Skip to main content

Students aim to spark unity through design in Southwest Philadelphia community

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State landscape architecture students enrolled in the Studio III – Site Design class this fall were presented with a complex assignment right from the start: Design the site for a new 7.5-acre educational facility on the grounds of a National Historic Landmark that will serve not only as an example of design excellence, but also as a catalyst to unite the Southwest Philadelphia community.

The National Historic Landmark at the center of the project is Bartram’s Garden, the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America. Built in 1728, the Garden occupies 45 acres along the west bank of the Schuylkill River and is operated by the John Bartram Association in cooperation with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.

The educational initiative, called the Woodland Academy, will offer daycare and after-school programs that emphasize the importance of nature education and environmental preservation, which are areas of importance to both Bartram’s Garden and the Penn State Department of Landscape Architecture.

“There isn’t a prewritten script to follow with this project,” said Justin DiBerardinis, director of programs and partnerships for the John Bartram Association. “If we succeed in creating an equitable and environmentally sustainable riverfront in Southwest Philadelphia, it will be because we sought out and tested new ideas.”

“That’s why working with students on a project like this can be so rewarding,” he continued. “We don’t feel confined to what’s been done before but rather we see ideas that aren’t bound by orthodox thinking. Their designs and concepts expand our collaborative thinking and imagination of what could be.”

The Woodland facility will be physically connected to the community by the 56th Street Corridor, which is another focus for the students to address in their projects. The Corridor will connect Woodland Academy to the Schuylkill River, the greater Southwest Philadelphia community and Bartram Village.

Bartram Village is a 500-unit apartment community that is currently being renovated, thanks to a $1.3 million federal grant that was issued to the Philadelphia Housing Authority in May 2018.

“This is a very complex design project for an experienced landscape architect to consider let alone for second-year students to address,” said Neil Korostoff, one of the class instructors.

Nevertheless, Korostoff, the students and fellow instructors Lisa DuRussel and Alec Spangler traveled to Philadelphia in September to meet with staff from Bartram’s Garden and planners of the Woodland Academy. The students spent time listening to the vision and goals for the project, explored the different aspects of the site and interacted with some local residents to get a feel for the culture and mindset of the community.

“Our initial meeting really made this project feel real, and it provided us with a ton of insight into the community and the goals for the project,” said Madison Borsos, one of the students enrolled in the class.

The students are working through several phases before their designs can be submitted. First, they had to complete an inventory of the facility site and conduct a community analysis, identifying opportunities and possible roadblocks that may arise. Next, they had to develop a master plan for the Woodland Academy and determine how the layout may be optimally designed based on the conditions of the land. The final phase of the project calls for the design of the 56th Street Corridor.

“Students also have to take into consideration plans for the expansion of the Corridor, which include a hatchery for native freshwater mussels to re-stock the Delaware River watershed and a floating laboratory in the Schuylkill River,” said Korostoff.

There are several questions that the students must address in their final designs, which they will present to the Southwest Philadelphia community on Dec. 5. The three underlining issues are: How will collaboration between the Woodland Academy and the community be promoted and sustained? How will environmental challenges – caused by climate change, tidal fluctuations of the Schuylkill River and other natural phenomena – be accounted for? And how will the issue of soil that has been compromised by the wear and tear of industrial revolution be overcome?

“It all felt a little overwhelming at first, knowing that we were designing a site with so much history and culture surrounding it,” said Borsos. “However, after speaking with community members, experiencing the feel of the space and researching the needs, ecology and culture of the area, it all began to come together. These critical factors have guided my design decisions and have driven me to create what I think will be the best experience for the community.”

No matter the outcome and resolution of the project, Korostoff believes that such real-world projects are essential to the education of landscape architecture students at Penn State.

“Creating a design that fulfills a program’s obligations while connecting to the surrounding communities, and also responding ecologically to environmental conditions, is a landscape architect’s dream,” he said.

These projects also provide students with the unique opportunity to speak candidly with project stakeholders and incorporate that feedback into their innovative designs.

“Penn State’s participation in community service projects such as this clearly affirms the commitment of our students to the client, the community and the environment as a whole,” said Korostoff.

The landscape architecture students will present their designs to the Penn State community on Dec. 7 at 9 a.m. on the third floor of the Stuckeman Family Building.

Madison Borsos shares her plans for the Woodland Academy site, pointing out the important 56th Street Corridor that connects the school with the greater Southwest Philadelphia community.
Maitreyi Roy, executive director of Bartram’s Garden, speaks to the second-year landscape architecture students during their visit to the historic landmark in September.
Ty Holmberg, co-director of Sankofa Community Farm at Bartram's Garden, talks to the students about linking the cultural history of African American and African food and cuisine to the Southwest Philadelphia community.
Associate Professor Neil Korostoff works with student Jack Kang on his master design in the studio.