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Connected Spaces for Environmental Justice and Stormwater Management at Sayre High School

Image: Rendering of gathering spaces and rain gardens in the East Courtyard

Team: Henry Feinstein, Iain Li, Shawn Li, Saffron Livaccari, Cassandra Owei, Jackson Plumlee, Noëlle Raezer, Lorraine Ruppert, Amisha Shahra, Mrinalini Verma, Corey Wills, Haoge Xu

Advisor: John Arthur Miller


Sayre High School (Sayre), located in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia, has many assets; an onsite health center, a small garden program, and beautiful student-created murals all serve to create a vibrant community hub. However, Sayre falls within a combined sewer overflow (CSO) area, meaning that during rain events, stormwater and wastewater mix into the same pipes. During rain events, that mixture will overload the combined sewer system, and the excess will overflow into the local waterways. The sewer outfall for Sayre is located just north of Eastwick, a historically marginalized Black community in Philadelphia which experiences chronic issues from flooding and pollution. [1] Therefore, the lack of onsite stormwater management at the school not only negatively impacts the school’s students and staff, but also downstream communities.

Additionally, the school is located in the hottest 10% of the city, with an average summer temperature that is up to 7.8°F above other neighborhoods. A recent analysis conducted by Itay Porat (MCP ‘22) found that Sayre is actually the hottest area within West Philadelphia, with temperatures reaching up to 17°F above the rest of the city. These temperatures, created by an urban heat island effect are dangerous to all residents, especially children and the elderly.

"Green stormwater infrastructure can lower the school’s stormwater fee, mitigate fl ooding, alleviate the urban heat island effect, beautify public spaces, provide valuable STEAM education opportunities, and provide access to fresh healthy food for students and the surrounding community.”

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[1] The demographic statistical atlas of the United States—Statistical atlas. (2018, September 14). 

[2] United States Census Bureau. American community survey. (2018).

[3] School District of Philadelphia. School profiles. (2021).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pennsylvania Department of Education. 2019 Keystone Results. Department of Education. (2019)

6] Kuo, M., Barnes, M., & Jordan, C. “Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship.” Frontiers in Psychology, 10 (2019). 305.


The school also lies within a food desert, which means there is a lack of access to fresh produce and other nutritious food at affordable prices. Additionally, according to the 2018 American Community Survey, the median household income in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood is $32,746; over $10,000 less than the median city-wide household income of $43,744. 44.2% of children below the age of 18 in the neighborhood are living below the poverty line – nearly 10% higher than Philadelphia overall.[2] As Cobbs Creek’s residents are 93.1% Black, these economic indicators and demographics compelled the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to classify the area as an Environmental Justice Area.


Sayre’s student body follows the pattern of Cobbs Creek; 90.9% of the school is Black, and at the time of this study, all but one student met the threshold for free lunch eligibility. The school has a 45% four-year graduation rate (compared to an 86% state average) and a 16% college matriculation rate in 2019. [3] According to the Philadelphia School District’s website, Sayre’s educational attainment scores trail behind their local counterparts, with 0% of students attaining Proficient or Advanced levels on the state standardized math exam and only 11% of students attaining Proficient or Advanced levels on the state standardized English exam. [4] When looking at standardized test scores, Sayre lags significantly behind Pennsylvania state averages. Results for the 2019 Keystone Exams - Pennsylvania's public school standardized testing system - scored Sayre students at between 8-16% proficient across literature, algebra, and biology, while the state averages hover around 70%. [5] Several studies have shown that exposure to green spaces, including green stormwater infrastructure (GSI), can boost students’ scores.[6]


Overall, the school has issues with combined sewer overflows, heat, food access, poverty, and education. To mitigate these challenges, GSI can lower the school’s stormwater fee, mitigate flooding, alleviate the urban heat island effect, beautify public spaces, provide valuable STEAM education opportunities, and provide access to fresh healthy food for students and the surrounding community. With this in mind, a team of Penn students is collaborating with the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, the Philadelphia Orchard Project, Mural Arts, the School District of Philadelphia, the Water Center at Penn, the Sayre Health Center, Penn Praxis, and the Philadelphia Water Department to co-design, fund, and ultimately implement a GSI installation at the school which will also act as a green space for recreation and gathering while providing a multitude of nutritional, environmental, health, and educational co-benefits. Design elements will include a green roof, rain gardens, permeable pathways, bioswales, tree trenches, a greenhouse, and raised beds.

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Image: Site Plan shows the distribution of stormwater infrastructure and program spaces



To fully understand the Sayre community’s priorities, Penn students and Netter Center staff created a survey and conducted site visits to work with the students, staff, and parents of Sayre. These initial surveys will be followed by a series of interactive workshops which will be carried out in spring of 2022 to gather more nuanced information and enhance community ownership of the design.


Survey respondents identified several existing challenges:

• “The flooding made it hard for me to get to work. The temperature in my room can be very hot.”

• “Very sunny in my classroom all day; it is hot inside the classroom in warm months and cold during the winter months; Little greenery to enjoy.”

• “It is, sometimes, too hot or cold in the building. It seems it’s hard to get the right balance.”

• Respondents’ visions for the space include:

• “A place where the students can spend their lunch period so they do not have to spend their time in the cafeteria.”

• “I would really love to see a place for students and the community to gather and enjoy the outdoors.”

• “A more natural look around and inside the building; edible plants to eat; plants/grass on roof.”

• “Outdoor classroom space and a place for science classes to do outdoor studies.”

• “With the pandemic I think it is most important for students to have a green space outside to relax, and where it is safe. There are articles that talk about the number of trees and green space associated with socioeconomic levels.”

• “The courtyards and grounds are becoming green with lots of pretty plants. A garden area to teach students how to grow edible plants.”

Image: Section of Gathering Courtyard



Permeable pavements are porous surfaces that allow water to penetrate through into the soil while filtering pollutants. The incorporation of permeable pavement in our design will help to create a healthier and pollution-free environment for the Sayre community. In addition, permeable paving has cooling effects that would work to reduce temperatures in the surrounding environment. To this end, at the south of the school, a former service drive will be repurposed as a permeable, shaded, and flexible corridor that prioritizes pedestrian connectivity and stormwater capture while allowing service access and a variety of uses at different times of the day.


The promenade features spaces for community gathering, food distribution, and a market stand. The pathway expands upon the existing food distribution program in the health center by connecting the school with a greenhouse and raised beds; produce from which will be distributed to the community. This pathway also reconnects the school with the active recreation spaces of the Sayre Recreation Center. The two facilities will share the infrastructure at different times of the day. The existing basketball courts will be renovated to include shaded seating spaces, while lighting will be added to ensure this space is safely usable in the evening as well.

"Access to, or even a view of, nature can have a lasting positive impact on employees’ job satisfaction levels, well-being, and stress levels”



Our survey responses showed that most of the staff and students at Sayre High School would like to see their school beautified. This can take place in a variety of ways, such as planting beautiful flowers in the rain gardens, managing overgrown plants, and overall reducing the concrete space in the central courtyards which the classrooms overlook. Redesigning the school’s parking lots and recreational centers will make the school a more accessible community gathering space for the greater Cobbs Creek neighborhood. With the addition of benches and a greenery, the parking lot can be converted into an outdoor venue for weekend farmers markets in which the students call showcase their produce from the school gardens, as well as being a space for other community events.

An existing program which takes place in the school’s health center sells food grown in the central courtyard to surrounding residents and health center visitors at affordable prices. Our design amplifies and celebrates this connection between the school and the surrounding community by providing a dedicated space along the promenade for a greenhouse, farm stand, seating, and raised garden beds. As a hub for demonstration, education, and connection, the greenhouse showcases stormwater collection from the roof and its reuse for irrigation of the plants in the greenhouse.

Below: Section of Gathering Courtyard
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Access to, or even a view of, nature can have a lasting positive impact on employees’ job satisfaction levels, well-being, and stress levels.[7] GSI can provide both access to and, if properly situated, a consistent view of nature. This can be applied to the teachers and staff at Sayre, who desire to work in a school that is less industrial. Staff member Joe Brand pointed out that the Sayre building, due to years of underinvestment, can feel more like an “institution” than a school, with striking visuals of exposed pipes and peeling paint. He asserted that such an environment is not one in which students and teachers can feel emotionally safe; a situation which can lead to disputes, escalated situations, and other manifestations of trauma in the neighborhood. Creating green spaces will lessen the institutional feel of the school, which can lead to higher overall job satisfaction and lower turnover.

Courtyards are key interior spaces of the school. Our design will create three distinct gardens for mental health and wellbeing, education and outdoor learning, and fostering social life. Though they serve different functions, the three spaces are unified through the expression of stormwater treatment and conveyance as an engaging experience. Stormwater processes are made visible through a series of connected channels, pavement treatment, and rain gardens, which call attention to the sights, sounds, and flows of water. Seating and tables within the courtyards will provide spaces for students to gather while being immersed in nature. 

The plants and soils within the rain gardens have been chosen to balance the desires of the students and staff at Sayre with functional stormwater retention and infiltration. Rain gardens are designed to allow water to infiltrate through the ground before running off into the storm drains. They are a powerful solution to offset stormwater and concurrently have the benefits

of reintroducing nature to urban spaces. The benefits for the school would include a beautiful learning environment, an area to relax and unwind, or an area to chat with friends during lunch time. In addition to stormwater, rain gardens are able to alleviate the urban heat island effect which Sayre currently experiences.

[7Natural Resources Defense Council. (2013). The green edge: How commercial property investment in green infrastructure creates value.

"In addition to stormwater, rain gardens are able to alleviate the urban heat island effect which Sayre currently experiences.”



When looking at Sayre High School from an aerial view, one immediately notices the vast parking lot space; it is a concrete desert. For this reason, our second focus area when looking at design solutions is the parking lot. Sayre’s parking lot slopes down with stormwater flowing directly in the direction of the street. The parking lot makes up 35,424 sq. ft. of the school site, making it a suitable area to incorporate GSI while beautifying the space. Our design focuses on incorporating tree trenches and permeable pavement into the parking lot space with the primary goals of decreasing stormwater runoff, addressing the urban heat island effect, improving walkability, creating a community corridor, and overall campus beautification.

Bioswales are vegetated ditches that collect and filter stormwater. As the stormwater runs through the bioswale, the pollutants are captured in the stems and leaves of the plants. In addition to reducing stormwater and pollutants, bioswales also recharge groundwater. [8 ]Finally, and most importantly for the needs of Sayre High School, bioswales combat the urban heat island effect by cooling the surrounding environment. With Sayre being in one of the hottest areas in Philadelphia, the inclusion of bioswales in our design solutions directly addresses this problem. Further addressing this issue is the inclusion of permeable paving in the parking lot space.


A final element of the design incorporates both educational signage and the inclusion of environmental justice topics within the school’s everyday curricula. To improve students’ engagement with GSI and to enhance their understanding of environmental justice issues at Sayre, the project will work with students to create site-specific educational signage as well as the development and implementation of both watershed-focused and nutrition-oriented curricula.

[8Lynch R., Sapin A. (2017). Bioswales. Parks and Recreational Business.

Additional References:

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Benefits of green infrastructure.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Lower Darby Creek Area Site Profile [Overviews and Factsheets]. Accessed December 1, 2021 States Environmental Protection Agency. Protecting Water Quality From Urban Runoff. (2003, February).

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Green Roofs. In: Reducing urban heat islands: Compendium of strategies. (2008).

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Heat Island Impacts [Overviews and Factsheets]. (2014, June 17).

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Sayre’s GSI design will not only manage stormwater, but will provide a multitude of social, environmental, and economic co-benefits for students, staff, and the surrounding community. To increase community ownership of the design and to determine what matters most to the Sayre community, our team is working towards an equitable and inclusive outreach and design process. To ensure that the design is actually implementable, Penn students have conducted exhaustive analyses of existing conditions, design feasibility, and project performance; identified a wide swath of funding opportunities for which the design is eligible; and have formed partnerships with a diverse range of stakeholders. The GSI project that will be collaboratively designed with the Sayre community will, once implemented, serve to create a more resilient, equitable, and healthy Sayre High School.

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