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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Mill Creek Project
From 1995-2002, WPLP partnered with Sulzberger Middle School and Aspen Farms Community Garden to create a new curriculum organized around the Mill Creek Watershed. The whole neighborhood was the classroom with the school at the center. At the heart of the story was Mill Creek, a stream buried in a sewer that runs alongside the school, which exerts a strong influence on the neighborhood's past, present, and future.


Together, Penn and Sulzberger Middle School (SMS) students learned to read the neighborhood’s landscape, to trace its past, understand its present, and envision its future. The tools they used were their own eyes and imagination, the place itself, and primary documents – old maps, photographs, tax records, census tables, stream-railroad timetables, city plans – windows into otherwise hidden dimensions. Students described their discoveries and ideas through discussion, writing and drawings, in posters, newsletters, booklets, and Web sites.

Children used their understanding of local history and demographics and of the urban watershed to generate ideas for how to improve the neighborhood. University students led workshops on environmental design with a different project each year: a water park and outdoor classroom to reduce flooding and improve water quality; a miniature golf course where every “hole” illustrated an event or landmark in local history; monuments and memorials to celebrate local history.

“This project has been a labor of love,” wrote eighth-grade teacher Glenn Campbell in 1997. “We began in September 1996...unsure of what lay ahead, but ready to meet any challenges which awaited us....Together, we developed a curriculum for the millennium, drawing on the rich geography and diverse demographic past of West Philadelphia’s Mill Creek community....This dynamic study of Mill Creek was the catalyst which caused learning for my students to become ‘real.’”


The Mill Creek Project began in spring 1995 when WPLP Director Anne Spirn and Hayward Ford (President of Aspen Farms Community Garden, a block from the school) met with Daisy Century, a SMS science teacher. We agreed to develop science projects together, starting with a garden for students at Aspen Farms and with an entry to the National Engineers Week Future City Competition.


In fall 1996, students in Spirn's Transforming the Urban Landscape class worked with 130 students in separate classes at SMS. They led workshops on Mill Creek's urban watershed and environmental design. The middle-school students made drawings and wrote and performed a rap song:"Mill Creek Rap."

In spring 1997, students in Spirn's seminar on “The Power of Place” researched local history, collected primary documents, and taught weekly workshops on local history to eighth-graders in Glenn Campbell's class. Using census statistics from the mid nineteenth century to the present, eighth graders analyzed how the population of their neighborhood had changed over time in terms of race, ethnicity, age, and income. Learning how their neighborhood had evolved (from forest to farms and mills to factories and city) transformed the way children perceived their community. Understanding how the neighborhood had changed unlocked the children’s imagination and enabled them to envision how it might change in the future.


In Fall 1997, students from Anne Spirn's Transforming the Urban Landscape studio designed a miniature golf course for the Mill Creek community, where each "hole" depicted neighborhood history and served as a stormwater detention basin. The University of Pennsylvania students led eight workshops at SMS, where seventh and eighth graders made maps and drawings of their homes, took photographs of their block, and made models of their visions for the future golf course

Public speaking and presentation were embedded in the Mill Creek Project curriculum: from “reporting out” to the whole class at the end of each weekly workshop to producing drawings and essays for a published report or for a website, to presenting their work at conferences, in science fairs and competitions, and on national television. In Spring 1998, two SMS students described the Mill Creek Project and their accomplishments to the entire Pennsylvania Legislature as part of the governor’s annual Budget Speech.

Watch SMS StudentsPresent to the Governor and Legislature


In Fall 1998, nine students from Anne Spirn's Transforming the Urban Landscape studio started the semester by designing an expansion of the water garden/outdoor classroom at Aspen Farms and went on to propose a wetland/water garden/outdoor classroom for a vacant lot next to Sulzberger. The Penn students spent eight afternoons with 64 students in Ms. Hoxter's and Mr. Mells seventh and eighth grade classes to develop ideas for the environmental study area and an associated curriculum. Together, they dissected and analyzed flowers and looked at them under a microscope, studied water flow and water quality, designed water catching apparatus and many other activities. The SMS students also reviewed and critiqued the Penn students' designs for the Aspen Farms water garden.

The SMS principal and teachers observed the impact of academically-based community service on the university students and decided to introduce a service learning program in the middle school where each class would be responsible for identifying and carrying out a service learning project.

Watch NBC Nightly News on SMS and Service Learning.

In November 1998, the Philadelphia School District named Sulzberger Middle School "School of the Month" for its pioneering curriculum and service learning initiative. Anne Spirn was also honored as the School District's "Person of the Month" for her four years work at Sulzberger.

In spring 1999, sixty-four students in Ms. Hoxter's and Mr. Mells seventh and eighth grade classes worked with eleven Penn students in Spirn's Power of Place class. Together they read the history of the neighborhood in the urban landscape and its streets, buildings, vacant lots, and topography. Penn and SMS students made proposals for new landmarks that told stories of Mill Creek's past, present, and future.


The Mill Creek Project and the students’ accomplishments inspired recognition, culminating with President Bill Clinton’s visit to Sulzberger in 2000.

In fall 2000, WPLP Director Anne Spirn moved from the University of Pennsylvania to MIT, and WPLP has been based at MIT ever since. In Spring 2001, Spirn taught Power of Place at Penn for the last time, as well as a new class at MIT on Media Techology, Youth, and City Design and Development.

In Spring 2002, Spirn and SMS computer teacher Donald Armstead began to develop a new WPLP/SMS partnership based on digital storytelling, where the SMS students would tell their own visions for their neighborhood in multimedia videos that would be posted online. But the never had the chance to start the program.

The Mill Creek Project was brought to a rude halt in 2002, when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over the School District of Philadelphia and assigned the management of Sulzberger Middle School to Edison Inc., a for-profit corporation based in New York.

Read "The Nature of Mill Creek: Landscape Literacy and Design for Ecological Democracy" by Anne Whiston Spirn for more details about the Mill Creek Project.