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.

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.

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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Power of Place
University of Pennsylvania 1997-2001

University students and middle school students learned to read the landscape of West Philadelphia's Mill Creek neighborhood as a basis for envisioning its future.


University students researched community history, developed and taught a curriculum in local history and environmental design for eighth-graders, and created designs for vacant land near the school. The class met twice a week in 90-minute sessions, alternating between meeting at the university and at Sulzberger Middle School. The title of the course comes from Dolores Hayden's book, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History, which was a required text.

Spring 1997

Penn students gathered primary documents (maps, photographs, newspaper articles, planning reports, census statistics) documenting the history of West Philadelphia and the Mill Creek neighborhood. They wrote reports on five historical periods from the colonial to the present, developed a series of workshops based on the use of primary documents, and led a classroom of eighth graders on a journey of discovery, tracing the evolution of their neighborhood from forest and farm to inner city.

After studying the history of their neighborhood, eighth graders developed their visions for its future, which were published in a report.

Spring 1998

Penn students used primary documents to lead workshops on community history in an eighth grade class. Together with the eighth graders, they learned to read the Mill Creek landscape and to imagine how a miniature golf course could tell stories of the neighborhood's history. Penn students and eighth graders made designs for individual golf holes, each of which told the story of an episode in Mill Creek history. Together, they also created a business plan and marketing plan to assess the feasibility of such a project.

Spring 1999 and Spring 2001

Following a succession of workshops in neighborhood history, Penn students and middle school students selected historic events or places to commemorate and designed a monument or memorial as a neighborhood landmark.