In fall 1996, my students at the University of Pennsylvania and I embarked on an adventure with teachers and students at the Sulzberger Middle School in West Philadelphia. Our goal was to explore how a new curriculum organized around “The Urban Watershed” could combine learning, community development, and water resource management.


The whole neighborhood was the classroom with the school at the center. At the heart of the story was Mill Creek, a stream that once flowed across the field where the school playground is now, and still does flow, buried in a sewer that runs right past the school.

Together, Penn and Sulzberger students learned to read the neighborhood’s landscape, to trace its past, understand its present, and envision its future. The tools they used were their own eyes and imagination, the place itself, and primary documents – old maps, photographs, tax records, census tables, stream-railroad timetables, city plans – windows into otherwise hidden dimensions. Students described their discoveries and ideas through discussion, writing and drawings, in posters, newsletters, booklets, and Web sites.

“This project has been a labor of love,” wrote eighth-grade teacher Glenn Campbell in 1997. “We began in September 1996, not unlike the world's great explorers – unsure of what lay ahead, but ready to meet any challenges which awaited us....Together, we developed a curriculum for the millennium, drawing on the rich geography and diverse demographic past of West Philadelphia's Mill Creek community....This dynamic study of Mill Creek was the catalyst which caused learning for my students to become ‘real.’”

The collaboration with Sulzberger Middle School was part of the West Philadelphia Landscape project (WPLP), an action-research program integrating research, teaching, and community service since 1987. Among the products of the WPLP are a digital database with maps of the neighborhood’s demographics and physical features, proposals for the strategic reuse of vacant urban land, and the design and construction of dozens of community gardens, including improvements to Aspen Farms Community Garden, a block away from Sulzberger.

In 1996, Mill Creek was one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, with whole square blocks of vacant land and derelict buildings, but also home to many middle-class residents, with blocks of well-tended houses and gardens. The Mill Creek sewer, which carries the wastes and rainwater from half of West Philadelphia, had undermined sidewalks and building foundations. The sewer was a regional problem too, for it released combined sewage into the Schuylkill River after heavy rainstorms. These local and regional hazards were among the challenges students studied and to which they proposed solutions.

The Mill Creek Project and the students’ accomplishments inspired recognition, first local and state-wide, then national, culminating with President Bill Clinton’s visit to Sulzberger in 2000. As teacher Glenn Campbell put it in a 1998 Op-Ed on “Learning gets real with Service”: “Our Mill Creek Project has become a national model for the benefits of reality-based learning. Governor Ridge and the state General Assembly honored our students with a standing ovation during the governor's 1998 budget address as Sulzberger students dazzled the Assembly with their computer and World Wide Web programming expertise.”

The Mill Creek Project survived my move to from Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania to Cambridge, Massachusetts and MIT, but was brought to a rude halt in 2002, when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over the School District of Philadelphia and assigned the management of Sulzberger Middle School to Edison Inc., a for-profit corporation based in New York.

The story of the Mill Creek Project and of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project as a whole, is the subject of the book I am currently writing. See AUTHOR > Work-in-Progress.

Read an overview of The Mill Creek Project

Read an essay reflecting on The Mill Creek Project

See a video on The Mill Creek Project (coming soon)

See the October 2, 1999 NBC Evening News program on The Mill Creek Project

Visit the West Philadelphia Project Web site (coming soon)

1995. Starting Small

The collaboration with Sulzberger Middle School grew out of my frustration when the City’s Plan for West Philadelphia of 1994 failed to acknowledge the Mill Creek sewer as posing a continuing hazard to the community. Later that year, I was further outraged when new houses for first-time homeowners were built on the buried floodplain of Mill Creek. My dilemma was how to convey to Mill Creek residents information about hazards in their neighborhood without further harming the community with adverse publicity. To reach the adults, I decided to work with a neighborhood public school.

In spring 1995, Hayward Ford (president of Aspen Farms Community Garden, a block from the school) and I met with Daisy Century, a science teacher at Sulzberger Middle School, and we agreed to develop science projects together, starting with an entry to the National Engineers Week Future City Competition and with a garden for students at Aspen Farms.


1996. Launching an Experiment

West Philadelphia Landscape Project research assistants helped teachers at Sulzberger Middle School with several small projects: a vegetable garden at Aspen Farms Community Garden and a workshop on the Mill Creek watershed. By August, teachers were ready to sign on for the year-long experiment that developed into the Mill Creek Project.

In fall 1996, twenty-four graduate students in my Transforming the Urban Landscape class met with four classes at Sulzberger (130 students). There were workshops on the urban watershed of Mill Creek and on environmental design. The middle-school students made drawings and even wrote and performed a rap song: Mill Creek Rap

See VISIT A CLASS for a description of Transforming the Urban Landscape Studio – 1996


1997 - 1999. “A Curriculum for the Millennium”

In winter 1997, students in my seminar on “The Power of Place” researched local history, collected primary documents, and designed and taught a series of workshops on local history and community development to an eighth-grade class at Sulzberger Middle School. The Penn students produced a series of reports on local history, which teacher Glenn Campbell used in the classroom between our weekly visits. At the end of the academic year, research assistants for the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, together with four teachers and Hayward Ford of Aspen Farms, ran a month-long summer program on Mill Creek history, the urban watershed, and gardening for sixth- to eighth-graders. The successes of this initial year propelled the continuing collaboration, involving my two courses, one each semester, and a summer program based at Aspen Farms and Sulzberger.

One thing led to another. Together, teachers, Martin Know (WPLP research assistant), and I wrote a grant proposal to the US Environmental Protection Agency to fund an expansion of our work. It was not funded, but teachers adapted parts of the unsuccessful proposal and applied for and obtained other grants. The curriculum we developed together had diverse components, but the common thread was to use the students’ own neighborhood as a site of learning, discovery, and action:

Local History. Learning how their neighborhood had evolved (from forest to farms and mills to factories and city) transformed the way children perceived their community. Understanding local history and how the neighborhood had changed in the past unlocked the children’s imagination and enabled them to envision how it might change in the future. Using copies of primary documents (maps, prints, drawings photographs, newspaper articles, and planning reports), university students helped eighth graders construct a local history.

Environmental Science. Learning about the environmental history of their neighborhood and discovering how natural processes were continuing to shape the local landscape helped make science “real” for the students. Workshops led by university students included a series on trees for sixth graders and on the urban watershed for eighth graders. Aspen Farms was an outdoor classroom for the study of plant growth and reproduction.

Math. Statistical data and a business plan for a proposed project provided a way to apply and extend math skills. Using census statistics from the mid nineteenth century to the present, eighth graders analyzed how the population of their neighborhood had changed over time in terms of race, ethnicity, age, and income. Developing a management plan, financial plan, and marketing plan for a proposed Mill Creek Mini-Golf, eighth graders plotted projected income and expenditures on a spreadsheet.

Environmental Design and Community Development. Children used their understanding of local history and demographics and of the urban watershed to generate ideas for how to improve the neighborhood. University students led workshops on environmental design with a different project each year: a water park and outdoor classroom to reduce flooding and improve water quality; a miniature golf course where every “hole” illustrated an event or landmark in local history; monuments and memorials to celebrate local history.

Service Learning. The Sulzberger principal and teachers, noting the impact of academically-based community service on my university students, introduced a service learning program to the middle school where each class was responsible for identifying and carrying out a service learning project.

Computer program. From the first summer program in 1997, where students learned Web authoring, the computer program grew to be an essential part of the curriculum. A computer lab was established and an after-school program launched. Sulzberger students used their Web authoring skills to design and write their own Web site, “SMS News.”

Public Presentation. Public speaking and presentation were embedded in the curriculum: from “reporting out” to the whole class at the end of each weekly workshop to producing drawings and essays for a published report and for a Web site, to presenting their work at conferences, in science fairs and competitions, and on national television (NBC News). In 1997 a team of Sulzberger students presented their design for a future city and won the first prize for Best Design in the Philadelphia region in the National Engineers Week Future City Competition (they were the only group of African-American students to enter the competition). In 1998, two students described the Mill Creek Project and their accomplishments to the entire Pennsylvania Legislature as part of the governor’s annual Budget Speech.

See, Sulzberger Middle School students present their work to the Pennsylvania General Assembly as part of Governor Thomas Ridge's Budget Speech, February 3, 1998

Read the Power of Place: Visions for Our Mill Creek Neighborhood

Read about the design and business plan for Mill Creek Mini-Golf

Visit the SMS News Web site

See VISIT A CLASS for my courses that were part of The Mill Creek Project from 1996-1999: “Transforming the Urban Landscape” (1996-1998); “The Power of Place” (1997-2001); “Media Technology and City Design and Development” (2002).


2000-2001. Transition

My move from the University of Pennsylvania to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in summer 2000 prompted changes to the Mill Creek Project and to the West Philadelphia Landscape Project. While various individuals and organizations stepped up to adopt parts of the WPLP mission, the plan was for me, with my MIT students, to continue the work with Sulzberger Middle School.

The Philadelphia Water Department took the leadership on a project for the Mill Creek Watershed. The agency organized a watershed summer program with Sulzberger teachers in 2001, where Sulzberger students helped design and build a demonstration project on a vacant lot across the street from the school.

But working with middle-school students from MIT and Boston via email and the Web proved to be more difficult than anticipated. MIT students visited Sulzberger in spring 2001 and tried to maintain contact with the middle-schoolers via email to no avail. How to accomplish this was a formidable challenge.

See VISIT A CLASS for my courses that were part of The Mill Creek Project from 2000-2001: “The Power of Place” (University of Pennsylvania) and “Media Technology, Youth, and City Design and Development.”

2002. A New Venture Jettisoned

In spring 2002, MIT students in my workshop on Media Technology and City Design and Development took up the challenge of how to better utilize the Web to enhance communication and transform city design and community development in inner-city neighborhoods. They visited Philadelphia and met with students in Sulzberger’s after-school computer program, and they redesigned the West Philadelphia Landscape Project Web site in ways that they thought would be more inviting to Mill Creek residents.

Meanwhile, Donald Armstead, head of Sulzberger Middle School’s computer program, came to MIT to discuss our continuing collaboration. We decided to launch a new effort with digital storytelling as the medium, where Sulzberger students would tell stories about the neighborhood and their visions for its future and would post the stories on the Web. MIT students would lead a series of intensive workshops for the Sulzberger students and teachers: several in Philadelphia and one at MIT. We planned to launch this venture in spring 2003.

Later that year, however, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over the School District of Philadelphia and assigned the management of Sulzberger Middle School to Edison Inc., a for-profit corporation based in New York. After weeks of trying to work with Edison staff, Armstead left Sulzberger, as did and Glenn Campbell, who together with Armstead, had been the key teachers in the Mill Creek Project.

See VISIT A CLASS for my course that was part of The Mill Creek Project in 2002: Media Technology and City Design and Development.

Compare the old WPLP Web site with the one produced by the class

See an example of a digital story, “You Just Don’t Leave Family”


Where Are They Now?

A new West Philadelphia Landscape Project Web site is in the works. We hope to feature the experiences of those who were part of the Mill Creek Project: Sulzberger students and teachers, Penn and MIT students, and others. If you were involved with the Mill Creek Project, please get in touch: Anne Whiston Spirn.



The Mill Creek Project was part of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, an action-research program integrating research, teaching, and community service since 1987, and was supported by many small grants. Without the support of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Community Partnerships, the collaboration with Sulzberger Middle School would have been impossible. Among other resources, the Center provided work-study grants for research assistants and research assistantships (funded by the W. G. Kellogg Foundation, Ford Foundation, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s COPC Program). A grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s Urban Resources Partnerships Program supported research assistants, curriculum materials, and construction of the outdoor classroom at Aspen Farms Community Garden.