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Sustainable community design in grays ferry

imagining a more equitable and resilient future


Zhongjie Lin


Linda Ge,

Andrea Masterson,

Eliza Nobles,

Marc Schultz,

Diyi Zhang

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The design concept proposes walkable, human-scale streets.

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The design includes a sponge park which will mitigate pollution in the Schuylkill River, while providing multiple recreational amenities, including a connection with the Schuylkill River Trail.

In the fall of 2020, Weitzman School of Design’s Fundamentals of Urban Design studio prompted students to reimagine a waterfront site in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Grays Ferry. The studio team was tasked with creating a vibrant public realm while managing social resources and promoting environmental sustainability. Ultimately, students proposed a waterfront design in Grays Ferry with a focus on community, resilience, and accessibility. 

The location of the assigned site is along the Schuylkill River near the Forgotten Bottom neighborhood, an area in South Philadelphia physically cut off from the city with highways and railroad tracks. As it currently exists, the project site is highly industrial, and hosts a suburban-style grocery store with a large parking lot. Complex topography slopes dramatically toward the freight rail tracks along the river. However, despite this position, the area’s proximity to important economic generators such as Center City, University City, and Pennovation present a bourgeoning opportunity for development.

The site is prone to serious environmental problems. Industrial toxins litter the soil and groundwater. Stormwater runoff with sewer overflow and riverine flooding are reliable threats during storms, and sea level rise will dramatically increase the encroachment of the Schuylkill onto the site. There is very little greenspace on-site, making it even more prone to these problems and poor in ecological health. Due to these issues, the students chose to center sustainability and resilience. 

To better understand the dynamics of the surrounding area, students reached out to community stakeholders to conduct informal surveys and discussions about the site. In Zoom meetings and surveys, nearby residents cited needs for more affordable housing and cooperative spaces. Community members also stated concerns about transportation and safety. Additionally, residents emphasized their desire for more community gardens and a closer library. 

In the midst of growing concerns about exclusivity and displacement that follows development projects, students aimed to establish a design meeting community needs while empowering existing residents with the allocation of resources, beyond the simple injection of financial capital.

The proposed plan features a phasing system that will culminate in a development that is 33 percent affordable housing, 22 percent community resources, 18 percent commercial facilities, and four percent leasable workspace. The final design includes a history museum honoring the industrial legacy of the neighborhood, a library, a pump track for BMX bikers, a technology-integrated transit hub, and an ecological park on the river, among other features. Increased density and the reimagining of the street grid will create a more walkable, human-scale neighborhood. 

Programming on the site features cooperative business opportunities, flexible outdoor event spaces, and safer spaces to bike. This design connects Grays Ferry to the Schuylkill Waterfront through a “sponge park,” which acts as flood control, pollution reduction, ecological habitat, and outdoor recreational site. The design concept is intended as a resilient, self-reliant community with integrative sustainable systems that allow for the harvesting of food and water, improved building efficiency, renewable energy, and support of the local ecosystem.

This planning concept emphasizes the idea that residents know their own neighborhood best. Students brought their design skills and experiences to help realize the visions and needs of a long-established community. The proposed design aims to ensure that a variety of spaces are supported on-site, including informal, formal, and temporary uses that link with surrounding neighborhoods. Programming is designed to be affordable, accessible to all visitors, and to foster collaboration with nearby residents. This proposal will exceed environmental building standards to establish a resilient, self-sustaining community that meets the needs of every resident. 


Students designed rooftop environmental interventions to promote environmental sustainability in the site.

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