The Belmont/Mantua neighborhood in Philadelphia is facing considerable challenges of an economic downturn, increase in crime rate and lack of active living environment. As a result, streets have become deserted and health issues such as obesity and mental disorders have emerged. However, traditional design approaches that target public spaces cannot provide accessible destinations for all population in the dense neighborhoods.
To provide healthy environments where all people thrive, we propose to shift ground from public space to both public and private spaces. We propose to gather public resources for private spaces. Our design aims at spreading SEEDS by encouraging residents to draw on public resources to reinvigorate and personalize their homes, sideyards, and streets. We can thus turn streets and sideyards into places where people engage in yard innovations, physical activities, and social interactions. Using customizable SEEDS based on individual needs, we ensure our design is flexible enough to meet both current and future needs. Our design facilitates bottom-up place-making and proposes open scenarios which can be developed by the residents themselves.
Our project, SEEDING SIDEYARDS, focuses on the issues of the Belmont-Mantua neighborhood near downtown Philadelphia. Our long-term mission is to create an environment that improves people's physical and mental well-being. Because of our mission, we investigated the problems within the neighborhood and identified one biggest health issue there: obesity. With 43% of Belmont-Mantua citizens obese, the whopping 10% higher than the national average and anywhere else in Philadelphia, the number constantly increases. We had a serious, complicated issue in our hand.
Belmont-Mantua neighborhood was, at the first glance, accessible to everything. Just across the glittering Schuylkill River lays one of the largest green spaces in the US: East Fairmount Park. The park was the location for the World Expo Exhibition and has many recreational opportunities, museums, zoos, and lush green urban nature. Lower South, 30th Street Station connect the neighborhood to downtown. The University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University are located right across the main street from there. From the description, our target neighborhood should have offered a wonderful location for everyone; however, during our analysis of the area, we discovered several striking issues. First, these neighborhoods are in economic decline and are mostly occupied by low-income residents. The median income of the neighborhood is only slightly above $20,000, which is the poverty line. Secondly, the neighborhood is both lacking in local destinations as well as being cut off from the amenities of the city by a daunting matrix of railroad tracks, fences, and dramatic topographical changes. This means that, compared to other Philadelphia residents, those who live in this area have fewer resources and access to public space. While they are tantalizingly close to these amenities, they couldn’t use them. Unkempt streets and few destinations helped us identify the neighborhood’s needs. Who would walk or bike if there's nowhere to go and nothing to see? Because of their socio-economic status, they also have fewer opportunities to travel outside of their neighborhood in order to take advantage of different programs in other parts of the city. And there was no wonder why this neighborhood struggles to keep their citizens healthy and free from the obesity epidemic. 43% of the citizens are obese. Your main goal is to achieve greater health benefits through design and attack obesity in this neighborhood one step at a time. By challenging the conventional approach of reclaiming public space, we propose to gather public resources for private spaces. Our strategies include increasing physical activity, reducing stress, and facilitating social interaction. From empirical evidence, we know that nearby nature is much more effective in promoting health than centralized parks (Jiang et al., 2014; McCrorie et al., 2014). Therefore, in our design, we propose to deliver seeds that carry those health benefits into the space that is most relevant to everyone’s daily life– sideyards. A sideyard is an underutilized transitional space. In this design, we propose to transform these neglected spaces into functional places.
Since this intervention takes place in existing neighborhoods, we believe that it will only be successful if existing residents are involved in the solution. This involvement takes place at two scales. The first is the neighborhood scale, where residents provide input for different community programs or “seeds” near their homes. These seeds could be dog parks, community gardens, sports fields, children’s playgrounds, pavilions, picnic areas, outdoor athletic parks, or any other type of community facilities. The physical interventions will be appropriate and useable because residents themselves will have a say in the decision-making process.
The second scale at which residents will participate is the individual scale. The new seeds in the community will act as hubs where residents can go to engage in the community programs and get resources to bring back to their homes with them. These resources might include plants, kits, or project supplies. For example, a one-day workshop might teach participants how to build their own tiny shared library, and they would receive materials for it in order to build it and install it at their homes. Another workshop might take place at a community garden, where residents take home plugs to plant vegetables in their yards. In this way, residents change their own neighborhood, giving them character. Because individuals impart changes in their own homes, the streets become unique and interesting to walk through. Additionally, since the resources given to the residents are ones that will be used outside, it helps to increase social capital in the neighborhood.
The final intervention takes place throughout the entire neighborhood. Studies have shown that street trees and safety contribute to walkability (Pekara, 2013). This phase of the intervention achieves that by modifying streets to be more accessible and appealing to residents. This is done by reducing parking, increasing bike lanes, and including street trees and plantings. Since the neighborhood has many vacant lots, street parking can be displaced to become off-street parking.
Our design makes the Belmont-Mantua neighborhood a place of infinite destinations by spreading seeds. It creates public destinations, or seeds, as incubators to stimulate neighborhood growth. Here, residents can learn skills, discuss ideas, and get toolkits, seedlings, and saplings for their personal landscaping. This plan also provides resources for public engagement and reinvigorating private spaces and sideyards. Residents themselves will change the character of their yards and neighborhood.
Once the community hubs are created in 2016, neighborhood and yard innovations will begin to spring up. Eventually, this will lead to a woven pattern of community activities, vegetation and productive landscape, and installations with potential for future growth and strong connections. With customizable designs, our seeds grow and extend for years to come, adapting to new technology and community needs. By 2060, the walkable and dynamic neighborhood continues to be a place where people can grow and thrive. Physical activity and community-building activities are integral parts of residents’ lives. With strong social support and constant exercise, obesity will only be a forgotten problem of Belmont-Mantua neighborhood.
The team members for Seeding Sideyards consisted of 2 graduate students of Landscape Architecture, 2 Ph.D. candidate of Landscape Architecture, 1 Ph.D. student from Landscape Architecture, 1 graduate student of Architecture, and 1 Ph.D. student of Landscape Architecture as a visualization specialist. The students have been studying the impact of landscapes on human health and strongly believe in the relationship between nearby nature and human health. This has been reflected in the design strategy and planning of the Belmont-Mantua neighborhood.
Every member of the team was involved meticulously. Each member undertook the responsibility to collect specific data and analyzed it. We started the process with the lead of an MLA student. As a project manager, she facilitated a discussion about an overarching concept of the project. A Ph.D. candidate and a Ph.D. student worked together to research neighborhood demographics, social statistics, and infrastructure. The other Ph.D. candidate investigated possible strategies for encouraging physical activities.
As we progressed deeper into research and analysis, we invited the visualization specialist to discuss Philadelphia in the future years. Another MLA student initiated the concept about customization design, which she developed into a diagram with some help from the master’s student from architecture. After the conceptual design was done, one of the Ph.D. candidates organized a pin up and invited professors to review the project.
We then improved the ideas of our sideyards and seeds through our project leader. The MLA students then produced the perspectives and sections, while the Ph.D. student and candidates worked together on the master plan and network analysis. The architecture student calculated the budget of the project and produced conceptual diagram explaining our design concept.
Although each student had their own responsibilities, the members were working back and forth between two or more tasks helping each other to accomplish them in a proficient way. We held regular pin-up discussion. Occasionally, formal presentation to the faculty members of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Department of Urban and Regional Planning helped strengthen the project.
By the end of the project, every team member shared an interesting and impactful learning outcomes. We explored how a simple planning process can have an effective impact on a neighborhood. Having a community involved in the neighborhood improvement not only helps to achieve an improved landscape but also a healthy community, a sense of belonging, and a sense of responsibility to keep the neighborhood maintained for a longer time. This project has been a prominent practice for problem-based design; the landscape is not only for display but more for the function of the community, and for that reason, the design should response to existing problems. When a design responds to users' needs, a healthy community without gentrification is no longer far-fetched. Similarly, it was interesting to understand ways to improve social cohesion within a community as a designer. Additionally, collaboration definitely provided an exchange of technical information. From getting an opportunity to know about different perspectives on a site to different design interventions, negotiation, and impression, it was a good learning experience for each member.