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«By Ahmed Almulla 11.308 Ecological Urbanism Professor Anne Whiston Spirn with Mami Hara December 7, 2015 The following paper documents my vision for ...»

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Philadelphia Green Schools:

Building Sustainable Partnerships between Schools and Neighborhoods


Ahmed Almulla

11.308 Ecological Urbanism

Professor Anne Whiston Spirn with Mami Hara

December 7, 2015

The following paper documents my vision for a ‘Green School’ program that transforms

neighborhoods within the broader context of programs suggested within the class. The paper is

divided into three main sections: The first section explains the theoretical framework behind the concepts in the paper, namely: place-based education, environmental literacy, urban metabolism and industrial ecology. The second section of the paper then explains how the application of principles from urban metabolism can form sustainable partnerships between schools and their immediate neighborhoods, using Sulzberger School in West Philadelphia as a case study. The third and final section explains the limitations, further research directions and the possibilities that such a program may entail if successfully applied.

The results that I came across from testing this model have been unexpected and extremely promising. When a resource mapping exercise of the neighborhood surrounding Sulzberger School revealed an array of diverse resources and potential that is untapped, I knew that no community or neighborhood would need to look very much further than its own backyard in order to transform itself. This is the essence of my vision and one of the main themes that have emerged during this semester: a reaction to the direction that educational institutions have taken in the United States over the past decades. The industrialization of the education system has left students with little creativity, motivation or critical thinking skills which are necessary to succeed in the professional world. Furthermore, the schools have been completely disconnected from their immediate neighborhoods and offer little or no further benefits besides their prescribed official ‘roles’.

However, even the most impoverished communities contain within them a wealth of resources that just need a simple reconfiguration and coordination in order to enrich the students’ education, build ties between the school and the neighborhood and empower the community.

Part One: Literary Background and Research The first two main concepts that are central to my vision are place-based education and landscape literacy. My use and understanding of these terms are derived from the following authors and their work in helping shape and develop these terms: David Sobel, “Place-Based Education: Connecting

Classroom and Communities” (2004), and Anne Whiston Spirn “The Nature of Mill Creek:

Landscape Literacy and Design for Ecological Democracy” (2014). Place-based education is simple in its essence: “knowledge of the nearest things should be acquired first, then that of those farther and father off”1. It is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language, arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum. Landscape literacy is the process by which the local community learn for ‘read’ their environment and the multi-layered processes which have formed the neighborhood as we know it today: “landscape literacy should be a cornerstone of community development and of urban planning and design. To plan prudently is to transform problems into opportunities and liabilities into resources, and to intervene at an appropriate scale”2. Within each concept and the sources from which they come from, the authors’ offer case studies and examples to further explain these concepts and show their practical implementation. The most relevant and interesting case

studies for my case are:

–  –  –

In Louisiana, getting out of the classroom often means getting into mosquitoes, so the 4H Club at Caldwell Middle School in Terrebonne Parish took on the real-world challenge of

mosquito control:

“One parent, whose daughter has asthma, was interested in finding ways to control mosquitoes in residential areas without aerial spraying of pesticides. First, students and teachers started to experiment with raising guppies to see if they would eat mosquito larvae.

But these students got a lesson in ecology when a professor from Nichols State University recommended native mosquito fish instead, because of the problems caused when nonnative species are introduced into local waters. Students bred the mosquito fish and then released them into stagnant ponds, ditches, and even swimming pools. Just a fun project? Melynda Rodrigue, 4H sponsor and Caldwell teacher, indicated that math teachers will chart the numbers of offspring and the time period needed to repopulate the tanks, science classes will study the fish’s life cycle, and social studies classes will study the impact on the community’s environment. Some students used their writing skills to create a brochure for distribution to the community, and other students got public speaking experience through presentations at other schools in the area.”4  Martin Luther King Middle School, California In Berkeley, California, a similar grassroots school-and-community effort has been transformed into a bioregional initiative. This case study offers the most strikingly obvious argument for why it doesn’t make sense that food for a school would come from thousands of miles away. Furthermore, it provides a real world example of how a local initiative has led to the institutionalization of its program – a successfully integrated bottom-up


3 Sobel, David. "Place-based education: Connecting classroom and community."Nature and Listening 4 (2004).

4 Sobel, David. "Place-based education: Connecting classroom and community."Nature and Listening 4 (2004).

–  –  –

The Food Systems Project is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Linking Farms to Schools initiative, the California Department of Health, and the Center for Ecoliteracy, a broad coalition of funders trying to address the problems of child nutrition, school improvement, and sustainable agriculture in an integrated fashion. Project director Janet Brown has commented that by using food as an organizing principle for systemic change, the program addresses the root causes of poor academic performance, psychosocial behavior disorders, and escalating children’s health issues such as obesity, asthma and diabetes. At the same time the program connects the loss of farmland and farming as a way of life and the social problems facing school communities.”5  Sulzberger Middle School, Pennsylvania Despite extensive in-class discussions regarding this specific case study, a short excerpt is included here because the imagined pilot program I propose also uses the same school.

While the West Philadelphia Landscape Project investigation was through the lens of landscape literacy, my envisioned program looks through the lens of resource identification

and mapping – another form of reading the landscape:

“From 1994-2001, students in my classes at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyzed the urban watershed, demonstrated how storm water could be collected in landscape projects that are also stormwater detention facilities, and created designs for wetlands, water gardens, and environmental study areas on vacant land in the Mill Creek neighborhood. When the West Philadelphia Landscape Project website was launched in early 1996, it featured the database, reports, and projects built from 1987-1991.

To reach a broad spectrum of the Mill Creek population, my students and I launched a program with a public school in the Mill Creek neighborhood. What began as a communitybased, environmental education program organized around the urban watershed grew into a program on landscape literacy and community development. From 1996-2001, hundreds of children at Sulzberger and students at the University of Pennsylvania, learned to read the neighborhood’s landscape; they traced its past, deciphered its stories, and told their stories about its future, some of which were built. The tools they used were their own eyes and imagination, the place itself, and historical documents such as maps, photographs,

newspaper articles, census tables, and redevelopment plans. The program had four parts:

5 Sobel, David. "Place-based education: Connecting classroom and community."Nature and Listening 4 (2004).

–  –  –

Both authors make compelling arguments for their concepts. Sobel’s place-based education model emphasizes hands-on, real-world learning experiences. According to the author, this approach to education increases academic achievement, helps students develop stronger ties to their community, enhances students’ appreciation for the natural world, and creates a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens. Moreover, community vitality and environmental quality are improved through the active engagement of local citizens, community organizations, and environmental resources in the life of the school.7 In regards to landscape literacy, Spirn warns us that when those who plan and build the city disregard the significance of these patterns or fail to see them at all, they waste resources, produce dangerous, expensive mistakes, and inflict grave injustice on all who live there.8 In other words, what they are proposing are not alternatives to the status quo – it is a much-needed revolution to the failed systems in place.

The second two main concepts central to my program are urban metabolism and industrial ecology.

In “The Changing Metabolism of Cities” (2007), authors Christopher Kennedy, John Cuddihy, and Joshua Engel-Yan set out a clearly defined framework for what the term Urban Metabolism accompanies. It is a model to facilitate the description and analysis of the flows of the materials and energy within cities, providing researchers with a metaphorical framework to study the interactions of natural and human systems in specific regions.9 One of the core uses of Urban Metabolism is to track and record measures of sustainability in cities and regions around the world. The model collects information regarding energy-efficiency, material cycling, waste management and infrastructure in urban environments, among others.

Furthermore, it records and analyzes environmental conditions and trends that are easily understood for policy makers and consequently comparable over time, making it easier to find unhealthy patterns and develop a plan of action to improve present conditions. By tracing flows of energy, materials and waste through urban systems as a whole, changes and alterations can be made to close the loops to create circular metabolisms where resources are recycled and (almost) no waste is produced. Such initiatives are already being made for the purpose of making ‘green’ building easier and more accessible. According to the authors, uses of the model are not restricted to strictly functional analysis, as it has been adapted to examine the relational aspects of urban relationships between infrastructure and citizens.

This model is closely related, or built off of, an industrial ecology model – which looks at maximizing efficiency and reducing waste at a production level (smaller scale). Industrial Ecology is an analytical method to quantify flows and stocks of materials or substances in a welldefined system and is an important tool to study the bio-physical aspects of human activities on 6 Whiston Spirn, Anne. "Restoring Mill Creek: landscape literacy, environmental justice and city planning and design." Landscape Research 30.3 (2005): 395-413.

7 Sobel, David. "Place-based education: Connecting classroom and community."Nature and Listening 4 (2004).

8 Spirn, Anne Whiston. "Restoring Mill Creek: landscape literacy, environmental justice and city planning and design." Landscape Research 30.3 (2005): 395-413. 9

Kennedy, C., S. Pincetl, and P. Bunje. "The study of urban metabolism and its applications to urban planning and design." Environmental pollution 159.8 (2011):


–  –  –

Figures 1 and 2: Diagrams depicting Urban Metabolism (above) and Industrial Ecology (right).

Part Two: Creating a Model Program My vision for a model program for Philadelphia is one that applies the principles of the urban metabolism model to form sustainable partnerships with the surrounding community and neighborhood. Specifically, I am looking at the concept of industrial ecology to structure the partnerships and exploit all available resources in the community (both physical and non-physical) in order to greatly reduce or eliminate any waste of available, valuable resources.

A model for partnerships, which uses the resources of the community for the school in such a way, could prove prospectively stimulating when combined with the themes of place-based education and landscape literacy. Imagine a neighborhood where the school used a nearby urban garden to learn biology, but also used the produce in the cafeteria for food. Imagine a local restaurant that allows the school to use their kitchen to cook the school’s lunch but also gave culinary lessons to students. Imagine a nearby clinic that offers its medical services in school but invites students to come learn and experience first-hand medical knowledge. A local library, tailor, college, tech company, etc… are all valuable resources that could form partnerships and offer resources to the school. At the same time, the school is offering their valuable resources (young, highly capable brains) back to the community. The school theatre could be used for local events. The playground, built and designed by the neighborhood, is open after hours for everyone to enjoy. The possibilities are endless and diverse depending on location, but each community has a lot to offer. Both the tangible and non-tangible resources hold a massive untapped potential.

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