Weitzman News

Posted June 14, 2017
  • Concept image for a combination of urban and rural farm designed by PennDesign student Yuzhou Shao in the Slate Lands studio, Fall 2015.

A Blank Slate?

In the early twentieth century, Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley experienced an economic boom as it capitalized on large deposits of high-quality slate buried within the Blue Mountains. Many of the Valley’s towns were founded in those years, and it became the world’s leader in slate production, earning the nickname “Slate Belt.”
Today, several quarries and other natural landmarks remain as evidence of the productive times. They were the inspiration for two studio projects led by Ellen Neises, landscape architect and adjunct associate professor in PennDesign’s Department of Landscape Architecture, in collaboration with the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission (LVPC). On May 12, students, faculty, LVPC staff and community members gathered at Tolino Vineyards and Winery in Bangor for a public unveiling of the studio work.
“The ideas presented here are not a set of coordinated recommendations,” writes Neises in the report from the latest studio. “They represent different takes on the best opportunities for design, and visualize a variety of alternative futures to stimulate discussion in the early stages of a long-term comprehensive planning process.”
Sitting just south of the Poconos, the 10 of the municipalities that comprise the Slate Belt (Bangor, East Bangor, Pen Argyl, Portland, Roseto, Wind Gap, Lower Mt. Bethel Township, Upper Mt. Bethel Township, Plainfield Township and Washington Township) are developing a regional plan to highlight common goals and implementation priorities. Each student’s project falls under one of four categories that could tie into the larger plan: Agriculture; Growth Frameworks; Resource Management; and Natural and Heritage Tourism.

“The students see our potential . . . and that’s what we need to get our community energized.”

For Arianna Armelli, a student from New York, focusing on the last category in relation to Portland was important because she believes in the value of creating functional solutions that also preserve historical contexts.

“Portland is a gateway town to the rest of the Slate Belt,” says Armelli. “So I wanted to see how we could restructure it to act as an invitation to visitors unfamiliar with the history of the area while also addressing key ecological issues, like flooding.”

Portland’s business district sits at a low point along the Delaware River. When it rains, the river often swells and floodwater pours directly into the area. After touring the town, meeting with community members and learning about Portland’s unique needs, Armelli proposed the creation of seven piers along the waterfront. Each pier would reflect a key natural resource from the area’s industrial history—slate, coal, steel, textiles, concrete and logging; residents and tourists could walk along them to learn more while enjoying their time outdoors. Simultaneously, the jetty-like structures would be designed to help mitigate the effects of flooding during heavy storms.

According to Becky Bradley (MCP’03), executive director of LVPC and a PennDesign alumna, projects like Armelli’s are critical to reinvigorating the Slate Belt. “[The projects] provide a vision to the people who live here,” she says. “They not only show the community the value of our location, but also how we can add value.”
 “I remember when the students first came up to visit,” said long-time area resident Robin Zmoda. “It was neat to hear their questions then and now see their visions appearing here tonight. The students see our potential . . . and that’s what we need to get our community energized.”
Many of the students from Neises’s studios also helped design and build the exhibition: Arianna Armelli, Doug Breuer, Kat Engelman, Han Fu, Clay Gruber, Jieru He, Jingyi Hu, Josh Ketchum, Anni Lei, Zhexuan Liao, Ethan Wu, Hanting Xie, and Yang Zhao. PennDesign Fabrication Lab Manager Dennis Pieratini and Professor of Landscape Architecture Anu Mathur assisted on the design.
The exhibit will be on display at the Slate Belt Heritage Center, 30 North First Street, Bangor, through June.