I know that there’s an entire Philadelphia world beyond the Penn campus. I live a couple of miles to the west and see dog-walkers, suited workers, elderly people, school buses, and parents with children every day on my way to campus. Last year, I interned for Partners for Sacred Places and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and spent 10-12 hours per week thinking intensively about local issues outside Penn, both broad and specific. Most days, though, I bike a straight path between the School of Design and my house, with quick deviations to the post office and grocery store.
This morning I was reminded how much I miss by this Penn-centric viewpoint when I attended a meeting of the DAG at the Center for Architecture. Over fifty people showed up at 8 a.m. to hear Terry Gillen, the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, talk about reforming the city’s vacant land management. It’s an important topic in Philadelphia, as in many other places, and people paid attention. The audience included city staff, architects, planners, students, preservationists, and a host of others. It was great to hear the RDA’s goals and the variety of questions afterward, to hear people seriously consider how the policies being shaped today will impact the physical and social fabric of Philadelphia in coming years.
Of course, the School of Design is not an ivory tower. In the first project for the second-year Historic Preservation studio, we tested a survey methodology for looking at historic resources as part of district planning efforts. With guidance from the Preservation Alliance and a final presentation to an audience including PCPC planners, we researched the history of two planning districts in North Philadelphia, mapped the evolution of development, and completed a reconnaissance-level survey of the built environment. Our current studio projects are crafting preservation priorities for the West Powelton neighborhood and developing an adaptive reuse proposal for a local church, responding to the growing number of religious properties no longer used for religious purposes.
These projects challenge us to know the neighborhood and the property intimately and familiarize ourselves with local politics and community needs, in addition to dusty archival research and analytical mapping. It takes effort to stop using Google Maps and trot out to the field–but it’s good and necessary exercise.