Where the Water Was

In West Philadelphia, Anne Whiston Spirn’s Work Goes Deep.

By Anne Raver
Photography by Sahar Coston-Hardy, Affiliate ASLA

We were driving around west Philadelphia when Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, stopped at the corner of Walnut and 43rd Streets to recall the moment of discovery that still drives her work. It was 1971. She was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, on her way to the supermarket, when she was stopped at a gaping hole where the street had caved in over the Mill Creek sewer. “I looked down and saw this big, brown rushing river, and all this masonry that had fallen in. I thought, ‘My God, there are rivers underground. We’re walking on a river.’”

She was looking at Mill Creek, buried in the brick sewer pipe in the 1880s. Historic photographs show workers dwarfed by its size, constructing the pipe, about 20 feet in diameter, snaking along the creek bed. Drawings depict horse-drawn carts loaded with soil—millions of cubic yards dug with pickaxes and shovels—to cover up the pipe. Row houses were built right on top of the fill.

That buried river would become the heart of Spirn’s work when she came back to Penn 15 years later to chair the landscape architecture department and to launch the West Philadelphia Landscape Project (WPLP), but also in her larger vision of working with nature and people to re-create inner city communities.

The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum honored Spirn this year with a National Design Award in the Design Mind category. It acknowledged her teaching and research in the field and her original writings, which include The Granite Garden, The Language of Landscape, and The Eye Is a Door.

Aspen Farms, which has 30 gardeners, as it looks today.

The WPLP, a kind of laboratory for learning and social change, has no walls. Many of its successes lie far beyond the boundaries of the Mill Creek neighborhood, as students have carried what they learned to other parts of the city and across the country. Its website contains maps, historical documents, reports, and studies from Spirn and her students, including students at Sulzberger Middle School, in the heart of Mill Creek. There are videos of community activists, of students and teachers telling their stories, photographs of Aspen Farms and other key community gardens, visionary plans for stormwater retention on vacant lands, green blocks full of street trees, urban farms and nurseries, and a timeline that charts the ups and downs of the project from its very beginning. This constantly updated resource, with more than a million hits from 90 countries, has become a model of online learning.

“It has turned out to be a lifelong project, a series of experiments, really, in service of answering some questions,” Spirn said, pointing out a slumping porch step, as we drove on. “But it’s also about relationships, about ecological urbanism. It’s nature and all that, but it’s about social justice, too.” And major setbacks, she added.

“Some of the projects we did back in the ’80s are now part of professional practice,” she said, nodding toward a long crack in an asphalt parking lot. “Back then, this idea of using stormwater detention to eliminate CSOs”—combined sewer overflows—“was not something people were talking about.”

It wasn’t until 2011 that Philadelphia launched its Green City, Clean Waters program, which is using green infrastructure to capture, store, and slowly release the first inch of rainfall on 10,000 acres and keep it out of the river.

But some of its first projects were in Mill Creek, working with members of the WPLP. In 1999, Spirn took city engineers on a tour, tracing the signs of the buried river: vacant lots where houses had caved in years before, sinking foundations, cracked parking lots and ball courts. They discussed possible sites for demonstration projects—a rain garden and outdoor classroom across from Sulzberger Middle School, a permeable surface on a cracked basketball court—that would also benefit the community. “Those were incredibly important projects,” says Howard Neukrug, the former water commissioner who set up the Office of Watersheds in 1999. “It was a big directional shift.”

As we followed the Mill Creek floodplain that day, looking for the low points where community gardens may flourish, where houses caved in, or where streets keep flooding during a storm, Spirn was reading the landscape.

She would see the same correlation of cave-ins and deteriorating housing in the lowlands of Roxbury/Dorchester when she taught at Harvard in the mid-1980s. “It’s a pattern in eastern old cities and across the U.S., where lower-income folks are living in the bottomlands,” she said. “Many are literally called the Black Bottom.” Spirn saw these vacant lands as a resource for not just cleaning up polluted rivers, but for rebuilding impoverished neighborhoods.

These ideas were in The Granite Garden, published in 1984. Spirn proposed them in Boston, when the city was under court order to clean up its polluted harbor. She offered an alternative to building a new mega-sewage plant: “I looked at vacant land in the valley bottoms and said, ‘Instead of spending all that money that won’t bring any community development, why not detain water in these valley bottoms and build green infrastructure?’” Her vision got a lot of press, but politically, it wasn’t going to happen. “The engineers, the contractors, the politics, people just weren’t considering green infrastructure as a way to reduce CSOs.”

As a student at Penn, Spirn was inspired by Ian McHarg and his ecological thinking in Design with Nature. She spent five years with Wallace McHarg Roberts & Todd working on such landmark plans as Sanibel, in Florida, and the Woodlands in Texas. She wrote The Granite Garden, in part, to fill a void. Scientific journals, historical documents, topographic maps, all sorts of materials contained a wealth of information for ecological designers, but no one had pulled it all together in a comprehensive, understandable book that could guide designers as well as the public.

She was frustrated by the reaction. “They’d say, ‘I can understand how you could apply this to building new towns, but what about existing cities?’” Spirn set out looking for places where she could demonstrate how to adapt existing cities to the urban natural environment, which led her to Boston, and then to Philadelphia.

While teaching at Harvard from 1979 to 1986, she and her students worked alongside Charlotte Kahn, one of the founders of Boston Urban Gardeners, or BUG, and community gardeners in Roxbury/Dorchester. Kahn was another visionary. She was combining job creation with vacant lot reclamation and community development. Residents would choose a project, learn to write a grant to fund it, and construct it with on-the-job training linked to courses in landscape management at Roxbury Community College and green industry jobs.

Spirn would find a different model when she came to Philadelphia in 1986 to chair the department of landscape architecture and regional planning and to codirect the urban studies program at Penn. She launched the WPLP in 1987, with funding from the J. N. Pew Charitable Trust, in collaboration with the Fels Institute; Philadelphia Green, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s community garden agency; and the West Philadelphia Partnership.

Unlike Kahn’s approach, Philadelphia Green, which helps develop and maintain community gardens, tended to divide up grant money among a number of neighborhoods and design and build the gardens with city staff, not community residents.

Aspen Farms Community Garden, started in 1975, as it looked in 1988. Image courtesy West Philadelphia Landscape Project.

But anyone who pulls trash out of a lot to grow vegetables and flowers knows the pride of place, and Spirn sent her graduate students into Aspen Farms and other community gardens to dig alongside the residents and to share their vegetables and stories. They spent weekends in their homes, learning to listen, getting a sense of their knowledge, the problems they faced, and their resilience. They learned how territorial the gardeners were about their plots, the little feuds and bonds they had with other gardeners. As Hayward Ford, a founder of Aspen Farms and its longtime president, told them, “This garden is like a town. We have everything but a penal colony.”

The gardeners asked Spirn’s students to design a central meeting space, and each came up with a plan. It was a sensitive listener, John Widrick, who realized he could shave off a bit from each plot so that each member sacrificed equally, to create a kind of main street, or wide boulevard, with benches for resting in the shade of a wisteria-covered trellis.

In The Language of Landscape, Spirn compares the community garden to towns and cities, where inhabitants form boundaries, paths, places of rest, refuge, lookouts. Students learned to recognize these ancient patterns and draw on them in their designs for more livable neighborhoods.

At the same time, Spirn and her students were mapping the buried floodplain, which wasn’t so easy in those days. Spirn had met with the director of the city planning commission, shortly after returning to Philadelphia, to discuss her hypothesis—that the deteriorated buildings, vacant lands, and depressions followed the buried floodplain. “But she didn’t believe me. She couldn’t see it,” Spirn said.

The 1991 proposal for Mill Creek Park. Image courtesy West Philadelphia Landscape Project.

So she and her students set out to prove it. Back then, the city had no topographic maps. So they used U.S. Geological Survey maps, which had only 20-foot contours. “But I knew the city had to have some kind of topographic information, just to drain the streets,” Spirn recalled. She sent her research assistants to the city streets department, where they found elevations at street corners, digitized them, and used a supercomputer to interpolate the numbers. There were no Google maps, not even recent aerial surveys.

“You had to literally go out and field check,” said Spirn. “In 1989, a group of my RAs did a windshield survey and mapped every vacant lot by literally driving down the streets.”

They estimated the depth of fill by taking the low points of the floodplain and going 10 feet up.

“We called that the buried floodplain,” she said. (By 2000, the city had developed accurate topographic information, and about 10 years later, Adam Levine, a community gardener and historian, found some 19th-century surveys that showed Mill Creek and its tributaries before the land was developed. Spirn’s students digitized those surveys and overlaid them on the city’s topographic maps, finally getting an accurate depth of fill along the floodplain. “We found it’s buried up to 40 feet in some areas, mostly 20 to 30 in others,” Spirn said. “It was amazing!”)

This was action research. Students now had a vacant land survey, from the single missing “tooth” in a line of row houses to entire blocks of open land. They created planning handbooks, including Vacant Land: A Resource for Reshaping Urban Neighborhoods, Shaping the Block: Redesigning Small Urban Neighborhoods, and West Philadelphia Landscape Plan: A Framework for Action, which featured students’ drawings and plans for leafy streets, orchards and farms, parks with storm retention ponds and rain gardens, and nurseries and garden centers that merged green infrastructure with revitalization. They presented all these studies to city planners, including the map of the floodplain, its correlation to vacant lands, and their green designs.

But in 1994, when the Philadelphia City Planning Commission announced its Plan for West Philadelphia, it made no mention of the WPLP’s work or the hazards of building on the fill over the buried river.

That same year, subsidized housing for first-time, low-income homeowners was built on Mill Creek’s buried floodplain. It was an enclave, not integrated into the community; alternatively, had newly constructed row houses filled in the missing spaces and vacant lots on the old blocks, the new homes and their residents would have strengthened investments already made by resident homeowners, as well as broadened social networks. Spirn began to see the city’s resistance to her work as a form of prejudice and illiteracy. “I was so frustrated,” she said. “That’s what catapulted me into working with the Sulzberger school.”

Sulzberger Middle School sits a few blocks from Aspen Farms, where community gardeners had long wanted to work with students. In 1995, with support from Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, Spirn and her graduate students began working with teachers and students at Sulzberger, which ranked at the bottom of city schools. As Spirn and her research assistants worked with students and teachers, bringing in original documents—historic maps and photographs, federal policies that enabled redlining—once failing students began to ask questions, think for themselves, come up with solutions and plans. They were learning to read the landscape.

Mill Creek activists, from left, Crystal Cornitcher, Zakiyyah Ali, and Frances Walker worked with Spirn on key issues, from flooded basements to hands-on curricula. Image courtesy West Philadelphia Landscape Project.


By 1997, they were learning HTML code and posting their own stories, plans, and reports on a website they made. They wrote a grant that funded a computer lab. In 1998, they presented a business plan for a miniature golf course—sited on vacant land, charting the story of Mill Creek —to the city’s Empowerment Zones staff. In 1998, Sulzberger students spoke before the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which gave them a standing ovation. In 1999, the Mill Creek Project was featured on NBC Nightly News. In 2000, President Bill Clinton visited the Sulzberger school.

Two years later, Spirn could understand the cynicism that she had first encountered in Sulzberger students when the program began. “That will never happen,” they’d say. “Things never change.” But they started believing things could change—until 2002, when the state took over the Philadelphia school system and Edison Schools, a private corporation, installed a cookie-cutter curriculum at Sulzberger and gave the computers to other schools. Teachers resigned. (They tell their stories on wplp.net.) The next year, the city broke ground on a $172 million housing development in Mill Creek called the Lucien E. Blackwell Homes, to replace the deteriorating high-rise public housing project designed by Louis Kahn in the 1950s—failing to integrate WPLP’s proposed demonstration project for stormwater management and an outdoor environmental studies classroom for the nearby Sulzberger school.

“That was a low point,” Spirn recalled late that afternoon. “I was so depressed, I wrote articles between 2002 and 2010.”

But looking back, Spirn musters the optimism of a veteran activist. Though the first projects built by the water department may have been flawed, all those years of lobbying the city with reports that linked the buried floodplain to cave-ins and vacant lands, and her students’ many designs for green infrastructure, laid the groundwork for Philadelphia’s ambitious citywide plan for keeping stormwater and sewage out of the river.

“The water department gave into the housing authority on that project because the budget ran over,” she said. “But that was its first partnership with the authority, and it forged connections for other projects and led to Green City, Clean Waters.”

That afternoon, I looked at the stormwater collection system the city built at Mill Creek Park—a grass field that drains into an underground tank—and mourned the lack of WPLP’s artful design for an outdoor water garden and classroom. Across from the Sulzberger school, we stared through the tall chain-link fence that surrounds the abandoned rain garden and outdoor classroom built by the water department in 2000, after touring the Mill Creek watershed with Spirn the year before, as one of its first watershed projects. A metal drain runs through a concrete swale, a green patch is full of weeds, the faded mural on the stucco wall of the adjacent house is impossible to decipher.

“It never really worked; it was very expensive,” Spirn said.

Farther along, we walked out on the city’s first pervious basketball court, yet another project inspired by that Mill Creek walk. Spirn opened her water bottle and poured some out. We watched it sit there, for a bit too long, before it was absorbed. “I think it needs to be vacuumed every few years, to get the fines up,” Spirn said. But this first experiment led to many other porous courts and parking lots, which contribute to absorbing that first inch of rain.

Change is a bit like a buried creek. It’s hard to remember its origins. Its many branchings are invisible.

Fatima Burke, now a web designer, learned HTML as a middle school student.

Fatima Burke, one of the Sulzberger eighth graders who learned HTML, is now a successful web designer. She recalled the excitement of learning from those original documents the revelation of the buried creek and the elation of working on plans for the neighborhood. It was hard growing up in Mill Creek.  Though Fatima never saw anyone killed, there were many days when gunfire interrupted her outdoor play.  But she kept drawing and writing poetry, and noticed Spirn, sitting in the back of her class.

“She was very quiet, not because she was afraid, but because she was just listening, trying to make sure she understood,” Burke told me recently. “We took to her, because she was very passionate about the project.”

Burke recalled Spirn’s confidence in her own intelligence: “It takes a special kind of person to look at a child who you know has problems at home, who you know cannot afford a computer and say, ‘Hey, she is going to learn this foreign technology.’” One day, young Fatima was learning HTML code, and figured out a shortcut for indenting a paragraph.

“Anne’s response was, ‘You’re so great at solving problems. I never even thought about this. That’s way easier.’”

Burke is now married with three young computer-savvy sons. She teaches digital art and HTML in inner city schools in southwest Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey. “Anne didn’t just help me. She helped generations to come. It’s amazing how that short period of time can change someone’s life.”

She treasures something else about Spirn. “She said something to me recently, about how her students were coming in at first, thinking of themselves as saviors to our class. But how they came out learning more from us.”

That afternoon in Mill Creek, we stopped by Aspen Farms to visit with Janice Trap, the garden’s co-president, and her son, Robert. Spirn, who now teaches at MIT, brought along two research assistants, who wanted to discuss a project they had in mind for Mill Creek. Under the shade of the gazebo, we talked about how things had changed. “Was a time when we knew everybody on the block,” said Trap, who lives one house down from where she grew up on Brown Street. “Now people’ve moved in, we don’t know ’em.”

Robert Trap said the university students are pushing farther west. “I think it’s Penn coming in, Drexel coming in, looking for temporary housing.” Janice Trap nodded toward a row of apartment houses that had changed ownership. “Now it’s called Aspen Village, and this lady asked me, ‘When can I come pick vegetables?’”

In the early days of Aspen Farms, gardeners lived nearby or right across the street. Their houses were proudly kept. Now, one with a tidy porch and roses sits next to an empty house with boarded-up windows.

Those early gardeners shared their vegetables and flowers with their neighbors, hung bags of produce on the fence, just for the taking. Janice Trap has a different attitude. “It’s not open to the public. Each person pays for a plot through Philadelphia Green.” 
There’s no school program here, either, and hardly any children, she said. “Members don’t want to take care of children, so we don’t have children in here, except the two that broke in not too long ago and killed some of the fish in our pond.”

Spirn and her students built the pond and an outdoor classroom in 1997 so that Sulzberger students could take water samples, study plants, make calculations on runoff and retention. Now, it’s a home to Trap’s koi.

The conversation turned to Chelsea Bruck and Ben Turpin, the MIT students, as they introduced their idea: a kind of New Orleans funeral procession through the buried Mill Creek floodplain, starting at Merion Station, where a tributary surfaces, and ending down at the bowl, at Clark Park, with food and music. Bruck, who did most of the talking, had a hard time keeping academic words like “prescriptive” and “landscape literacy” out of her description.

Spirn just stared peacefully out at the garden. Not saying a word.

Bruck struggled on: “It needs to be an event started and owned by the community. Us coming in and doing this wouldn’t be necessarily the way to go about it…” Janice and Robert Trap were kind. “I think this would be great,” Janice said. “I mean, I just love the idea. Love it!”

But it’s impossible to know what the community is thinking. The Traps suggested people in the community who might be interested, but unlike the days of Penn students’ working in the gardens and teaching at Sulzberger, the MIT students aren’t in the community long enough to turn a top-down project to a bottom-up one. The conversation soon turned to what is really worrying the neighbors: gentrification, speculators, scam artists. “Everybody has been sending me mail; they want to buy the house,” said Janice Trap. “I get a card at least once, maybe twice a month.”

Spirn told of her friend, Frances Walker, a longtime activist in Mill Creek, who can’t get title to her deceased mother’s house. Heir houses, as they call them around here, are left to relatives without clear title. So people like Walker can’t get a loan to fix the roof. The house was just robbed of all its pipes.

Janice Trap said her minister is warning people to go down to city hall to make sure their names are still on the deed. She urges everyone to keep their taxes paid up. Spirn has started working with a local community activist in the Dunlap neighborhood. “Ben is working on that project, collecting information on house ownership,” she said. “We could take Dunlap as a model, develop templates for getting title, access to weatherization programs.”

Robert Trap was still thinking about the proposed procession through Mill Creek. “Who’s going to tell the stories?” he asked.

“Stories like this one,” Spirn said.

“Maybe we need to broaden it,” Bruck said.

Spirn and Janice Trap, a gardener, talk about more than gardens.

Later that afternoon, we sat by one of the tributaries of Mill Creek, where it surfaces at Merion Botanical Park, and talked about the knowledge in a community. Spirn said: “I got into this whole heir house project because Frances revealed it to me as a problem. I’ve talked to a lot of experts in public housing and low-income neighborhoods, and they’ve never heard the term.”

When Spirn first came to Mill Creek, she saw so many of the signs of disinvestment. She joined the residents who were working against that tide, turning trashed vacant lots into gardens, struggling with wet basements and sagging porches. She started working on CSOs and green infrastructure.

“Now these black homeowners are losing their property just at a time when properties are becoming more valuable. It’s so ironic and so tragic. It’s unconscionable that this is happening.” First, it was the flow of water. Now it’s the flow of capital. Spirn is just reading the landscape in another way.

Anne Raver has written about nature and the environment for more than 30 years.


The print version of this story contained errors regarding the experiences of Fatima Burke. It stated that Burke’s mother “kicked her out of the house,” which Burke says never occurred, and that Burke “saw people killed on the streets, including her cousin,” which Burke says also never occurred. The story misstated the number of children Burke has. She has three sons, not two.

References to “Mill Creek Park” should have referred instead to the Lucien E. Blackwell Homes. The story incorrectly cited a $110 million cost to build the Blackwell project, which in fact ultimately cost $172 million. The story stated that, as part of that project, the city “never” implemented the West Philadelphia Landscape Project’s original vision for stormwater management at Sulzberger Middle School. The original vision was not realized, though the city did build a small stormwater project on a vacant lot across a street from the school.

 A reference to “the city’s first impervious basketball court” should have referred to the first “pervious” basketball court.

 The year in which a pond and an outdoor classroom were built at the Sulzberger school was incorrectly stated. The first pond and classroom were built in 1997, not 1999 (the year the project was expanded).

LAM regrets these errors.

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