Can design empower a community? North Philly gardeners displaced by PHA will find out
But they got one when the Philadelphia Housing Authority's sprawling, $500 million plan to remake the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Sharswood displaced the vibrant little community garden, sending it to a site at 22nd and Jefferson Streets.
Now, they're making the most of it.
Over the summer, they cobbled together raised garden beds, laid down paths, and built creative play spaces according to a master plan developed by students at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Next, they hope to replace the schoolhouse. The vision: a sleek, modern shed with lofty, 15-foot ceilings, and walls that double as vertical gardens made of recycled wood pallets.
"This an ethical redevelopment process centered on the residents of the community themselves," he said.
But although there's plenty of passion, conviction, grit, and know-how, there's not much money. So far, the gardeners have raised about $10,000. But to build the schoolhouse in March and get programs up and running, they've launched a crowdfunding campaign they hope can bring in $20,000 more.
Joshua has faith. After all, he started the Peace Park in 2012 with far less.
It was born of the ills he observed in the neighborhood, including a dearth of fresh, healthy food and an abundance of vacant land. To him, those seemed like problems that could solve each other.
"The land-security issue is still not settled," Joshua said. He's seeking a multiyear lease and a commitment from PHA to sell or donate the land to the garden.
But for now, the Peace Park members are treating their plot, 13 parcels across perhaps a half-acre, like a permanent home. They're building it to last.
That work got a boost after PennDesign student Maya Thomas began looking at the PHA redevelopment for a class assignment. Thomas, who was president of a student group called Diverse Design, learned of the Peace Park's plight and offered to help.
"We were really interested in how design could help empower this community," she said.
Diverse Design members began meeting with community members, asking them what they wanted to see in a master plan. They included a pathway, inviting passersby and neighbors to come in, learn about the programs, and help themselves to produce. They designed a play space, called Imagination Land, based on drawings made by neighborhood kids. And they omitted a fence: "That's just a statement of our principles," Joshua said.
They won a grant from PennPraxis and support from Lowe's and Habitat for Humanity to execute the first phase of the work.
For the schoolhouse, residents had lots of ideas.
"They wanted to see something they hadn't seen in their community," said Kat Engleman, one of the students behind the design. "So when we were showing them buildings with high ceilings or a lot of visibility [into the interior], they were excited to use those elements. They were excited that someone is actually making nice things for them."
"He got educated in some of the best schools, and he took what he learned back to his community, to empower them to build their own structures," Thomas said. "That was a model we wanted to use in the Peace Park, because some of the same conditions he was facing we're facing in Philadelphia."
The design includes classroom space for 35 students, solar panels on the roof, an off-the-grid bathroom, a space for healthy cooking demonstrations, and a farmstand where organizers can sell produce and value-added products like pickles to fund farm operations.
Donna Bradley, 52, who's been volunteering at the Peace Park with her son Amman, 13, for the last two years, said it's just what her neighborhood needs.
"It was amazing how they could take our words and turn it into a picture, a building," she said.
"Being able to provide this space for the community is really exciting for us, but also it's about being able to do things the way we think they should be done: from the grassroots."
If they can raise the money and find a building partner, the organizers hope to break ground on the schoolhouse in March. They'd like to have it up and running by June, planted with a vertical herb garden to grow all summer long.
It won't be what they had at the old site, but Joshua thinks it could be even better.
"The North Philly Peace Park approach, you could say, is a micro approach," he said. "We don't claim we're solving or providing ultimate solutions to the big problems, but we do say that we are offering local solutions to local problems."