Restored Spaces: the Garden vs. the Wasteland

I’ve spent most of this week ruminating on public art, preservation, and urban ecology – from the Autumn mural to Gray Area to PHS Pops Up  – and where did I find myself yesterday? At Bodine High School for International Affairs, a site combining all of these ideas through the Restored Spaces Initiative.

Yesterday Reading the Flow and chainlinkGREEN, two projects that have transformed Bodine High School, were dedicated after being completed under the Restored Spaces Initiative, a Mural Arts program promoting environmental stewardship through artworks that encourage public engagement.

Bodine High School sits in the historic Thomas Jefferson Public School. The boxy brick building’s only fussy features are decorative brick-work and glazed tiles. Over the last two years the building has been wrapped in a story told in mural and mosaic form about the preciousness of water as a resource, called Reading the Flow. The artwork touches on global and regional water systems, references cultural relationships to water, and examines water as a life source. Students, staff, faculty and neighbors of Bodine High School fully engaged with artists and designers to create the project.

Bodine students seem thrilled with the results. Naje Childs, a student who worked on the artwork said her new school yard is “a green sanctuary and a learning space for us.” She added, “I’m proud to say I’m part of this with my school.” Plus, she’s excited to enjoy the new benches during lunch.

While the artwork speaks to ecological concerns, so does the schoolyards new landscape. The schoolyard has been transformed from a sea of impermeable surface into a softer space thanks to chainlinkGREEN. In keeping with the Water Department’s Green City, Clean Waters initiative to reduce stormwater runoff, the schoolyard now absorbs water using rain gardens, stormwater planters, and trenches along 4th and Cambridge streets. Landscape design features are entirely recycled materials, such as wood benches supported by asphalt and brick chunks, and a chain link fence and pipe trellis. As a whole the look is dramatic.

The whole idea for the Restored Spaces Initiative (at Bodine High and elsewhere) is multi-disciplinary and inclusive. It is exactly the sort of project that we should see more often in Philadelphia. It’s about thoughtful consideration of how to do better with what you have.

At Bodine, the project brought together mural artists and environmental educators, students and neighbors, the Philadelphia Water Department and urban landscape designers to create a new-school schoolyard. It successfully leveraged funding from multiple sources to meet multiple bottom lines. Moreover, the project seizes the opportunity to create a teachable environmental education moment out of the implementation of the city’s sustainability policy.

In the words of Dr. Ann Gardiner, recently retired Bodine High principal, the Restored Spaces Initiative at Bodine navigates a classic “tension between the garden and the wasteland.”

That’s our choice as a city too.

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