PennDesign community helps restore North Philly playground

On May 18, Mayor Jim Kenney inaugurated a North Philadelphia playground that only months earlier had been a crumbling parking lot rife with weeds and litter. Through efforts spearheaded by several members of the Penn art and design community, the lot was transformed into a lush, colorful schoolyard.

The William Cramp Elementary School project is part of the Trust for Public Land’s (TPL) citywide Parks for People—Philadelphia program, which is playing a significant role in the Greening of Philadelphia Public Schools Initiative. Cramp is one of more than 20 underfunded public schools in the city that these municipal and nonprofit partners have earmarked for “greening,” and the fourth that has been completed.

The first step Danielle Denk, program manager of Parks for People—Philadelphia and a PennDesign alumna, took was to ask the Cramp students what they wanted in their new schoolyard. The second was to teach them how to integrate their wishes—a garden, trees, playground equipment, musical instruments, and more—into a sustainable, attractive community space through a 14-week design curriculum that included field trips to innovative city parks.

“The Penn experience definitely set me on my professional path of serving through design,” says Denk. “During my time at PennDesign and particularly working under Anne Spirn, one of my professors there, I was really exposed to the public process with regard to design, engagement, and community input.”

TPL’s corollary Lots to Learn Program brought local company Interpret Green into the project to create educational installations. Interpret Green’s additions included birdfeeders, birdhouses, and other wildlife habitats, replete with webcams so the children can observe and document the birds up close.

Birds are something Deirdre Murphy, a lecturer in PennDesign’s Department of Fine Arts, knows well. When she was brought in to incorporate an art component in the schoolyard, she brought with her a plethora of research on migratory flight paths, undertaken for her most recent series of paintings, “Winds of Change.”

After learning that the migration route of the oriole comes to Philadelphia by way of Puerto Rico—where most families in the neighborhood moved from themselves—Murphy chose to represent this particular bird in her part of the project. With the help of the Fabrication Lab’s Daniel Powell, she made 50 plexiglass orioles to flock through the chain link fence surrounding the school, and then, with help from PennDesign alumna Gabrielle Patterson and undergraduate Riley Nelson, she painted a brightly colored design on the blacktop representing the orioles’ migratory flight path.

“I wanted the kids to be able to talk about their families’ immigration stories,” Murphy says, “to be able to say with pride, ‘This is the path that my parents and my grandparents took, and this is where we are now.’”

The community will be invited to participate in related projects such as photographic or oral histories, to pick up where Murphy’s painted path leaves off. 

Cramp Playground Parks for People