West Philadelphia Landscape Project
Community development, environmental restoration, and educational reform must go hand in hand.
We seek partnerships among advocates for each in order to combine forces and resources. We believe that youth have a crucial role to play in this process. This conviction comes from three decades of work in low-income communities on projects that simultaneously address issues of poverty, race, deteriorated neighborhoods, polluted water, and troubled schools.
Since 1987, WPLP has worked with youth and adults in inner-city neighborhoods of the Mill Creek watershed.
Together, we have built real projects, have had successes and failures, and have made surprising discoveries.
Vacant land provides an opportunity to reshape and rebuild inner-city neighborhoods.
Blocks of vacant land and wasted structures border blocks of well-tended homes and gardens in many parts of West Philadelphia’s Mill Creek watershed. Much of the open land and many flourishing community gardens form a band that meanders through inner-city neighborhoods along the line of the former creek, now buried in a sewer. Neighborhoods like Mill Creek, at the heart of the watershed, are among the poorest parts of Philadelphia, yet both people and landscape embody resources from which to build.
Water is an issue that holds great promise for combining environmental restoration and community development.
Billions of dollars will be spent in the next decade to overhaul old sewer systems that combine sanitary and storm sewage. For more than 25 years, we have urged the City to manage urban watersheds both to improve regional water quality and to provide funds to rebuild neighborhoods and provide jobs. Our proposals contributed to Philadelphia's visionary, new, billion-dollar “green” infrastructure project, Green City, Clean Waters.
We design projects with an open structure that inspire people to invent and embellish.
Our proposals are frameworks for action, which structure, welcome, and inspire the contributions of diverse actors, from individuals and small groups, to private organizations and public agencies.
We need to turn the conversation about children in low-income communities on its head.
To speak of intelligence, creativity, and potential rather than poor performance, indifference, and trouble. In our Mill Creek Project, middle-schoolers explored how their neighborhood evolved, proposed changes to their neighborhood, and learned HTML in order to tell their story on the Internet. The program forged relationships between inner-city kids and university students and transformed their chronically failing school.
Landscape literacy involves both understanding the world and transforming it.
Just as verbal literacy was a cornerstone of the American civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, landscape literacy is a means for recognizing and redressing injustices. We use the word landscape in its original sense in Old English – the mutual shaping of people and place – to encompass both the population of a place and its physical features. Literacy in landscape enables people to read the stories embedded in their local landscape and gives them a way to express new stories, to transform their neighborhood.
WPLP has been recognized internationally, nationally, and locally.
It has been featured in newspaper articles, professional journals, national radio and television broadcasts, and international conferences and symposia, including a 1999 meeting at the White House.
We invite you to learn about our history, use our resources, and join our community.
Tell us about your own work to rebuild community, restore nature, and empower youth.
Hear A Story
“You Just Don’t Leave Family” tells the story of how WPLP became more than just a project for founding director, Anne Whiston Spirn.
Explore Vacant Lands
Vacant Urban Land: A Resource for Reshaping Urban Neighborhoods describes the diverse types of vacant land, which occur in West Philadelphia and other cities, analyzes their origins, and explores how they might be reclaimed for a variety of uses that can be tailored to fit the needs of particular people and places.
Explore Models of Success
Models of Success describes exemplary cases where landscape improvements were a catalyst for community development and draws lessons for similar projects that could be undertaken elsewhere. Examples range from community gardens to commercial enterprises to “green” public infrastructure.
Explore Proposals
Since 1987, we have produced dozens of designs for green infrastructure in the Mill Creek Watershed. From 1996-1999, students in classes at the University of Pennsylvania designed wetland/water gardens on vacant sites on the buried floodplain of Mill Creek, which were also to serve as an outdoor classroom for a middle school. Since 2010, MIT students have proposed ways to combine the plan for green infrastructure with education, job creation, and community development.
Read About Green City, Clean Waters
In fall 2009, the Philadelphia Water Department proposed a revolutionary plan for reducing combined sewer overflows using green infrastructure, and the US Environmental Protection Agency approved the plan in 2012. The plan will be an international landmark if fully implemented and will save the city billions of dollars.
Read A Framework For Action
The West Philadelphia Landscape Plan: A Framework for Action describes an approach to rebuilding the landscape of community in which all have a role to play.
Read A Framework For Action
Explore Designs for Mill Creek Park,the Market Walnut Corridor, the Urban Forest, and Redesigning Small Neighborhoods.

Links coming soon.
Explore Mill Creek Project
Explore the Mill Creek Project’s activities and publications.
Hear Fatima’s Story
Hear Fatima’s story about how learning HTML code, when she was thirteen, changed her life

Watch Youth Present to the Governor
Watch Oneil and Keith, twelve and thirteen years old, present the Mill Creek Project to Pennsylvania’s Governor and General Assembly.
Read about our Literacy Program
“Restoring Mill Creek: Landscape Literacy, Environmental Justice, and City Planning and Design” describes how WPLP’s literacy program evolved and compares it to programs in verbal literacy, which aim to promote participatory and emancipatory change.
Hear an Interview
Hear George Seay, host of Dialogue, talk with Anne Spirn about landscape literacy.

Links coming soon
Join Us
If you want more information or would like to share your own project’s story, please contact Anne Spirn.

If you were ever a participant in WPLP’s programs, we want to hear from you! Tell us where you are and what you are doing. Send us your email address, phone, or mailing address. We have formed a network, and want you to be part of it. Please contact Anne Spirn for more information.

Anne Spirn, WPLP
Department of Urban Studies and Planning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139