Restoring Mill Creek: Landscape Literacy, Environmental Justice, and City Planning and Design

Anne Whiston Spirn, Landscape Research, Vol. 30, No. 3, 395-413, July 2005

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.

SMS News

In 1997 and 1998, graduate students from Penn and teachers at Sulzberger led a summer program for middle school students. As part of their activities, Sulzberger students created SMS News, an online publication where students practiced web-creation skills and documented their projects in the community.

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.

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.

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.

Shaping the Block: Redesigning Small Urban Neighborhoods

Shaping the Block describes features of the block (street, sidewalk, front yards, stoops, porches, windows) as they affect social life. The report offers proposals for how residents might reshape these features to claim their block as personal and community space. The report includes sections on 10 different block types found in West Philadelphia.

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
Home > Resources > Courses > Power of Place (MIT)
Media Technology, Youth, and City Design and Development
MIT 2001-2002


This workshop, taught by Anne Spirn in 2001 and joined by Ceasar McDowell in 2002, explored the potential of media technology and the Web to enhance communication and transform public education and community development in the Mill Creek neighborhood.

MIT 2001

MIT graduate students in architecture and in civil engineering studied the environmental and community history of the Mill Creek watershed in West Philadelphia, visited Sulzberger Middle School, and devised designs for vacant land near the school.

This initial attempt to continue with Sulzberger Middle School following Anne Spirn’s move from the University of Pennsylvania to MIT was an experiment in long-distance collaboration with middle-school teachers and students, substituting email correspondence for weekly face-to-face encounters, but that experiment failed due to lack of response from the middle school students, who did not meet the MIT students in person until midway in the semester.

Visit the class website and see the students’ projects.

MIT 2002

The class introduced a variety of methods for describing a place and its residents, for simulating actions and changes, for presenting visions of the future, and for engaging multiple actors in the process of envisioning change and guiding action. Students visted the Mill Creek neighborhood and met with middle schools students and community leaders.

The product of the semester was a new WPLP website, which included new interviews with public officials and Mill Creek residents.

Visit the website created by the class..