West Philadelphia Landscape Project
by Keith Zaltzberg

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West Philadelphia Landscape Project (WPLP) Introduction

Since 1987, the people of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project (WPLP) have worked to connect urban stormwater management, landscape architecture, and community development through collaborative research, teaching, and community service projects. These projects are designed to enhance the environmental quality, economy, and educational systems of the community while increasing public awareness of the forces that shape the Mill Creek Neighborhood.

Throughout its existence the work of WPLP has exemplified a major ideal of the green urbanism movement: utilizing discarded places and systems as resources. While most politicians and planners view the abundant vacant lands of West Philadelphia as a blight, WPLP has treated these trash filled, flood prone lots as "an opportunity to study...hydrologic processes at work... for neighborhood development, and [for] water resource management" (wplp website- MIT, watershed projects).

Location & Context

When looking at West Philadelphia on a map, it can be seen that it is a peninsula of sorts. It is defined to the east by the Schuylkill River , to the west by Cobbs Creek, and to the south by the Delaware River . The 4,350 acre study area for the West Philadelphia Landscape Project (WPLP) lies in the north central portion of this peninsula, and includes residential neighborhoods, commercial areas, as well as the University of Pennsylvania campus. Just as rivers separates West Philadelphia from the bulk of the city, so too does water define the Mill Creek Neighborhood from the rest of the WPLP study area.

Building the Mill Creek Sewer in 1883. Photo source: PWD Historical Collection via http://www.phillyh2o.org/creek.htm
Land subsidence in the Mill Creek Neighborhood has been an on going problem since the 1930's that has led to an abundance of vacant land. Photo source: http://web.mit.edu/wplp/project/mchydro.htm

Although the namesake of the Mill Creek Neighborhood has been entombed in a brick sewer since the 1880's, the valley bottom of the old Mill Creek still functions as a floodplain (Spirn 401, 2005). As rain falls on the largely imperious surfaces of the city, the old Mill Creek watershed collects water in the valley bottom, and into the basements, yards, and streets of the houses there. This regular flooding, in combination with major land subsidence events caused by failures of the overloaded Mill Creek Sewer led to the demolition or abandonment of many buildings. The additional burden of regressive twentyith century planning policies and poor economic conditions has left this once thriving, racially integrated middle class neighborhood, one of the poorest and most racially segregated communities in Philadelphia.

While there is a significant presence of well cared for homes occupied by educated, middle class families on the higher ground, the areas of this almost exclusively African-American neighborhood that adjoining the Mill Creek Flood are dominated by a patch work of vacant land and dilapidated houses.

This spatial pattern, of low vacant land and healthier highground, was discovered through the extensive research directed by landscape architecture professor and urban landscape researcher Anne Spirn of MIT (2000- ), formerly of UPenn(1986-2000).

The majority of WPLP's activities have focused around the Sulzberger Middle School, an area with severe flooding problem and abundant vacant land, but adjacent to a thriving series of blocks centered on the Aspen Farms Community Garden.





For almost twenty years the West Philadelphia Project has been at work in the Mill Creek Neighborhood. Today, in 2006, it is unclear how active the individual contributors or the collective WPLP is, however between 1987 and 2002 the project accrued many success and some disappointments.

In the early days of the project, 1987-1991, Anne Spirn and her students produced many policies and plans designed to repair and enhance the hydrologic as well as the socioeconomic functions of the community. Though they had no official mandate, this work was compiled and submitted to the Philadelphia Planning Commission which was engaged in drafting a new plan for West Philadelphia (Spirn, 2005). Despite a positive reception, the recommendation to use the vacant land for stormwater management were ignored in the 1994 plan.

Between 1994 and 2000, however, the WPLP achieved many successes. Cooperation and exchange between residents, students, teachers, and non-profit organizations yielded an internationally recognized landscape literacy curriculum. Hundreds of middle school students had the opportunity to develop a deeper connection to their local environment, and as a result a greater interest in their schooling. The Aspen Farms Community Garden functioned as an outdoor classroom and demonstration grounds for stormwater management.

Inspired by this program the Mill Creek Coalition sponsored a series of classes on the history of the Mill Creek. With a clearer understanding of how their neighborhood came to be, the Sulzberger students and community leaders were able engage public officials in talks to address the underlying causes of the deterioration. Recently however, in 2002, the State of Pennsylvania took control of the Philadelphia Schools and turned them over to a private corporation. This change in control resulted in the resignation of many teachers which had spearheaded the landscape literacy programs.

The Mill Creek Coalition and the Philadelphia Water Department, with SMS and WPLP, formed the Mill Creek Watershed Project which has the ambitious goals to implement BMP's developed in part by WPLP around West Philadelphia. The Watershed Garden mentioned above is a small fruit of this collaboration. Unfortunately, the most ambitious project, the comprehensive integration of BMP's in to a new Mill Creek public housing development, was derailed by interdepartmental wrangling.


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Green Urbanism and Ecological Infrastructure || Instructor, Jack Ahern

Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

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