Anne Whiston Spirn is an author, landscape architect, photographer, and teacher. She is Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she teaches classes in urban design and photography.
The Mill Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia is a place of many puzzles. Within the dense fabric of small brick row houses is a striking amount of open land. On certain blocks, only one small lot is vacant. In others, the vacant lots outnumber the buildings. Blocks of vacant land and wasted structures border blocks of well-tended houses and gardens. Mill Creek is among the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, yet it is home to many well-educated, middle-class residents; almost all are African-American. Why is there so much vacant land? And why are some parts of the neighborhood so devastated, while others prosper? Answers to these questions are keys to the nature of Mill Creek and its future. When those who plan and build the city fail to see these mysteries or disregard them, they waste resources, produce dangerous, expensive mistakes, and inflict grave injustice. Consider some examples. In 1945, a neighborhood of small row homes was destroyed when the ground collapsed. In 1952, a cave-in swallowed cars. In 1961, the ground caved in again, killing three people and destroying four houses; ultimately more than 100 homes were condemned and demolished, leaving hundreds homeless.
The single feature of the Mill Creek landscape that has had the most significant, persistent, and devastating effect is the least recognized: the buried floodplain of the creek itself and the hydrological processes that continue to shape it. For more than sixty years, the ground has fallen in within the buried floodplain, slashing meandering diagonals of vacant land across the urban landscape. Woodlands, meadows, and many community gardens grow on the site of former homes within the buried floodplain of Mill Creek. Despite the importance of the stream and its floodplain, they are not depicted on planners’ maps and architects’ plans. Historical maps, however, do depict Mill Creek and the mills along it. In the 1880s, Mill Creek was buried in a sewer, its floodplain filled in and built upon; an atlas from 1927 shows the curving line of the sewer under the houses. Although the creek now flows in a pipe, the valley bottom still functions as a floodplain where groundwater seeps, and soil is saturated. Enclosed in its sewer, Mill Creek drains the stormwater and carries all the wastes from half of West Philadelphia and from suburbs upstream, the pipe too small for the sewage it must convey. Each new suburb built in the watershed in the early twentieth century poured more sewage and stormwater into the sewer, cracking the pipe and undermining it. The Mill Creek neighborhood is shaped by all the processes at work in inner-city America. It was laid waste by the flow of water and capital and by the violence of redevelopment and neglect. Known locally as »The Bottom«, Mill Creek is one of many such »Black Bottoms« in the US. They are at the bottom, economically, socially, and topographically. Here, harsh socio-economic conditions and racial discrimination are compounded by health and safety hazards posed by a high water table and shifting ground. I once thought that the failure to recognize and address the effects of natural processes in cities, such as those in Mill Creek, was due to lack of knowledge about the urban natural environment, and I wrote my first book, The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design (Basic Books, 1984) to fill that void. The book presents and applies knowledge from many disciplines to describe how cities are shaped by natural processes and to demonstrate how cities can be planned and designed in concert with natural processes rather than in conflict. After the book’s publication, I was astonished by how many people, including scientists and naturalists, resisted the evidence that human settlements, including cities, are part of the natural world. »What’s your book about?« people would ask me. »About nature in the city and about how differently we would design cities if we thought of them as part of the natural world rather than separate from it,« I would answer. A puzzled frown would appear, »Nature in the city? What nature?« »Oh, you mean trees and parks!« Until confronted by such reactions, I had taken for granted my own concept of nature as the physical, chemical, and biological processes that shape the world and sustain life. For me, nature is not a location in space, nor is it a particular feature like a tree or a mountain. I am always taken aback when someone says that they are going to »go out into nature« (presumably somewhere in the countryside or where there are few people) or when someone speaks of »bringing nature into the city« (as if natural processes ever went away). Such ways of thinking are not as innocent as they may seem. They can have terrible consequences; the tragedy of Mill Creek is one example; that of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans is another. Given the problem of disparate definitions, I now rarely use the word nature without defining it. I use the word landscape as freely as I use nature sparingly, for I hope to recover the original meanings of the word. The German word landschaft, the Danish landskab, and Old English landscipe combine two roots. »Land« is both a place and the people living there. Schaffen and skabe mean »to shape«; -schaft and -skab, as in the English »-ship,« also mean »association, partnership«. These original meanings have all but disappeared from English. Modern English dictionaries define landscape as a static scene of rural fields, hills, forests, water, »a portion of land that the eye can comprehend in a single view.« Landscape in its original sense – the mutual shaping of people and place – encompasses both the population of a place and its physical features: its topography, water flow, and plant life; its infrastructure of streets and sewers; its buildings and open spaces. My work aims to understand how natural and cultural processes interact to shape urban landscapes and how to intervene in and shape those processes to achieve desired goals.
The Mill Creek watershed is an ideal place to study such issues: its boundaries are defined by water flowing, its landscape and population are shaped in dramatic ways by cultural and natural processes. Since 1987, Mill Creek has been my laboratory, the West Philadelphia Landscape Project the context for my research, practice, and teaching. In the project’s first phase, from 1987-1991, my students, colleagues, and I made proposals for the strategic reuse of vacant urban land in West Philadelphia. We designed and built dozens of community gardens, and we created a digital database with maps of the social, physical, and natural environment. Some of the data we mapped, like demographics and land use, was standard; other maps, like those that traced the historic course of Mill Creek and documented its buried floodplain, were not. Overlaying a map of the buried floodplain with one of vacant properties revealed the correlation between the two. The environmental damage caused by the Mill Creek sewer extends far beyond the neighborhood. Normally, as rain falls, it flows quickly to the sewer, then on to a treatment plant before discharge into the Schuylkill River. After a heavy rain, there is too much runoff, and some flows directly into the river – a combined sewer overflow. Such overflows pollute the river, and the US Environmental Protection Agency has pressured the City of Philadelphia to eliminate them. A key proposal of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project was to manage the buried floodplain as part of a broad approach to planning the city’s watersheds and as a strategy to secure funds to rebuild the neighborhood. Low-lying vacant blocks in Mill Creek could be used to detain stormwater in order to eliminate combined sewer overflows from the watershed. It is not feasible to bring the creek back above ground for it is now a sewer that carries waste, but a green ribbon of parks and play fields would recall the creek, protect houses from flooding, provide local open space for a variety of public and private uses, filter stormwater, and improve regional water quality. This was not a radical proposal, even in 1988, but an application of well-accepted watershed-planning practice to an inner-city watershed. The city of Denver, Colorado, for example, has built greenways and stormwater detention basins since the 1960s as a regional flood control system that is also a system of parks and plazas. I presented these ideas to planners in the Philadelphia Planning Commission in the late 1980s and early 1990s and worked for years to convince them that the buried creek was both a force to be reckoned with and a resource to be exploited. But when the city’s Plan for West Philadelphia was published in 1994, it included no map of the buried floodplain and no mention of the hazards it poses. That year, the city donated a large parcel of vacant land in Mill Creek, on the buried floodplain, for the construction of subsidized housing for first-time, low-income homeowners. Confronted with skepticism about the existence and dangers of the buried floodplain, I began to understand this resistance as a kind of blindness or form of illiteracy – an inability on the part of public officials, developers, and even Mill Creek residents themselves to see and read the landscape and formulate an appropriate response. I wrote my next book, The Language of Landscape (Yale University Press, 1998) to help people relearn this fundamental skill. Mill Creek was a laboratory for working out these ideas. From 1994-2002, I organized my research and teaching to explore ideas about how to read and restore the Mill Creek landscape and to take these ideas to a broader audience, including residents of the neighborhood. In early 1996, the first West Philadelphia Landscape Project Web site was launched, featuring the digital database, reports, and built projects completed by 1991 (www.wplp.net). Since then, it has been a showcase for ongoing work, including proposals by students in my classes at the University of Pennsylvania and MIT, who have analyzed the urban watershed, demonstrated how stormwater could be collected in landscape projects that are also stormwater detention facilities, and proved the feasibility of their proposals through detailed engineering calculations and drawings. From 1996-2001, my students created dozens of designs for wetlands, water gardens, and outdoor classrooms on vacant land in the Mill Creek neighborhood. We also began a program with a local middle school (for children 10-12 years old) to teach the children to read their landscape, to propose landscape change, to build landscape improvements, and to document their accomplishments. By working with children and teachers, I hoped to reach parents and to give my students contact with real clients for their design proposals. What began as a community-based, environmental education program, grew into a program on landscape literacy and community development. In the process, I learned that the consequences of landscape illiteracy are far greater than had imagined.
A teacher told me that her students called their neighborhood »The Bottom.« »So they already know it’s in a floodplain?« »No, they mean it’s at the bottom.« Both meanings can be read in the nearby area: standing water; slumping streets; abandoned land; men standing around street corners, jobless. The school’s science curriculum stressed the global importance of tropical rain forests, but ignored local features like the Mill Creek watershed and the plant succession taking place on vacant lots. Once a year, the science teacher took students to a nature center out in the suburbs to see and study Nature, even though the same plants were growing on vacant lots near the school. To change the perception that Mill Creek had nothing to do with nature was a challenge. It was also hard to persuade students that the neighborhood had ever been different or that it might be changed. At the start of the Mill Creek Program, as the teachers called it, my students taught weekly workshops on the urban watershed (www.annewhistonspirn.com/teacher/mill-creek). Teachers followed up with further assignments. The children did what was asked of them, but the creek wasn’t real to them. When my students spoke of designs for change, the children replied, »It won’t happen.« »Someone will wreck it.« Studying the history of the neighborhood proved to be the key that unlocked their imagination. The breakthrough came six months into the Mill Creek Project, the catalyst a series of eight weekly classes taught by my students. The sessions focused on successive time periods from the 1600s to the present and future. There were no lectures and no textbooks. My students brought in primary documents: photographs, maps, and texts, like the newspaper report of a sewer cave-in and architect Louis Kahn’s proposal for the Redevelopment of Mill Creek in the early 1950s. Then they posed a series of questions to help the children draw out meanings from the documents. By breaking up big questions into smaller ones, which the children could answer, my students led them to develop a hypothesis and find evidence to support it. The goal was to enable them to transfer the process of reading historical documents to the reading of their landscape, which is, itself, a historical document. During one class, a thirteen-year-old looked at a photograph from 1880 showing the stream and the sewer under construction: »You mean, there really was a creek!?« she exclaimed. From then on, the kids were hooked. Their energy carried over into the next class, which focused on planning for the future; a few weeks later, staff from the Philadelphia Planning Commission visited the class. Kids asked the planners: »Why did you let those new houses be built on the buried floodplain?« »What are you doing about the Mill Creek sewer?« The planners were impressed by the students’ grasp of history and by their astute proposals. At the beginning of the semester, only one student planned to attend college. Two months later, all but one student said they planned to do so, and their academic performance improved dramatically in all subjects. The culmination of the year was a summer program for students and teachers led by my research assistants. The group met either at a community garden near the school, where they built a compost bin and water garden, or at the school, where they studied the Mill Creek watershed, learned how to create a website, and produced »SMS News,« published on the West Philadelphia Landscape Project Web site (http://web.mit.edu/wplp/sms/smsnews/smsnew.htm). From 1998, the Mill Creek Project received increasing recognition. Politicians and staff from the School District and from national foundations observed the middle school and college students in the classroom. Impressed by the children’s website, the governor of Pennsylvania invited them to make a five-minute presentation to the State Legislature as part of his annual budget speech; it was televised as was the legislature’s response, a long, standing ovation. In 1999, a national news program featured the project. In 2000, President Bill Clinton visited the school. Meanwhile, by 1999, there had been over a million visits to the West Philadelphia Landscape Project website from more than 90 countries. Among those visitors were engineers at the Philadelphia Water Department. They reviewed my students’ proposals and the children’s too, and in 1997 we met to discuss the potential of stormwater detention to reduce combined sewer overflows. The engineers agreed to put the Mill Creek watershed on the map as a special study area and, in 1999, they asked me to take them on a field trip to the Mill Creek neighborhood. With nineteenth-century maps in hand, we walked and drove along the buried floodplain and looked at potential sites for stormwater detention projects. An immediate outcome of this trip was a demonstration project on a vacant block next to the school to detain stormwater and also function as an outdoor classroom. In 2000, the Water Department got a grant to fund it. In 2001, the Philadelphia Water Department, Housing Authority, and Planning Commission submitted a proposal for nearly $35 million to the federal government to redevelop Mill Creek Public Housing as a demonstration project integrating an environmental study area for the school and stormwater management to reduce combined sewer overflows. The city cleared the site in 2002 and broke ground in 2003 on a $110 million project. Some years ago, I was confident that things were going well for Mill Creek. I had moved from the University of Pennsylvania to MIT, but continued to work with the middle school. Then, in 2002, the state of Pennsylvania took over the Philadelphia School District and turned the middle school over to a for-profit corporation. The key teachers in the Mill Creek Program resigned, and our project was cancelled. In November 2004, I learned that the Philadelphia Streets Department had refused a permit for the city’s demonstration project in Mill Creek. New houses were built, but the stormwater management program had been abandoned. Putting Mill Creek on the map and keeping it there is not easy, whether it be the creek itself, the neighborhood, or the people who live there. Confronting the failures of the past few years forced me to rethink the future of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project. The result, now in preparation, is an online network of the hundreds of people who have been part of the project over the past two decades. These partners – former students (including the middle schoolers), teachers, neighborhood residents, and public officials – continue to visit the WPLP web site and still contact me, but have no means of meeting one another or staying in touch. Fatima Williams, for example, now in her early 20s has a graphic and web design business. The new WPLP Web site also features other resources, including an archive of the digital database and other past projects. On the home page is a scrollable, scalable map of Mill Creek that flags locations of particular significance, such as the buried floodplain. Clicking on a flag links to more information. There are several flags on the site of the middle school, including a link to the video of the children’s presentation to the Pennsylvania legislature. To visit the Web site is to see and appreciate not only the neighborhood’s problems, but also its many resources. To recognize resources is not to deny the problems, but to see each in context of the other. These resources are readily apparent once one is prepared to see them. One who assumes that the city has supplanted nature is not likely to see the effects of the natural processes that still shape its landscape; another who believes that the city has degraded nature is apt to see only pollution and fail to see the vigorous plant growth on vacant lots as a regenerative force. Those who think the ravaged state of a neighborhood is the natural outcome of its occupation by an isolated underclass who have lived in poverty for generations, may be blind to the intelligence and energy of the young people who live there. Prejudice is reinforced by the tools professionals use. If those responsible for planning and designing a neighborhood rely on maps of those features they judge to be important and do not spend time there, their assumptions are not likely to be contradicted. Mistakes that follow from misreading or not reading significant features of the urban landscape can have terrible consequences. Ten years ago, I thought that the worst effect of landscape illiteracy was to produce environmental injustice in the form of physical hazards to health and safety. The middle school students taught me that there is a greater injustice: to be ashamed of where one lives. To feel ashamed of one’s neighborhood saps self-esteem and can engender a sense of blame and resignation. Before the children learned to read their landscape more fully, many thought the neighborhood’s distressed conditions were the fault of the people who lived there. Learning how the place came to be that way gave them a sense of relief. Gaining the skill to read the landscape and its history, they began to see their home more positively and formulated ideas for how to improve it. They challenged public officials and impressed them with articulate proposals. Verbal literacy – the ability to read and write – is commonly acknowledged as an essential skill for the citizen to participate fully and effectively in a democratic society. Teaching literacy became a cornerstone of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It began as a means to increase voter registration among Blacks through the promotion of literacy, then evolved into a forum for discussion and catalyst for political action. When I first read about literacy and the American civil rights movement and about Paolo Freire’s adult literacy programs in Brazil, I was struck by the many parallels to my own experience with landscape literacy in Mill Creek. Freire’s literacy programs were tailored to what he calls the »word universe« of the learners. He believes that people should learn to read in the context of the »fundamental moments of their common history« and proposes that texts of local history be created for that purpose from interviews with older residents. In Reading the Word and the World (Westport, Bergin & Garvey, 1987), Freier and Donaldo Macedo describe literacy as a form of cultural politics that either serves to reproduce existing social systems or to promote »democratic and emancipatory change.« For them, the goal of literacy is to understand and transform the world. Reading, they say, »always involves critical perception, interpretation, and the rewriting of what is read.« Understanding their own landscape certainly opened wider vistas for the middle school students. It introduced them to broad political and environmental issues and promoted other learning. In Freire and Macedo’s terms, it enabled them »to develop a positive self-image before grappling with the type of knowledge that is outside their immediate world... It is only after they have a grasp on their world that they can begin to acquire other knowledge.« Like verbal literacy, landscape literacy is a cultural practice that entails both understanding the world and transforming it. To read and shape landscape is to learn and teach: to know the world, to express ideas and to influence others. One difference between verbal literacy and landscape literacy, however, is that many professionals responsible for planning, designing, and building the city are not landscape literate. After six weeks’ investigation of the history of their neighborhood, the children were more literate than many professionals, and some of their proposals for the neighborhood were more astute. To be literate is to recognize both the problems in a place and its resources, to understand how they came about, by what means they are sustained, and how they are related. Such literacy should be a cornerstone of community development and of urban planning and design. To plan prudently is to transform problems into opportunities and liabilities into resources, and to intervene at the appropriate scale. To design wisely is to read ongoing dialogues in a place, to distinguish enduring stories from ephemeral ones, and to imagine how to join the conversation. The stakes are high for those who must live in the places professionals help create. Like literacy, urban planning and design are cultural practices that can either serve to perpetuate the inequities of existing social structures or to enable and promote democratic change.
What was present in 2005, when the original version of this essay was written, is now history, but the repetition of mistakes of the past persists even as visionary plans are put forward. Since 2005, the City of Philadelphia has built many new houses on former vacant land in the Mill Creek neighborhood, including some on the buried floodplain of Mill Creek, so the patterns of vacant land are no longer so clear as they were ten years ago. In fall 2009, the Philadelphia Water Department published a plan for reducing combined sewer flows using green infrastructure: Green City, Clean Water: Combined Sewer Long Term Control Plan Update (http://phillywatersheds.org). The US Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the plan at this time, and other cities are watching the process. If approved, the Streets Department and other city agencies must be convinced. The Water Department has already built prototype projects and, if fully implemented, the plan will be a national landmark. In fall 2010, students in my class at MIT are working on a project in the Mill Creek watershed to try to meet the Water Department’s goal of reducing the impervious cover by 30 percent; their work will be posted at www.wplp.net
The original version of this chapter was published in Landscape Research (July 2005) and reprinted in Justice, Power, and the Political Landscape, edited by Kenneth Olwig and Don Mitchell (Routledge, 2009). The full text of the original is online at www.annewhistonspirn.com/author/essays.
Many debts are incurred during a project of such long duration. A list of sponsors and participants is on the West Philadelphia Landscape Project website (http://www.wplp.net). The initial support of the J.N. Pew Charitable Trust from 1987-1991 made possible the foundation from which all later activities grew. Without the support of the Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania, the work with Sulzberger Middle School would not have been possible; support ranged from the provision of vans to ferry my students back and forth, to seed grants for curriculum development, to support for research assistants. To learn more about the Center, whose leadership in promoting academically-based community service has received international recognition. (http://www.upenn.edu/ccp)