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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nature in the City: Redesigning the Granite Garden

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood travels to West Philadelphia to visit with urban designer Anne Whiston Sprin and examine the consequences of ignoring natural systems in constructing our cities. Spirn says that burying rivers and paving over floodplains often contributes to urban decay. Her plan for more sustainable cities includes more vegetable gardens, parks and other open spaces in the urban floodplain.


CURWOOD: West Philadelphia. It's like much of tired urban America, with block after block of concrete, shabby buildings, and vacant lots that gape with all the allure of a grin missing some teeth. The east end of the district has more life, with the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, but as one heads west, row after row of abused tenements crop up, and the landscape grows more pallid. Here, a failed gas station. There, the hulk of the theatre that once housed Dick Clark's American Bandstand. And almost everywhere a population that's mostly black, mostly poor and seemingly defeated.

(Sound of footsteps)

We're walking today with someone who thinks that West Philadelphia is the perfect place for a nature walk -- not for the pleasure of seeing the birds, but for the purpose of seeing how nature perserveres, through even the most aggressive efforts to subdue it -- and how much of West Philadelphia's troubles can be attributed to designers who ignored the forces of nature.

SPIRN: Nature is here all around us and if we build unwisely it'll come back to haunt us and remind us that in fact nature is still here and operating very nicely thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Anne Whiston Spirn chairs the landscape architecture department of the University of Pennsylvania, and writes about urban ecology in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmstead and Lewis Mumford. "Most environmentalists are profoundly anti-urban," Professor Spirn has written, "and most urbanists don't think that nature exists in the city." Spirn's award-winning book, the Granite Garden, is a singular study of the ecology of urban systems that links poor ecological planning to urban decay. Professor Spirn writes that a prime environmental factor that humans too often think they can ignore or easily tame when they build, is water, and its relentless cycle of rain, drainage, movement and evaporation.

(Sound of truck rumbling by)

Philadelphia is a classic example. A century ago, in an effort to house waves of new industrial workers, developers paved over West Philadelphia. They diverted its streams into culverts and ditches, ignoring the inevitable tendency of rivers to surge over their banks, and flood wide areas. But over the years, Spirn and others have seen the water that once flowed freely through the area reassert its claim.

SPIRN: One day I came walking to come to the supermarket, which was the local supermarket, and I noticed that the entire street had caved in, from sidewalk to sidewalk. From Walnut street all the way up here to Sansome street. And I walked over and looked down and there was a huge river rushing below. And I could see these walls of brick that had crumbled in and the entire street had fallen down on top of it. And It had never occurred to me before that that when I was walking over the streets, I was walking over rivers.

(Sound of river flowing through sewer grate)

CURWOOD: Today, one can still hear the rush of what was the Mill Creek under West Philadelphia -- a stream, supposedly tamed into a sewer line. This relic of nature that wouldn't go away has captivated Anne Whiston Spirn's imagination ever since that day in 1969, and it soon became an object of her professional study.

Spirn began looking at the effects of paving over streams. Diversions and culverts can work for a while, she says. But when age and poor maintenance combine to compromise a structure, the river is quick to take advantage. It's a pattern of decay Spirn has found in other American cities: once a neighborhood starts downhill, the first buildings to go are often in the floodplains of buried streams and rivers.

SPIRN: When you have a combination of low-to-moderate income residents and buildings on floodplains, you often get buildings beginning to deteriorate because to sustain them is beyond the means of the residents, or if it's rental housing, beyond what the landlords want to invest.

(Sound of computer)

CURWOOD: On a computer in her office at the University of Pennsylvania, Spirn calls up a map of the neighborhood that she and her graduate students have designed. Buildings appear in straight green lines; underground rivers and their floodplains show up in blue. Spirn points to large gaps between buildings -- they follow the Mill Creek's floodplain.

(Sound of computer keyboard)

SPIRN: This was not originally open. When West Philadelphia was developed the streets went straight across and this was all housing. Sometime during the twentieth century the housing deteriorated, perhaps parts of the land caved in, and this is all open now. And so now it is a question of looking at what exists and saying what should remain open and what should be rebuilt.

CURWOOD: The answer, according to Anne Spirn, is that not much should be rebuilt. West Philadelphia was overbuilt in the first place, she says; there was no land for gardens, no parks for kids to play in, no place to park cars. It was hard for people to enjoy and invest in their neighborhoods. Nature, says Spirn, in its rather blunt way, has reclaimed that open space. In agrarian societies, some of the best land for farming is in the floodplain. In West Philadelphia's flood plain, where ruined buildings gave way to vacant lots, vacant lots are now giving way to gardens. Anne Spirn's vision of a cityscape that makes room for nature is bearing fruit.

FORD: How're you, professor?
SPIRN: How are you, Mr. Ford, good to see you today.
FORD: My pleasure.
CURWOOD: So here we are in Aspen Farms.
FORD: Aspen Farms, the garden spot of West Philadelphia.

CURWOOD: Hayward Ford greets us at Aspen Farms, a former vacant lot astride the floodplain of the Mill Creek. A group of citizens cleaned up the dump that sprung up here after the houses crumbled, and turned it into a garden. Today, Aspen Farms provides gardeners like Esther Williams with some of the freshest produce you're likely to find anywhere.

WILLIAMS: I planted corn. I had some of the sweetest corn. When you would take the shucks off of that corn, my hand would be sticky. And I had string beans, collard greens, I had cabbage. . . (Fade under)

CURWOOD: The garden has brought more than fresh food into the neighborhood. Gardener Ben Ambrose says it changed the atmosphere of the whole community.

AMBROSE: It's a better neighborhood. The people are happier here. They come by, we give away food. I've seen people come by, I've given them tomatoes, I've given them greens, I've given them corn. And it's good for the neighborhood.

CURWOOD: Indeed, Professor Spirn has plotted a redevelopment plan for West Philadelphia based on a combination of the principle of ecological landscape architecture and grassroots social action. She says gardens such as Aspen Farms can bring people together to solve other urban problems as well.

SPIRN: You notice as we walk around this neighborhood, the blocks look clean, the houses are fixed up. There are gardens neatly tended in front. And the seed that was sown by this garden has gradually been spreading block by block. And as they've learned their way through City Hall to get things done, they've learned how to get more resources. This then leads to beginning to figure out how to get other problems taken care of, rat problems, problems with getting other lots cleaned up and so on and so on. It builds.

CURWOOD: Spirn says, of course ecologically sound landscape architecture alone can't save the inner cities of America, but she feels it's a key part. Already, the creation of small gardens on vacant lands here has brought a sense of pride and purpose to these urban gardeners. In the future, she says, a sprawling garden center, with lush greenhouses would be well suited to the flood plain, and provide employment for West Philadelphians. And even larger plots of now-vacant land could be turned into parks, parks which would provide badly-needed greenspace and recreation areas, but which could double as catch basins for water from heavy rains. But Spirn says urban planners are a tough sell. The official redevelopment plan for West Philadelphia just released by the city still contains the same ideas which Spirn blames for much of the decay in the first place. The decision-makers aren't convinced of the value of Spirn's ideas.

SPIRN: Most of the skepticism I've met in fact is from people who don't live in the neighborhood, people who are in city government or other planners who are consultants. You talk to the gardeners here or people who've lived in the neighborhood and seen the buildings collapse, the streets collapse, it sounds very sensible to them. I think it has to do with this mind-block about nature and city. We have learned from the time we were very very young to think that the city supplants nature. That the city destroys nature. Rather than thinking of the city of being a part of nature and right here in West Philadelphia we are seeing the results of that kind of attitude.

(Sound of walking)

CURWOOD: This year, Anne Spirn plans to give up her administrative duties at U-Penn's landscape architecture department, and spend more time campaigning to include urban ecology in city planning. She predicts that change will come slowly, but she holds some hope. Recently, the Philadelphia Water department asked her for some ideas, the first contact with her ever initiated by city officials.



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