Landscape Literacy and Design for Ecological Democracy



Download Paths to sustainability S.M.A.R.T. (PDF)


Nature is the word Raymond Williams called “perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language” (Williams 1983, 219). It originally described a quality—the essential character of something. Nature is an abstraction, writes Williams, a set of ideas for which many cultures have no one name. The abstraction of the word itself conceals radical differences in definition from culture to culture, even among individuals within the same culture. (Spirn 1997)

For me, nature is not a place, like a park or a wilderness, and not a particular feature, like a tree or a river. For me, nature consists of the creative and life-sustaining processes that connect everything in the biological world and the physical universe, including humans. These chemical, physical, and biological processes interact with social, economic, political, and cultural processes, over time, to produce landscapes. I use the word landscape as freely as I use nature sparingly, for I hope to recover the original meanings of the word in Old English and Nordic languages: the mutual shaping of people and place (Olwig 1996; Spirn 1998). Landscape, in its original sense, is not mere scenery. It encompasses both the population of a place and its physical features: its topography, water flow, and plant life; its infrastructure of streets and sewers; its buildings and open spaces.

Individuals and societies inscribe their values, beliefs, ideas, and identity in the landscapes they create, leaving a legacy of stories told and read through a language of landscape with its own elements, pragmatics, and poetics (Spirn 1998). The language of landscape is a powerful tool. It permits people to perceive pasts they cannot otherwise experience, to anticipate the possible, to envision, choose, and shape the future landscape.

Since 1987, West Philadelphia’s Mill Creek watershed and neighborhood (among the poorest in Philadelphia) has been my laboratory to test and generate ideas about the landscape language, landscape literacy, the “three E’s” of sustainable development (environment, economics, and equity), and what Randolph Hester has called “ecological democracy,” or how to restore urban ecosystems and rebuild community in synergistic ways (Spirn 1998; Hester 2010).2 Landscape literacy enabled Mill Creek residents to read the environmental, social, economic, and political stories embedded in their local landscape and gave them a way to formulate new stories, to envision how to transform their neighborhood, to both challenge and work with public officials.


Reading the Landscape of Mill Creek

The landscape of West Philadelphia’s Mill Creek neighborhood is a catalogue of the failures of twentieth-century urban policy, planning, and design.4 The US Federal Housing Administration’s guidelines for underwriters, first spelled out in the 1930s, included the race of a neighborhood’s population and the age of its buildings; these guidelines contributed to redlining, the banking practice of refusing to grant loans for the purchase of properties on the basis of location (Hillier 2003). Urban renewal projects of the 1950s, such as the public housing towers inserted into this neighborhood of small-scale rowhouses, had devastating effects on the place they sought to improve and contributed to the racial segregation of a neighborhood where blacks and whites had lived next door to one another, in identical rowhouses, for at least a century. New parks, playgrounds, and streetscapes built in the 1960s cracked and subsided within a few decades of construction, and a public housing project built in the 1950s was demolished recently.

Mill Creek is among the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, yet it is home to many well-educated, middle-class residents, almost all African-American. Boarded-up storefronts speak of failed ventures, but other institutions, like the numerous community gardens, flourish. Blocks of vacant land and wasted structures border blocks of well-tended houses and gardens. There are patterns to how and where abandonment occurs. Such patterns reveal the nature of Mill Creek and are key to its future (Spirn, Pollio and Cameron 1991).

The single feature of the Mill Creek landscape that has had the most significant, persistent, and devastating effect is the least recognized: the buried floodplain of the former creek (from which the neighborhood takes its name) and the hydrological processes that continue to shape it.

The Mill Creek once drained about two-thirds of West Philadelphia, and its sewer still does. The creek itself once flowed above ground, the water’s erosive force in main channel and tributaries cut valleys from its tributaries in the north to its mouth at the Schuylkill River.

By the late nineteenth century, the creek was polluted by wastes from slaughterhouses, tanneries, and households. In the 1880s, it was buried in a sewer, its floodplain filled in and built upon, but it still drains the storm water and carries all the wastes from half of West Philadelphia and from suburbs upstream. Each new suburb built in the watershed poured more sewage and storm water into the sewer. The size of the pipe—about twenty feet in diameter—is now too small for the quantity of combined sewage and storm water it must convey after major rainstorms.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the ground fell in, here and there, along the line of the sewer. The creek undermined buildings and streets and slashed meandering diagonals of shifting foundations and vacant land across the urban landscape.

In 1945 Pennsylvania enacted enabling legislation for federally-funded redevelopment under the Urban Redevelopment Law. Three years later, the city designated the Mill Creek neighborhood as a redevelopment area and hired architect Louis Kahn to produce a plan. In 1950, following a sewer collapse near 47th and Fairmount Streets, Kahn was also commissioned to design the Mill Creek Housing Project on several square blocks near the cave-in. The public housing was built, as were play fields and ball courts on other blocks that had fallen in. Land directly over the sewer pipe was maintained as open lawn or parking lots, but much of the public housing was built on the buried floodplain. There have been no major cave-ins in recent years, but sinking streets, playgrounds, and parking lots and shifting building foundations continue to plague the area. Between 1950 and 1970, the overall population of the Mill Creek neighborhood declined by 27 percent. Given the outward flow of population and capital and the inward flow of sewage and groundwater, the abundance of vacant land and deteriorating or abandoned properties in Mill Creek, by the 1980s, was not surprising.


The West Philadelphia Landscape Project

For nearly thirty years I have worked in and studied Mill Creek, both the neighborhood and the larger watershed: first, from 1987 to 1991, as part of a larger landscape plan and “greening” project for West Philadelphia; then, since 1994, as the primary focus of my research. By the end of the first phase of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project in 1991, my students, colleagues, and I had made proposals for the strategic reuse of vacant urban land in the Mill Creek watershed and had designed dozens of gardens
(Spirn and Pollio 1990; Spirn, Pollio and Cameron 1991, Spirn 1991). During the first phase of the project (1987–1991), and for years following, I had hoped to convince the City Planning Commission and the Philadelphia Water Department that the buried creek was both a force to be reckoned with and a resource to be exploited, but, when the city’s Plan for West Philadelphia was published in 1994, it failed to mention the buried floodplain and the hazards it posed. That same year, the city donated a large parcel of vacant land for the construction of subsidized housing for first-time, low-income homeowners. This latter project was especially troubling, for the site was on the buried floodplain.

When the West Philadelphia Landscape Project began in 1987, I did not intend a long-term involvement. However, the City Planning Commission’s disregard for the health, safety, and welfare of Mill Creek residents reneweed my commitment. It also prompted new realizations that both sharpened and enlarged the questions my research sought to answer. Confronted with skepticism about the existence and dangers of the buried floodplain, I began to understand this resistance as a form of illiteracy—an inability on the part of public officials, developers, and even Mill Creek residents themselves to read the landscape.

There is an even greater injustice than inequitable exposure to harsh conditions: the internalization of shame for one’s neighborhood

I organized my teaching and research to explore these issues. From 1994 to 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 to 1991. Since then, it has been a showcase for ongoing work (

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 community-based, environmental education program organized around the urban watershed grew into a program on landscape literacy and community development. From 1996 to 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: reading landscape, proposing landscape change, building landscape improvements, and documenting these proposals and accomplishments. The first two parts were incorporated into university and middle-school curricula during the academic year; all four were integrated in a four-week summer program.

I was warned that Sulzberger was shunned by many teachers in the Philadelphia School District; its reputation seemed to stem from the students’ weak performance on standardized tests (among the worst of middle schools in the city) and by the fact that the neighborhood had a dangerous reputation. Like the residents of Mill Creek, all the students (and most teachers) were African American. At the start of the first year of the expanded program in fall 1996, a Sulzberger teacher told me that her students called their neighborhood “The Bottom.” So they already know it’s in a floodplain? “No, they mean it’s at the bottom.” Both meanings of the word can be read in the area around the Sulzberger Middle School: standing water after rain; slumping streets and sidewalks; vacant house lots, rubble-strewn; whole square blocks of abandoned land, men standing around street corners on a workday afternoon, jobless.

To change the teachers’ and students’ perceptions that the Mill Creek landscape was divorced from the natural world was quite a challenge. It was equally hard to persuade students that the neighborhood had ever been different or that it might be changed. When my students spoke of designs for change, the children told them all the reasons the proposals would fail. “It won’t happen.” “Someone will wreck it.” Studying the history of the neighborhood proved to be the key that unlocked the students’ imagination.


“You mean, there really was a creek!?” a thirteen-year-old exclaimed in April 1997 as she examined a photograph from 1880 showing a stream, a mill, workmen dwarfed by the huge sewer they were building, and new rowhouses in the distance. The idea was to encourage the children to form the habit of looking for significant detail, framing questions, and reasoning out possible answers. The goal was that, after reading these documents describing the history of their neighborhood, the students would transfer this process to the reading of the landscape itself.

Landscape literacy entails more than reading, it means shaping landscape also. Each student made a proposal for how the creek might be transformed from a liability into a neighborhood asset. The essays and drawings were published at the end of the school year in a booklet with one-sentence reviews by the mayor of Philadelphia and city councilmen, among others.5 At the end of April, the Sulzberger students, together with their Penn mentors, gave a public presentation on the history of Mill Creek, illustrated with slides and posters, at a symposium held at the University of Pennsylvania.

At the beginning of the semester, Sulzberger students described their neighborhood in negative terms and said they would not live in Mill Creek if they had a choice. Only one student said she planned to attend college. Two months later, all but one student said they planned to attend college. The teacher reported that his students’ performance in all subjects had improved dramatically. He attributed this to the Mill Creek Project: to the way that primary materials challenged and made history real for the children and to their growing perception of how their own lives and landscape were related to the larger city, region, and nation.

From 1998, Sulzberger Middle School and the Mill Creek Project received increasing local, national, and international recognition. The Sulzberger portion of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project website led Pennsylvania’s governor to invite students from Sulzberger to make a five-minute presentation as part of his 1998 Budget Speech to the State Legislature. Later that year, the Philadelphia School District named Sulzberger “School of the Month” and produced a television documentary on the Mill Creek Project and the school’s innovations. In 1999 Sulzberger was the subject of a report on NBC Evening News, a national television program. In 2000, President Bill Clinton visited the school.

Recognition for the Mill Creek Project and for Sulzberger teachers and students opened doors to other collaborations. In 1999, the Mill Creek Coalition, a group of neighborhood organizations, invited me to speak to their group about the creek and its impact on the community, and we embarked on a series of joint projects, including research on flooded basements and a course for residents on the history of Mill Creek’s landscape.6 From 1996 to 1999, there were over a million visits to the West Philadelphia Landscape Project website from more than ninety countries on six continents. Among those who visited were public officials. In fall 1996, staff of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s regional water division, who were increasingly concerned about combined sewer overflows in Philadelphia, invited engineers at the Philadelphia Water Department to meet with me to discuss the potential of stormwater detention to reduce this type of pollution. In 2001, the Philadelphia Water Department, Philadelphia Housing Authority, and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission submitted a proposal for $34.8 million to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Hope VI Program in order to redevelop Mill Creek Public Housing as a demonstration project that would provide an environmental study area for the school and integrate stormwater management measures to reduce combined sewer overflows. The proposal was successful, and the city cleared the site in November 2002 and broke ground in August 2003 on the project.

I was confident that things were going well for Mill Creek. Then the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took control of the Philadelphia School District and granted responsibility for the management of Sulzberger, among other schools, to Edison, Inc., a corporation headquartered in New York. In 2004, I learned that the water department’s demonstration project in Mill Creek would not be built as envisioned. New houses would be built, but the program to integrate stormwater management to improve water quality was curtailed as was the collaboration with Sulzberger. Confronting these failures, I remembered the children’s initial skepticism about prospects for change: “It won’t happen….Someone will wreck it.”

Education, poverty, crime, transportation, housing: “There’s no money in America in the twenty-first century to deal with those things,” observed Howard Neukrug, who founded the Office of Watersheds in 1999 and was appointed Philadelphia Water Commissioner in 2011. “But, there is this money that we’re spending to improve the quality of water… For whatever reason, as a nation, we’ve prioritized combined sewer overflows.”7 With the US Environmental Protection Agency threatening to levy major fines on the city for polluting water, Neukrug persuaded the Philadelphia Water Department to embark on a visionary plan for reducing combined sewer overflows using green infrastructure: Green City, Clean Waters: Combined Sewer Long Term Control Plan Update (2009). Green City, Clean Waters is now recognized as a national landmark of policy, planning, and engineering. It calls for reducing impervious surfaces in the city by 30 percent by 2020 in order to capture the first inch of rain to fall in a storm. If the plan works, it will save the city billions of dollars and has the potential to provide many other benefits, including jobs, education, and neighborhood development. But will it work (physically), and can it be done (economically, politically)?

To help test and refine Philadelphia’s plan, in 2010 and 2011, my MIT students studied the ultra-urban Mill Creek Watershed from the headwaters of Mill Creek to its mouth and found that mistakes of the past persist even as this visionary plan is put forward. Ironically, over the past decade, the City of Philadelphia built new houses on former vacant land in the Mill Creek neighborhood, including many on the buried floodplain of Mill Creek. The strong pattern of vacant land on the buried floodplain is no longer as clear as it was, and the opportunities for addressing the city’s combined sewer overflow problem there have been diminished. Furthermore, few residents of the inner-city neighborhoods along the buried creek know about Green City, Clean Waters, and they lack the former Sulzberger students’ landscape literacy. They do not read the intertwined stories their landscape tells of buried creek, undermined foundations, abandoned houses, vacant land, and community gardens. Without grasping those stories, it is difficult to envision how new landscapes might rebuild the neighborhood while purifying the city’s water.

My students and I continue to investigate how Green City Clean Waters can promote the three E’s of sustainable development. In fall 2015 and 2016, we worked on “From Green Schools to Neighborhood Transformation,” a model program that integrates stormwater management and environmental restoration with neighborhood transformation and with education and empowerment of youth (


Landscape Literacy, Environmental Justice, and City Planning and Design

Mill Creek is shaped by all the processes at work in inner-city America. The correlation of a buried creek with deteriorated buildings and vacant lands in inner-city neighborhoods is not unique to Philadelphia: similar situations are found in Boston, New York, St. Louis, and many other American cities (Spirn 1986 and 2000). Twenty years ago, I thought that the worst effect of landscape illiteracy was to produce environmental injustice in the form of physical hazards to health and safety. The Sulzberger students showed me that there is an even greater injustice than inequitable exposure to harsh conditions: the internalization of shame for one’s neighborhood. Before the students at Sulzberger Middle School learned to read their landscape more fully, they read it partially. Without an understanding of how the neighborhood came to be, many believed that the poor conditions were the fault of those who lived there, a product of either incompetence or lack of care. Learning that there were other reasons sparked a sense of relief. Once they had the knowledge and skill to read the landscape’s history, they began to see their home in a more positive light. They came to consider the possibility of alternative futures and brimmed with ideas. Secure in their knowledge and their ability to reason, they challenged public officials with confidence and impressed them with articulate proposals. To read and shape landscape is to learn and teach: to know the world, to express ideas and to influence others.

Verbal literacy—the ability to read and write—is commonly acknowledged as an essential skill for the citizen to participate fully and effectively in a democratic society. Teaching literacy became a cornerstone of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The “Citizenship School,” which began as a means to increase voter registration through the promotion of literacy, evolved into a forum for discussion and catalyst for political action (Horton and Freire 1990). When, in 1999, I first read about Myles Horton’s work with civil rights activists and Paolo Freire’s with adult literacy programs in Brazil, I was struck by the many parallels to my experience with landscape literacy in Mill Creek.

Like verbal literacy, landscape literacy is a cultural practice that entails both understanding the world and transforming it. One difference between verbal literacy and landscape literacy, however, is that many professionals responsible for planning, designing, building the city are not landscape literate. After six weeks’ investigation into the history of their neighborhood, the children were more literate than many professionals, and some of their proposals for the neighborhood were more astute. To be literate is to recognize both the problems in a place and its resources, to understand how they came about, by what means they are sustained, and how they are related.

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. To design wisely is to read ongoing dialogues in a place, to distinguish enduring stories from ephemeral ones, and to imagine how to join the conversation. The stakes are high for those who must live in the places professionals help create. Like literacy, urban planning and design are cultural practices that can either serve to perpetuate the inequities of existing social structures or to enable and promote democratic change.



1. For nearly thirty years, I have asked my students (the majority are North American, with many others from South America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East) for their personal definition of nature. Their responses have included the following. Nature was given as a trust to humans by God. Nature is trees and rocks, everything except humans and the things humans make. Nature is a place where one cannot see the hand of humans, a place to be alone. Nature consists of creative and life-sustaining processes which connect everything in the physical and biological worlds, including humans. Nature is a cultural construct with no meaning or existence outside human society. Nature is something that cannot be known. Nature is sacred. Nature is God.

2. Ecological democracy, as defined by Hester, combines participatory and ecological approaches to design with the goal of creating places that are memorable, healthy, equitable, and well adapted to their natural environment (Hester 2010).

3. The idea of landscape literacy builds upon, but is distinctly different from the idea of environmental legibility as developed by Kevin Lynch (1964 and 1981) and others. It also differs from ideas of environmental or ecological literacy (Orr 1992), primarily in its emphasis on human as well as natural history, on landscape language as a medium of action and expression, and its relevance to other issues beyond sustainability.

4. This chapter draws from twenty-seven years of fieldwork and of scholarly and participatory action research associated with the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, which I have directed since 1987. Sources include: historical documents such as census records, maps, plans, photographs, and newspaper articles; GIS maps, including the overlay of diverse data, such as topography, income, and vacant land; photographic documentation; interviews; direct observation. Given the scope of the project and the limited length of this essay, it is impossible to cite the diverse evidence and many sources for the arguments made here. More detailed citations will be documented in my book-in-progress, with the working title, Top-Down/Bottom-Up: Restoring Nature, Rebuilding Community, Empowering Youth.

5. Power of Place: Essays about Our Mill Creek Neighborhood. The texts and drawings of this report are on the WPLP website, as are the reflections of Sulzberger teacher Glen Campbell: /wplp/sms/pub.htm. The name of the course was inspired by Dolores Hayden’s book Power of Place (1995), which was required reading for the course. A description of these activities is of the WPLP website at and5. Power of Place: Essays about Our Mill Creek Neighborhood. The texts and drawings of this report are on the WPLP website, as are the reflections of Sulzberger teacher Glen Campbell: /wplp/sms/pub.htm. The name of the course was inspired by Dolores Hayden’s book Power of Place (1995), which was required reading for the course. A description of these activities is of the WPLP website at and

6. Howard Neukrug, personal communication, August 8, 2012. See Green City, Clean Waters at The Clean Water Act of 1972 (amended in 1977 and 1987) gave the US Environmental Protection Agency the power to enforce water quality standard





Landscape architect, photographer and academic, as well as the award-winning author of books on landscaping, her work is devoted primarily to the promotion of communities of sustainable life. She studied history of art at Harvard University, where she graduated
with honors in 1969. In 1974 she took the master’s degree in landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, and since 1987 she has directed the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, devoted to the integration of landscaping, community development
and urban rainwater management. Throughout her long career, Spirn has received numerous scholarships and prestigious awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship and the President’s Award of Excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects. She was a finalist in the 2002 National Design Award, and won the Japan’s International Cosmos Prize in 2001 for her “contributions to the harmonious coexistence of nature and mankind.” Since 2000 she has taught landscape architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Download Paths to sustainability S.M.A.R.T. (PDF)


Hester, Randolph. 2010. Design for Ecological Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hillier, A. E. 2003. “Spatial Analysis of the Historical Redlining: A Methodological Approach.” Journal of Housing Research 14, no. 1: 137–167.

Horton, Myles and Paulo Freire. 1990. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Lynch, Kevin. 1964. Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

———. 1981. A Theory of Good City Form. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Olwig, Kenneth. 1996. “Recovering the Substantive Nature of Landscape.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86, no. 4: 630–53.

Orr, David W. 1992. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Spirn, Anne Whiston. 1986. “Landscape Planning and the City.” Landscape and Urban Planning 13: 433–41.

———. 1991. The West Philadelphia Landscape Plan: A Framework for Action. Philadelphia: Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Pennsylvania. -plan.pdf.

———. 1997. “The Authority of Nature.” In Nature and Ideology, edited by Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks.

———. 1998. The Language of Landscape. New Haven, CT: Yale Univer-sity Press.

———. 2000. “Reclaiming Common Ground: Water, Neighborhoods, and Public Spaces.” In The American Planning Tradition, edited by Robert Fishman. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Spirn, Anne Whiston and Michelle Pollio. 1990. “This Garden Is a Town.” Philadelphia: Department of Landscape Architecture, Univer-sity of Pennsylvania. -wplp-garden_town.

Spirn, Anne Whiston, Michelle Pollio and Mark Cameron. 1991. Vacant Land: A Resource for Reshaping Urban Neighborhoods. Philadelphia: Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Pennsylvania.

Williams, Raymond. 1983. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s