In the early aughts, the lot at 6134 Lancaster Avenue did not look like the future home of, well, anything at all. Overbrook’s former quarry-turned-brownfield, it most resembled a dump, strewn with 20 tons of trash and debris.
But about 15 years ago, the community used a $30,000 environmental justice grant to reclaim the abandoned lot. They removed the trash and planted native forests, agriculture, orchards and other plants. They painted a mural. And today, it is the site of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center (OECC). The center offers programs in arts, health and the environment for residents in the mostly Black neighborhood. Run by Executive Director Jerome Shabazz, the OEEC teaches everything from how to grow a vegetable garden to how to test for lead in the soil to yoga and creative arts.
Across town, moribund Smith Playground at 24th and Tasker streets was transformed after months of community conversations and door-to-door canvassing, into an all-ages basketball court, recreation center and public garden. That was courtesy of Connor Barwin’s Make the World Better Foundation, which has since taken on three other playground projects throughout the city, with the same focus on neighborhood needs and wants.
Meet the placemakers
Both Barwin (the former Eagles outside linebacker and recent Wharton grad) and Shabazz — along with Brandywine Realty Trust CEO Jerry Sweeney and Tya Winn, executive director of the Community Design Collaborative — will share what they know about creating community-minded public spaces at our next Development … for Good event: Placemaking and Economic Growth. Guidehouse Associate Director Laura Slutsky, an expert on urban housing and land use issues, will moderate. The event takes place Tuesday June 20, from 5 to 7:30pm in the Fitler Club ballroom.
The panel, Placemaking and Economic Growth, is part of an ongoing event series in partnership with Fitler Club and Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. It explores the questions: How does the design of a public space connect communities? How can it lead to economic growth for neighborhoods and the city?
Among other projects, Sweeney’s Brandywine Realty Trust turned 14 acres of parking lots and warehouses near 30th Street Station into Schuylkill Yards, starting with the 1.3-acre Drexel Square park, which opened in June 2019. That is part of the 6.5 acres of green space planned for the life sciences lab and office neighborhood. Sweeney is also a founder of the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, creator of the Schuylkill Banks trail.
Winn, an architect, oversees the Community Design Collaborative’s citywide engagement, encouraging community members to rethink neighborhood spaces. The Collaborative’s pro bono clients have included church buildings and schools, playgrounds, pedestrian corridors and other outdoor and indoor spaces in need of transformation.
The work of “placemaking” — or “place keeping” in neighborhoods where spaces need revitalizing — goes beyond the important benefits of community. It also helps to power the economic engine of cities by creating neighborhoods where people live, work and play. As a recent report from Routledge International noted:
History has shown that through targeted, partnership-driven investments in place, cities across the United States have achieved a positive turn-around of their social and economic fortunes, transforming previously empty or underutilized swaths of land into amenity-rich districts anchored by inviting, value-generating open spaces. This experience offers lessons for how cities can recover from future crises and resolve persistent challenges through placemaking initiatives that prioritize inclusion, social connectivity, and ingenuity.
Development … for Good is sponsored by Brandywine, JLL, Darco Capital and Clarke & Cohen.
Development … for Good: Placemaking and Economic Growth takes place Tuesday June 20, with a reception from 5 to 6pm (drinks available for credit-card-only purchase); program from 6 to 7:30pm. RSVP here. $5 entry fee. Free to Citizen and Fitler Club members. Fitler Club Ballroom, 1 S. 24th Street.
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