Posted June 15, 2020
  • PennPraxis Design Fellows work with community leaders to develop an engagement strategy for The Park at Penn’s Landing.

  • Matt Miller, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of City and Regional Planning, reports on the group's discussion. To his right are PennPraxis Executive Director Ellen Neises and Design Fellow John Michael LaSalle and to his left is Design Fellow Brett Harris.

More Than 80 Students Strong, Design Fellows Program Offers Growth for Students and Clients

“It was a chance to apply what we had been dreaming and learning about to real-world settings, and that was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” says Joshua Ketchum (MArch’19, MLA’19). 

Ketchum is reflecting on his decision, back in 2018, to become a Design Fellow at PennPraxis, the non-profit design practice and community engagement arm of the Weitzman School. He was working on a dual degree in architecture and landscape architecture when he was approached by Ellen Neises (MLA’02), an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture who, in 2017, was appointed executive director of PennPraxis.

Ketchum was one of seven students then employed by PennPraxis as paid interns to bring their skills to bear on projects for communities in Philadelphia and far beyond. Their clients ranged from Pennovation Works, the former Dupont site in Philadelphia’s Gray’s Ferry neighborhood that Penn transformed into a business incubator and lab space in 2016, to a coalition of municipalities, nonprofits, and regional planning organizations in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.

PennPraxis has been known as the School’s hub for students to gain hands-on experience and community connections since its founding in 2001. However, opportunities were limited in number and kind. When Neises came to lead PennPraxis, she saw an opportunity for students to take on more ambitious projects, and to build new practice areas that would demonstrate the School’s capacity for interdisciplinary design. In 2014, she had engaged students in designing a comprehensive, community-based resiliency design for a working waterfront community in the South Bronx; the project was awarded $45 million by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the City of New York, and received national media attention.

The quality of the Design Fellows’ work in projects like the South Bronx waterfront helped propel the rapid growth of the program over the last two years. This summer, over 80 students (many of them in the Class of 2020) and 30 faculty members representing almost every Weitzman program—including architecture, environmental building design, landscape architecture, city planning, urban spatial analytics, fine arts, preservation, and Integrated Product Design—and several labs are working on projects that are led by PennPraxis or led by faculty and supported by PennPraxis.

From Pennsylvania’s Slate Belt to the Galápagos Islands

As a result of its growth, the Design Fellows program is engaging students in an increasingly diverse portfolio of interdisciplinary projects for a growing list of clients. Frank Matero, professor and chair of the graduate program in historic preservation and director of the Center for Architectural Conservation, led an effort to document the rich history of Pennsylvania’s Slate Belt, an area 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia whose quarries produced half the slate in the United States. Now, Design Fellows from the architecture and landscape architecture departments are building on that work in a dramatic redesign of a slate quarry. Design Fellows working with PennPraxis Managing Director Julie Donofrio (MCP’07, MSHP’07) and Matt Miller, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of City and Regional Planning, are involved in the citywide community engagement effort for the new Park at Penn’s Landing in Center City Philadelphia. Professor of Fine Arts Joshua Mosley is working with an architecture student on strategies for using animation to model and communicate complex data, Assistant Professor of Architecture Masoud Akbarzedeh’s Fellows are working on parametric models, and Assistant Professor of Architecture Dorit Aviv is working with two Design Fellows on simulations for cooling and net-zero design. Two MFA students, Emilio Martinez and Emmanuela Ruiz are leading their own interdisciplinary team of five in a project that explores the roles of performance in activism and education called Stages of Learning.

The geographic reach of the Design Fellows’ work has also grown. Vincent Reina, an assistant professor of city and regional planning who is faculty director for the Housing Initiative at Penn, also based at PennPraxis, is leading a multi-city housing planning project for Atlanta, Baltimore, Oakland, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Philadelphia—six cities whose affordable and workforce housing was significantly affected by COVID-19. Planning PhD student Boqian Xu (MLA’16) is leading a team working on a campus design in Zhengzhou, China. A Design Fellow is working with Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture Karen M’Closkey to develop strategies for communities in the Galápagos Islands to adapt to sea level rise and protect biodiversity.

PennPraxis has a long tradition of bridging the twelve schools at Penn, and the growth in the Design Fellows program has also contributed to that effort. Neises is leading a team working with the School of Veterinary Medicine on a study of sustainable agriculture through an initiative called Farm of the Future. Sarah Rottenberg, an adjunct assistant professor at Weitzman and the executive director of the Integrated Product Design program, which is a joint venture with Wharton and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and her Design Fellows are collaborating with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Powerful Lessons Outside the Studio

When PennPraxis introduced the Design Fellows program in 2018, Neises says, “We were thinking about how we could create powerful experiences for students that change their careers.”

Among Joshua Ketchum’s collaborators on the Lehigh Valley project that year was Margarida Mota (MArch’19, MLA’19), a dual-degree student in architecture and landscape architecture. As the project advanced, Neises asked Mota to lead a public presentation of her team‘s design proposals to South Whitehall residents at an outdoor film screening held at a park. 

“I was at a presentation the other day telling a colleague how I still get nervous every time I give a presentation,” says Mota, who went to work for James Corner Field Operations this past February. “But, being able to present our work at all those community meetings not only made me feel more comfortable, it actually made me realize how much I like to.”

John Michael LaSalle (MCP’20), a city and regional planning student who had run an electronic music blog before coming to Penn, went to work for faculty member Michael Fichman—a former DJ, music producer, label owner and event promoter who leads the civic engagement project 24HRPHL—to design a guide to opening a nightlife venue in Philadelphia. Then, for a series of white papers and Op-Eds about the benefits to local governments of partnering with businesses and cultural organizations to actively support nightlife in their cities, Lasalle interviewed nightlife leaders in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, London, and Amsterdam.

“Suddenly, I thought about nightlife in relation to planning, which I hadn’t before,” says LaSalle, “[but] it’s not something that people within the profession look at very often.”

Building on a Groundswell of Support

As of April of this year, the Design Fellows program was on track to employ 44 students. Then, in early May, Neises gave a presentation to the Weitzman Board of Overseers in which she described the challenges facing students for the summer: as the pandemic went on, many firms had suspended their internship programs and stopped hiring. She suggested that, with additional funding, PennPraxis could bring on more Design Fellows. Board Chair Kevin Penn (W’83) made an appeal to his fellow board members at the meeting—“In a crisis, speed matters,” he mentioned—and within days of the board meeting, many joined him, along with Weitzman Dean Fritz Steiner (MRP’77, MA’86, PhD’86), in pledging their support, enabling PennPraxis to engage an additional 24 students.

The growth in the program hasn’t slowed, and earlier this month, thanks to additional support from Weitzman Overseer Lori Kanter Tritsch (MArch’85) and Penn Trustee William P. Lauder (W’83), PennPraxis entered into a partnership with the Fresh Air Fund to offer a virtual design workshop in July and August for 150 New York City teens—an initiative that will employ 11 Weitzman students and recent alums as Design Fellows. The total number of students employed by Penn Praxis is now over 80, with prospects for additional projects on the horizon.

As for Joshua Ketchum, he found his experience as a Design Fellow back in 2018 so rewarding that he took a position at PennPraxis this year to manage the slate quarry redesign project.

“The expectations at PennPraxis are very high, and it’s something that you’re deeply invested in,” he says, adding, “You want to be proud of the work, and you are.”