The Power Of Place: Visions for Our Mill Creek Neighborhood

In the Spring of 1998, eighth-grade students at Sulzberger Middle School, working with graduate students in the course Power of Place, explored the history and future of Mill Creek.

Penn students designed outdoor classrooms for water play, study, and storm water detention on vacant lots around the school and over the old creek. The eighth graders decided to do the same, and this book is the result: visions of an extraordinary group of Sulzberger students for the future of their neighborhood.

The West Philadelphia Landscape Plan: A Framework for Action

A Framework for Action outlines a set of strategies for landscape improvements and establishes a framework for the diverse groups who shape West Philadelphia -- individuals, local organizations, corporations, and public agencies -- to work within.

The scope of the plan is more comprehensive than what are commonly known as “greening” projects, for the landscape of West Philadelphia is more than parks, gardens, and street trees; it includes the streets, sidewalks, and public utilities which structure the city, as well as playgrounds, parking lots, plazas, private yards, and vacant lots that fit within the larger framework. Major transportation and stream corridors provide a neighborhood-wide structure serving the needs of local residents and the larger region, a framework within smaller projects may be tailored to suit the people who make them happen.

Vacant Land: A Resource for Reshaping Urban Neighborhoods

Vacant Land: A Resource for Reshaping Urban Neighborhoods describes different types of vacant urban land (“missing teeth,” corner lots, “swiss cheese,” multiple vacant blocks), how they fit into the dynamics of larger natural and social systems, and how they might be reclaimed for a variety of uses to fit the needs of particular people and places. The report also shows how vacant land and subsiding streets and buildings in West Philadelphia correlate with buried streams and filled-in floodplains and proposes solutions that address regional problems of combined sewer overflow. Vacant urban land may be a blighting influence, but it also affords a rare opportunity to reshape neighborhoods and cities.

This Garden is a Town: Shaping the Community Garden

This garden is a town, we have everything but a penal colony,” said Hayward Ford, President of Aspen Farm Community Garden. Ford’s statement reflects a basic idea which guided our work: community gardens are a model for neighborhood-based planning. They are microcosms of community that contain many lessons for designing neighborhoods and cities A community garden is often a first step in community development and an important training ground for future leaders.

Dozens of community gardens were designed and built between 1987- 1991 as part of the West Philadelphia Landscape Plan and Greening Project, including three of those described below.

The report highlights eight community gardens, selected for their diversity in terms of how they were formed, how they operate, and how they look, to provide a glimpse of what different places such gardens can be. The gardens range from a tiny, intricate garden to a huge, amorphous one, from ones tended by one or two individuals to others where over fifty people garden. Community gardens embody the values of those who plant and end them, thereby creating a variety of physical forms and organizational structures; yet certain elements and motivations are common to all.

Models of Success: Landscape Improvements and Community Development

The Models of Success report describes a range of successful landscape improvement projects and identifies key factors that contribute to success or failure. These models represent different types of potential landscape projects identified by the West Philadelphia Landscape Plan (from community gardens to parks as infrastructure corridors) and the kinds of sponsors who might implement and maintain them (from individuals to public agencies). Models of Success features the Aspen Farms Community Garden, where members of the Mill Creek community have come together to provide a valuable resource and gathering space for their community.

Many of these models of success have inspired spinoff projects; they include a variety of social programs, such as education, job training, employment, and neighborhood organizing.

Community development, environmental restoration, and educational reform must go hand in hand.
We seek partnerships among advocates for each in order to combine forces and resources. We believe that youth have a crucial role to play in this process. This conviction comes from three decades of work in low-income communities on projects that simultaneously address issues of poverty, race, deteriorated neighborhoods, polluted water, and troubled schools.
West Philadelphia Landscape Project
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Engaging Community
MIT, 2010-2012
The class explored a range of models for engaging communities and studied examples of work from guests and MIT faculty to examine how different approaches have been used in design and planning practice and community building.


As professionals, designers and planners often find themselves struggling to find the "right" way to engage with residents of a community. In practice, planners use multiple models and methods, even in a single project. This course, taught by Anne Spirn and Cesar McDowell, reviewed a range of models for engaging communities and the ways these different models have been used in design and planning practice and community building.

The course focused on the following questions and themes: What is a community and what does it mean to be a professional planner/designer who aspires to engage community? How can one offer expert professional knowledge and also honor the knowledge of others? What implicit values are embodied in various approaches to engaging community? What needs to be accomplished for a project to be deemed successful?

In the first part of the semester, the class studied a range of approaches to engaging community through readings and through cases presented weekly by MIT faculty and by visitors whose work exemplified a particular approach. These ranged from advocacy to particpatory design, community organizing, consensus building, and capacity and knowledge building.

In the second part of the course, we examined four hybrid cases, evaluated their successes and failures, and discussed whether and how they might have deployed methods of engaging community more effectively. The West Philadelphia Landscape Project was one of these cases.

Students wrote reports on different approaches to engaging community. These reports are available on the course website. (Coming Soon)