories as protected and that measure 24 inches diameter or greater). The arborist can also identify trees that are dead, in decline, damaged, or otherwise undesirable, which the city does not require to be replaced, further reducing replacement obligations. This, too, will help the design team assess design and cost impacts.

Plan for increased entitlements timeframes.

The entitlement process is likely to require more collaboration with city planning to accommodate the review process and time for the project team to address comments from city planners.

Bohler’s Philadelphia-based landscape architecture and site civil engineering teams are collaborating closely to help developers throughout the city adapt to the new regulations and maintain project momentum.

About Travis North, RLA
Travis North Chalfont PA

As a licensed landscape architect in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Travis leads a team of talented landscape and lighting designers who specialize in moving land development projects forward. Travis guides the team in designing landscape packages that not only meet municipal requirements but help bring a client’s vision to life. Throughout his career, Travis has also provided high-end landscape architecture design services for plazas, streetscapes, and amenity spaces for a variety of market sectors.

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