Penn Collaborates on Program to Offer Public Tours of Lower Schuylkill River

Inspired by urban river projects that have revitalized the cities of Los Angeles and New York, the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) is collaborating on a project with Bartram’s Garden and River Corps to increase access to the Lower Schuylkill River, helping more people connect to the storied waterway.

The PPEH is exploring the development of “multi-modal public river-based tours” of Southwest Philadelphia, with Bartram’s Garden serving as the central hub of activities.

A series of planning meetings at Bartram’s Garden are being held with discussions centering on existing local organizations, programs and events that intersect with the river guides project, examples of successful urban waterway tours and content for Lower Schuylkill River Guide tours.

“We’ve been working and collaborating on the river all year long,” says Bethany Wiggin, an associate professor of German in the School of Arts & Sciences and founding director of the PPEH. “The experience of getting on the water—whether in Bartram’s public kayaks or in our public Lab at WetLand—has been absolutely central.”

The project seeks to supplement a number of ongoing riverfront programs and projects underway at Bartram’s Garden. They include the PPEH Lab at Wetland, a public art project for “experiments in sustainability” based in a houseboat on the river.

As envisioned, the first phase of the project will culminate in river and watershed tours led by the corps of certified river guides in kayaks, bicycles, and/or on foot. A one-day certification session for river guides during the week of Aug. 22. In phase two, a website will be created with information about the Schuylkill River, its past, and future. The third phase will involve development of a mobile app to enable visitors to explore the river on their own through self-guided tours.                                                            

Public access to the riverbanks has risen dramatically in recent years as efforts by the Schuylkill River Trail Council to connect the trail’s sections have flourished. Wiggin envisions the new tours evolving to build audiences that will grow over time, as well.

The environmental humanities scholar is among the first recipients of a Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship from the Whiting Foundation. As a 2016-2017 Public Engagement Fellow, she will work on the project, “Making a River's Past, Present, and Future Visible from America's Oldest Botanical Garden,” looking at people’s interaction with their environment in the context of global warming and rising river water in Philadelphia. Working with historians, scientists and visual artists, Wiggin will create programming at sites such as Bartram’s Garden, including programs for middle-school and high-school students.

A series of events, called Floating on Warmer Waters, will explore ecologically friendly living in the historical perspective of Philadelphia’s Quaker past, as well as the role of utopian ideologies in shaping development and conservation. Wiggin says that floating on the river that provides Philadelphia’s single largest source of drinking water, between the nation’s oldest botanic garden on the west bank and one of its oldest refineries on the east, is amazing.

“It’s quite a contrast,” she says, “and an important vantage point to facilitate dialogue about our community’s experiences of environmental degradation and, vitally, of resilience.”

Read more about her Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship here.

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