Martin Knox


Research Assistant, West Philadelphia Landscape Project (1996-1998)

Martin recalls memorable experiences and lessons from when he worked with Sulzberger students on the Mill Creek Project. From an interview in 2002.


I worked for the West Philadelphia Landscape Project starting in the Summer of 96 and through to graduation in 98. I started as a research assistant for Anne Spirn during the summer prior to taking her studio class that focused on the WPLP. The following summer as project manager I spearheaded the summer program at Sulzberger Middle School. Then during the following school year I worked with Mrs. Lloyd's sixth grade classroom. Also, I was Anne's teaching assistant for the PENN undergraduate Power of Place course during one of my last semesters.

WPLP has many partnerships, among individuals and organizations. At the landscape architecture program, I worked with Anne Spirn and my fellow students. And outside of that program, but within the University was the Center for Community Partnerships. We fit into a larger, overall program that Ira Harkavy had in mind for how the University could make connections with the larger West Philadelphia community. We applied for our grants in conjunction with the Center for Community Partnerships. We also teamed up with Philadelphia Green, the Philadelphia Water Department and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Federal Empowerment Zone, Aspen Farms Community Garden and the Sulzberger Middle School. Representatives from these organizations met us at Sulzberger School, Aspen Farms and at our field trips.

In many ways, I think that WPLP activities are about overcoming barriers that are between people. Sometimes they are physical barriers like a garden fence or University perimeter wall. But there are mental or social obstacles to overcome such as environmental perceptions or stigmas about race or backgrounds. WPLP is a platform to making partnerships and connections that foster community. But it is always changing. Takes work to tend to the various links. I suppose it's like gardening.

You know, many of the students had walked past this chain link fence that surround Aspen Farms on the way to school-it's only about a half a block away from the school-and they'd never passed through this chain-linked fence. It was just like this breakthrough when they were invited in to Aspen Farms as part of the WPLP program. Hayward just opened up the gate and said, "Come on in!" and so they were passing through one of these barriers that was in their neighborhood. They were just amazed to find out that some of this landscape is edible. Hayward is very good at pointing out how the sunflower is pointing towards the sun, and we listened to rainwater-there are very subtle things that you pick up from being in the environment and being invited into a very special place to observe. I think that some deep learning about the environment happens in the community garden that just wouldn't happen inside the classroom.

Of course I also worked with the teachers at Sulzberger. During the summer, we worked with teachers teachers Barbara Wells, Donald Armstead, Larry Jones, and Glenn Campbell in developing the Mill Creek watershed curriculum. The summer program was a ramping up of their overall Mill Creek watershed curriculum that they were setting up for the school year. It was like a trial or pilot. I think a lot of the activities we did during the summer they then improved on for their school year unit. Whenever we went on a field trip we all wore these blue T-shirts that had text on the back "Ask Me About the Mill Creek". This idea came from the website that I had done in Anne's class during the previous year. The middle school students were put in a position of being teachers and being proud of knowing something about their school's neighborhood.

While those teachers took the program to their classroom the following school year, I was working in conjunction with Mrs. Lloyd and her 6th grade classroom. The program was called Neighborhood Trees and Plants and it really played on the idea of using the neighborhood outside the school as an extended classroom. It extended to the immediate neighborhood and the Aspen Farm community garden. Our work together culminated in planting a street tree nursery in front of the school. The intention of the program was for the same students to transplant the trees to the surrounding neighborhood two years later when they were in eighth grade. They designed and planted the street tree nursery themselves. For months I went to Sulzberger once or twice a week for a two-hour period in the afternoons. Sometimes we would go outside around the neighborhood and talk about the trees that are nearby. For example, there is a row of Sycamores near the school that inspired some indoor activities. Sometimes we had to stay indoors because we couldn't go out every time I went over there.

So there were also indoor activities that we did that were based on our experiences outdoors. For example, Mrs. Lloyd and I split the class into three groups for the construction of a sycamore tree model that was going to be hung in the hall way so the rest of the school could see what we were up to. Each group was responsible for making a tree part that would later connect with another. The parts were roots, trunk, and branches. We arranged the classroom desks in a long table format. This was a new thing for the students just to be able to rearrange their desks in their classroom for this type of group effort. So it was kind of difficult to keep them from getting too rowdy, but this was a good exercise as far as a micro-community exchange project. They had a lot of fun making these parts of the tree. Even though individuals within the group may not have been interested in participating, once the small groups got positive feedback for the activity, sometimes it inspired that one disinterested student into participating in the next activity. They had to communicate about how this tree was put together. Towards the end of the year Mrs. Lloyd took pictures of each individual student as they stood by this tree with big smiles on their faces. It was a real nice way to bring closure to the school year. The students had pride as individuals. They had participated in this group effort, but they could point to their leaf and their leaf story on this overall community-made tree and say "I did that" and it was part of a larger group effort.

One can say that Aspen Farm is a special place, because of what's happening with Hayward Ford and the other neighbors, sharing a place. But the place that I would like to call special is the journey, or the process. Being able to walk out of the middle school door, with the students, out into the neighborhood was in a way a destination or achievement in and of itself. To be able to walk out those doors, towards Aspen Farms, or towards the trees, with the excitement of "Wow, what are we going to observe today, what are we going to pick up today,"-the overall excitement about the potential of that walk. That in and of itself was an event. The learning started when we left the classroom. But we brought our experiences, our memories of the walk, and then we carried that back into the classroom. I'm not saying the classroom wasn't a learning experience, but it started when we left. Through reflective activities we used our experience in the neighborhood and in the community garden as a resource and a reference for learning about everything from how to share your scissors to talking about photosynthesis as a natural process that happens in the city.

One field trip that I helped arrange was called "Tracing the Mill Creek"-this was one of the highlights of the summer program. It's an example of how we went beyond the neighborhood into the larger urban fabric and traced this overall watershed. It was a day trip where we rented buses and we started up at the headwaters where the Mill Creek is still above ground. It's almost in the suburbs. It has grass swales, it's open to the air and there's a little channel that runs through the neighborhood. We got out of the bus and we walked around in a park and we got an idea of what a valley feels like, with grass, trees, and a stream-as close to a natural form. And our destination was where the Creek emptied out into the Schuylkill River and that was the other end of the trip. But along the way, of course, we passed by Sulzberger Middle School, which is about half way between the beginning and the end. We got out of the bus, I think it was close to the Old Mill Pond area. The Water Department guy pulled open one of the manholes. He had a flashlight and he showed everybody a view down into the hundred year old brick sewer and of course we could hear the water going by and it was the same water that we saw up in the suburbs, above ground. And then he pulled a sample of the water in a jar and it was really gray-he was asking "Why is it this color?" We were all wondering why it was this color-I think it was because of all the toilet paper. Everybody was kind of surprised by this. They were in the process of restoring the wetlands down where the water emptied out into the Schuylkill River. It wasn't specifically the Mill Creek but it was close enough-it emptied out close to where the Mill Creek does underground. They were restoring it into a wetland, so that was kind of neat to see as well, just to see how the water could surface again and play a part in the landscape.

I was surprised by the sense of transformation with the kids. The things that we did in the landscape were small projects. At Aspen Farms we made a compost bin, a small little lot for vegetables, a small little pond with fish in it-small little projects. But what they represent is intangible and invisible but could be more important and valuable-and that's just the exchange and the forming of relationships and the transformations that the students went through. Not only were they gaining skills like web authoring and gardening but wayfinding and communication skills. It was amazing to me and it was satisfying. That's what kept me interested in the project. Part of the transformative power that I observed in the students and myself is that the more you realize that your landscape is malleable you gain this sense of empowerment. You can through these landscape activities realize that you are embedded in the overall environment, that you're not necessarily separate from the environment. And this is so critical as a learning tool both for myself and the students. Landscape is not just a picture, a tree isn't just an object, it's a living system. These activities that we did indoors and outdoors helped us learn about that in a slow way, in a gradual way. In a sense, we were defining what nature meant to us. There are many definitions, and my role as a leader in the classroom wasn't to define what nature was for them. It was something we discovered together through our activities.

What's meaningful to me about community activities in the environment is that you can actually shape the landscape. Landscapes can be a reflection of community values. WPLP reminds me of what landscape architecture could be-the meaning that my work as a landscape architect could have. Making landscapes can be a sort of medium for community exchange of ideas and doing an activity together.



Based on an interview in April 2002 by students in an MIT class on Media Technology, and Youth, and City Design and Development.