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Local youth and creative professionals transforming one of Philadelphia’s greatest problems—vacant lots—into an asset that can advance sustainability.


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When Clean Currents—an independent wind power supplier (and certified B-Corp) opened in Philadelphia, the company wanted to identify the biggest challenges facing the city’s neighborhoods. In conversations with civic, business, non-profit and educational stakeholders, one issue came up over and over again: vacant lots.

Lots of Power blends creativity with community need to empower urban youth.

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about the project

Lots of Power, an initiative of Clean Currents, brings high-school-age youth together with creative professionals, including designers and architects, to develop innovative ways to use vacant lots in Kensington through an exciting partnership with Kensington Renewal. Two teams, Bird Nest and Tag, You’re It! -  will be awarded grants to implement their projects, giving them the power to be the change in their community.

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process

Through partnerships with AIGA Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, Lots of Power will pair professional designers and architects with high school youth in mentoring teams. These teams will examine the Kensington  “ecosystem”—how people, places and things in the community interact—to develop sustainable uses for vacant lots that will improve the community. Along with imagining innovative uses for this vacant land, the teams will also be asked to demonstrate how they would implement their solution within a given budget.

At the conclusion of the mentoring process, two projects will be chosen for installation: one by a jury of community leaders and another by the public, through social media voting.

The two winning teams will receive grants to implement their projects this fall.

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mentoring

During the six-week program, Philadelphia teens working under the guidance of professional mentors will have the opportunity to get real-world experience using design thinking—the combination of unleashed creativity and practical, executable actions—to discover and exhibit their creative potential, communicate their ideas, and take positive action in their communities. A project brief and a step-by-step toolkit will be provided to guide mentors through the process. If you’re interested in getting involved as a mentor or participating student, contact Andrea Pellegrino at andrea@pellegrinocollaborative.com

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best concepts

Congratulations to Bird Nest and Tag, You’re It! – the two winning concepts. These projects were chosen through a jury process and through a public voting process via social media.

In addition to providing a powerful public awareness campaign and educational initiative, we’ll take the program a step further by installing the winning projects. Each winning project will be given a grant to implement their ideas. Learn more about these two teams and their projects in this Philadelphia Inquirer profile.

 

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projects

Click on each image below for a detailed version of the five projects submitted by the Lots of Power mentoring teams. Two of the teams - Bird Nest and Tag, You're It! - will receive a grant to implement their projects in vacant lots in Kensington.

Meet the teams in this video:

The project serves the dual purpose of celebrating urban birds and serving as an index for sustainability in the Kensington neighborhood.  A bird sanctuary and educational gallery provide a place of refuge for birds and a place of learning for people on the site.

Team: Salina Santiago (student), Kelly Ball (mentor), Michael Sebright (mentor)

Team statement: The proposal for a bird sanctuary and educational outdoor gallery began with a process of collage, sketching and site analysis. The original sketches incorporated the display of busts, installation of benches, gardening, hanging decorative objects and inviting animals to the site. Three distinct ideas for a program for the site were generated – a garden, an art gallery and an animal sanctuary. From this generative process, a proposal developed that incorporated the programmatic ideas, unique visions and personal experience of our mentee.

The site is divided into three zones – the gallery, the perch and the nest. The gallery provides a space for informative display and serves both birds and people. The second zone, the perch, is an observation area where visitors can look into the third zone – the nest which serves as a sanctuary for the birds only. The gallery provides a pathway back to the perch where visitors can look into the bird’s zone – like looking out a window into a backyard. The project thus creates both a place of refuge for birds and a place of learning for people.

One enters the site through a gateway and is immediately removed from the bustle of Kensington Ave. Plantings in the front provide a buffer. A canopy overhead is created with wire cables and fabric, which references the history of the textile industry in the Kensington neighborhood and provides nesting materials for the birds. From the cables, bird feeders and decorative recycled objects hang to attract birds, creating a zone for interaction between birds and community. Plaster casts of six different urban bird species will be on display in the gallery along with informative signage. Each bird bust will be affixed to the existing side walls on a pipe or rail or on a fixed pedestal on the ground. Visitors can use the visual material to identify birds on the site – which provides the opportunity to monitor the environmental health of the site and the neighborhood at large.

The back of the site is separated from the gallery with planters and decorative dividers made of recycled tires, beyond which visitors can look for different types of birds. The tires will be collected locally and reference similar recycled art in Phoenix Park around the corner. Within the bird refuge, bird-friendly trees and bushes will be planted and bird houses made of recycled materials will be affixed to the existing walls and set onto posts. Additional bird feeders and bird baths, similarly constructed of recycled tires and other materials, will be posted to walls and set into the landscape. We hope to attract a variety of species to the site and plan to host a bird identification event on the site.

The Bird Nest will provide a place of natural refuge which is currently lacking in the Kensington neighborhood. We hope to attract the interest of local families and schools and introduce birds to the public and to youth in a unique way. The project will integrate art and habitat creation to provide a place for observing nature and for monitoring urban environmental health.

 

The Tag You’re It! project focuses on community involvement. Through community involvement, we aim to meaningfully repurpose vacant lots in Kensington. Right now you’d find weeds, bottles, needles, cigarettes, etc. We will clean the space, paint the walls white, add some inviting furniture, but leave the rest to the people. When finished, we expect a community art gallery—be it graffiti, paintings, or your children’s art doodles, brought to life with lights at night time. In short, transform vandalism in vacant lots into real art through community involvement.

Team: Melissa Alvarez (student), Tom NIckel (mentor), Nick Prestileo (mentor)

Team statement: The theme for Tag You’re It!centers on changing the idea of something that is considered “bad” in the Kensington community into something good.

Tag You’re It! zeros in on graffiti and vacant lots in the Kensington community. Nobody likes the “bad kids” vandalizing vacant and private properties at night with a can of spray paint; it’s considered a felony. Our goal is to change the perception of graffiti into a positive voice for the neighborhood, and use it as a tool for strengthening the community. We’re offering artists a place to express themselves in our project and to transform their work into a fine art gallery. This way, the community has direct input into the solution, by allowing the “bad kids” to use these vacant properties as a place to artistically express themselves without having to look over their shoulders.

Our target audience will be artists of Kensington, but this project benefits everyone in the neighborhood. Youth of the community are the ones who “tag” our city lots, and here’s their opportunity to do it in a positive a way.

We hope to reframe the community’s views on ‘vacant properties’, by displaying how graffiti can enhance our neighborhoods. Also, the outcome will transform vandalism into an expression of individuality, changing vandalism into an expression of individual personality that presents the strength of our communities. Our solution will reduce vandalism throughout the area, by increasing spaces for these artists to do it freely, like our project. We want this to be the beginning of a change in Kensington’s vacancy.

To implement this project, the space will have to be cleared of any dangerous objects, chemicals, and weeds. Once the site is cleared, we will apply gravel and then build a low “gateway” and benches with reclaimed lumber, sourced from Revolutionary Recovery. Then we will go over the walls with fresh white paint to give it the gallery feel. Benches will help welcome the community. Finally, there will be starkly contrasting colored lighting in each vacant to help bring everything to life. When it’s finished the project is transformed into a community gallery.

DreamSpace is an interactive and reflective space for sharing, realizing, and pursuing dreams as a community. Through this transformative experience, people are invited to take a dream button, share a story, and achieve together, cultivating a positive and productive relationship between individuals, land, and community.

Team: Rachel Victor (student), Laurie Churchman (mentor), Alex Peltz (mentor)

Team statement: Everyone dreams. We believe that dreams help people visualize the future they hope to live. Dreams often go unspoken, remaining vague mental constructs which go undone. This space hopes to get people to reconsider dreams they had previously, while encouraging them to connect with others in the community who may have similar dreams. Sharing dreams as a community, and taking steps to accomplish them together, will enable the community to connect in a new way.

DreamSpace is an interactive and reflective space for sharing, realizing, and pursuing dreams as a community. Through this transformative experience, people are invited to take a dream button, share a story, and do together, cultivating a positive and productive relationship between individuals, land, and community.

With the goal of sustainability, we will use reclaimed materials, such as wooden pallets, in the construction of the exhibits. The other exhibit materials will be repurposed through partner organizations like the Resource Exchange once the space is deconstructed.

Creatively, we are sharing our theme through a two-fold message in our exhibit: Dreaming, and Doing. Visitors to the lot will follow “footprints” to the right side of the lot, and encounter the Dream site. The chief feature of this area is a canvas wall with buttons. The buttons offer one word prompts of possible dreams, like “return,” “create,” or “home.” Visitors interact with the exhibit by taking a button representing one of their dreams, as a visual reminder of their goals. Removing the buttons reveals interactive questions and open space, where participants can write in the stories of their dreams, and what the words mean to them personally.

At the back of the lot, the elevated space is a relaxing environment for personal reflection. The area will have seating where people can pause and reflect. The surrounding surfaces, including the canvas roof covering, will be covered with challenges to consider and steps that can be taken towards the accomplishment of a dream.

Journeying on through the space, participants will encounter the Do space. At the center of this space is an interactive Story Table that encourages visitors to create a sentence on what they dream about. The Story Table also functions as a communal hangout space, a use of the lot that people in the community expressed a desire for. The Do space fulfills this community need with a positive and productive outcome, enabling the community to find common ground in their interactions.

Thematically, our concept for the space deals with revealing. As visitors journey through the space, we hope that it will reveal to them dreams they have forgotten. This theme is evidenced in the space’s tone: The Dream space comes alive in the night, revealing features not visible during the day. The canvas roof of the elevated space features prompts visible only when in that space; the table in the Do space reveals words and sentences.

To expand DreamSpace’s reach, we will develop a website where we can post pictures on the progress of the project and where people can share their dream stories.

A place to relax and create a sense of community.  This inspired garden space could be used for musical performances or just a pleasant haven to rest at the end of the day. Our goal is to transform the lot into a beautiful space that inspires life.

Team: Jonathan Spencer (student), Nile Livingston (mentor), Jean Rust (mentor)

Team statement: For the Lots of Power challenge our team wished to provide the possibility for more people to have pride toward their public art. Our lot’s mockup has been transformed into a peaceful haven. The wide range of news articles, nonprofit organizations and walks of life that we’ve observed converging around this abandoned lot will now have more to admire about their environment. This work of art draws attention to universal human commonalities and helps make sense of our motives and how we relate to each other. With high standards for visual clarity our team chose a variety of vibrant colors and researched efficient use of materials to proceed with decorating the lot. We believe that the style of the proposed space will be unique compared to other revitalized lots around Philadelphia and are convinced that a small group of dedicated individuals can accomplish something bigger than just ourselves.

The design of the lot is made up of semi-circles. Many rounded edges bring an evergreen cohesion to the elements in this space. This draws the eye to the messages on the wall, places to sit beneath each message and the pollinator garden toward the back of the lot.  Four conical towers for climbing plants mark the four corners of the lot, and are positioned where the semi-circles meet.

By using different elements of nature and human made things, we blended them together to create a beautiful site of relaxation and community development. By using brighter colors we can inspire happier feelings when people walk by this area and create a place that people would think as safe to take their children or to put on a performance or just a place to relax and enjoy the view of the area and talk to friends.

Some of the elements we are using such as plants growing inside of regular free standing everyday objects will allow the neighbors to take the structures home once the lot is disassembled or they could be donated to an organization for continued use. The plants also put back oxygen into the environment and since the lot is close to a train station there is a lot of air pollution, carbon dioxide, to be converted.

The benches, grass, and gravel will all be covered in bright colors and will attract people’s eye to the area even from the train overhead. The quotes, “Love and be loved” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, will be on opposite walls and a focal point from the benches. Both of these inspire compassion, and if they take the train route on a regular basis, then we are implanting a message in their heart to show compassion to others.

Lots of Power powered by Clean Currents provided a great structure for grant funding and a design challenge that brought both seasoned designers and students to tackle design project collaboration.  All parties brought their artistry, technical skills and aptitudes to the table for creating a more vibrant community.

Working Title is an act of civil disobedience. A temporary, sustainable guerrilla greenhouse aimed at providing seasonal, traditional Pennsylvania autumn foods like cabbage, mushrooms, squash and greens to the Kensington community and to provide a litter-free, cheerful, and historically-sensitive space.

Team: Jacob Lotkowski (student), Julia Fiorello (mentor), Alex Zahradnik (mentor)

Team statement: Books like Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s 2012, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, or E. Michael Jones’s The Slaughter of Cities, examine lives of people who live in impoverished areas and the ways in which they cope. These are communities decimated by decades of hard economic policies and the chilling effects that industry wracked upon people and the land. Kensington, with its long history as a residential community, was the site of riots, deindustrialization, and evaporation of manufacturing and service jobs. It is not unlike the “sacrifice zones” studied in these books.

However, in cities like Detroit, Oakland, Compton, and Newark, small-scale, local economies are springing up in defiance of the devastation brought by years of economic downturns. One of the basic tenets of public health is access to affordable, healthy food, and one of the most important and optimistic developments in these communities is the emergence of guerrilla gardening and urban farming. Some proponents of these gardens, like Julie Bass, Ron Finley, and Tara Hui, look to gardening as an act of civil disobedience.

In the spirit of resistance, a small, temporary, sustainably-produced greenhouse made from repurposed shipping palettes, scrap wood and plastic sheeting can be erected on a plot of vacant land. A series of broad ziggurat-like steps, also made from palettes, will lead up to a greenhouse which can be used to both grow food and to tell the unique story of Kensington’s history. Raised beds within, constructed from repurposed palettes and burlap, can be outfitted to grow local and traditional autumn Pennsylvania foods, including squash, greens, cabbage, and mushrooms.

One other major issue in Kensington’s vacant spaces is litter; different bins for waste, recycling, and compost can be mounted to palettes standing against the wall and angled, inviting passers-by to throw their waste into a bin rather than into the grass.

Signage made from repurposed slate throughout the space will highlight what is grown and why, include information about the history of Kensington, information on guerilla gardening projects across the country, and quotes and essays on civil disobedience and organizing from Thoreau to Stokely Carmichael to Stephanie McMillan. A blank mural board for community reactions / ideas / thoughts can be made available, as well as a jar of seedbombs, gravel walkways, and outdoor evergreen trees.

The challenges that a given community may face can be so large that they seem insurmountable, but any effort towards positive social change is better than inaction. Ideas for non-violent direct action are few and far between; satire, letter-writing, peaceful demonstration, and petitioning among them; but sometimes these exercises can feel futile and empty, and leave a person without a tangible effect of their efforts. Growing one’s own food, connecting with the earth, and sharing this food can be a worthwhile and noble thing.

buzz

Students Develop Ideas for Neglected Kensington Lots
By Jennifer Lin, Philadelphia Inquirere
Date: October 8, 2013

Voting for Lots of Power Project Begins
By Queen Muse, NBC10
Date: September 20, 2013

Clean Currents Presents Five Projects to Revitalize Vacant Lots in Kensington, Vote Now
By Alex Vuocolo, Philadelphia Generocity
Date: September 19, 2013

Project to Make Philly’s Vacant Spaces ‘Lots of Power’
By Queen Muse, NBC10
Date: September 3, 2013

Cleaning up Vacant Lots will Increase House Prices
Philadelphia Business Journal OpEd By Gary Skulnik, Clean Currents President
Date: August 9, 2013

Video: Clean Currents Kicks off “Lots of Power” Project in Philadelphia
Date: August 8, 2013

Wind Power Company Seeks Innovative Uses for Vacant Lots in Kensington
By Alex Vuocolo, Philadelphia Generocity
Date: May 28, 2013

Wanted: Ideas for turning Philly’s Vacant Lots into Power Producers
By Elizabeth Fiedler, NewsWorks – WHYY
Date: May 27, 2013

Clean Currents Kicks Off “Lots of Power” Project in Philadelphia
By Gary Skulnik, Clean Currents President
Date May 17, 2013


Media inquiry? Email Megan Barrett, mbarrett@cleancurrents.com or call 215-525-2955 x718

partners

Lots of Power would not have been possible without our partners. We are grateful to the following organizations for their ongoing generosity and commitment to making Philadelphia a better place to live and work.

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AIGA Philadelphia logo
Delaware building council
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