The Kensington Avenue commercial corridor in North Philadelphia is a knotty urban landscape, connected to the rest of the city by the Market-Frankford elevated train, but darkened and constrained by the heavy tracks that run above the street. What most people tend to know about the area is that it’s a hotspot in the nationwide opioid epidemic. But lots of people live and work there—“all kinds of people,” says Lisa Servon, Kevin and Erica Penn Presidential Professor and chair of city and regional planning at the Weitzman School. “And they deserve a safe and inviting public space.”
This spring, students in a housing, community and economic development (HCED) practicum led by Servon worked with the Kensington Corridor Trust (KCT), a local nonprofit, to develop strategies for making the corridor better for everyone. With a staff of just three people, Kensington Corridor Trust focuses on building long-term community wealth in Kensington, acquiring commercial properties on the avenue and holding them in a perpetual purpose trust. The group’s vision is to build “a safe, healthy, and socioeconomically diverse commercial corridor with accessible opportunities for the existing and future residents of Kensington.” With few resources and a complicated mix of conditions, jurisdictions, and property ownership on the corridor, the work is gradual by definition.
“The work is plenty and the hands are limited,” says Adriana Abizadeh, executive director of the trust.
Abizadeh was connected with Servon by a former Penn student a few years ago, and last year partnered with another group of students in the same course; they performed data analysis about property ownership, vacancy, business types and physical conditions on the corridor. That work created a baseline for the practicum this spring. Five Master of City Planning students—all members of the Class of 2023—worked with KCT to visualize a range of interventions on the Kensington Avenue streetscape, including lighting, plantings, and public seating. The Trust was explicit about it what it wanted: Not a whitepaper with recommendations and code citations, but a slide deck with images depicting the interventions they’re hoping to see. That’s a better fundraising tool than any report, Abizadeh says.
“Visuals are very appealing,” she says. “When you can show someone the vision you have, your vision becomes the selling point.”
The students—Amanda Cecilia Peña, Kelly Cary, Jackson Plumlee, Emily Goldstein, and Charlie Townsley—showed their work at a presentation in April. The El is an asset to the corridor, they said, but one that creates a lot of spatial constraints. Jurisdictions overlap underneath the El, with SEPTA and a range of city agencies controlling various aspects of the streetscape. Street trees are tough to place and maintain. Stormwater gathers in odd places. The street is dark and loud. But opportunities abound to make simple, meaningful improvements: Mobile furniture, cooling stations, trashcans, lighting under the El, cohesive signage, hanging plantings.
“We really let them lead in terms of what they wanted from us,” says Charlie Townsley (MCP’23).
Townsley says he’d been drawn to the Trust through an interest in the intersection of urban planning and harm reduction: how the built environment responds to and influences the opioid crisis, and how it can be improved to help people with drug addictions. The Trust takes a broader view of Kensington, though, approaching users with “so much humanity and care,” he says, but working to set the whole neighborhood on a generational path to health and vitality. There were intense discussions among the students and with the Trust about how to address the opioid crisis in their planning work. Ultimately, the students acknowledged that it was performing a real service for a real client, and that its job was to deliver material that could help the Trust implement its vision.
“It forced me to reexamine some of my assumptions,” Townsley says.
Even though Kensington Corridor Trust is a small organization, it’s sophisticated, says Amanda Peña (MCP’23, MSW’23), who’s completing a dual master’s degree in city planning and social work. Peña says she was “blown away at how innovative and creative” the organization is in its approach to planning and design. Many of the early strategies the students suggested, the Trust had already thought through. That raised the bar for the students’ work and sharpened their focus. The group created a diagram of the streetscape showing different jurisdictional controls, so if the Trust wanted to plant a street tree in a certain corner, it would know whose permission it needed. It also identified other parts of the city that have amenities Kensington lacks, like lighting under the El, which highlighted how the neighborhood has been affected by disinvestment and pointed a way toward improvements.
“Getting in the weeds of this project really showed me how difficult it is to find what you need to get stuff done in Philly. It’s not like you can just go and talk to one person and now you know what you need to do,” Peña says.
The work continues. Two students from the practicum, Townsley and Plumlee (MPC'23), will keep working with Kensington Corridor Trust over the summer, making improvements on the garden asl well as creating models and drawings to supporting fundraising efforts. Abizadeh and Servon say the partnership has been mutually beneficial for Weitzman students and the Trust, and there are likely to be more Kensington-focused practicums in the future.
“It’s a really great bridge for students from what we think of as a traditional classroom into the kind of work they’re going to do as professionals,” Servon says. “It exposes them to real problems and the people who will use the work they’ve done. And it also helps them figure out the work they want to do next.”