What Pennsylvania’s Knight Cities Challenge winners have been up to

     Before (left) and after images of the pool “pop-up” installation at the Francisville public pool in Philadelphia.  (Images courtesy of Group Melvin Design and Sikora Wells Appel)

    Before (left) and after images of the pool “pop-up” installation at the Francisville public pool in Philadelphia. (Images courtesy of Group Melvin Design and Sikora Wells Appel)

    We caught up with some of the local winners.

    On Tuesday, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced the finalists of its second annual Knight Cities Challenge.

    The competition is open to anyone and asks the question: “What’s your best idea to make cities more successful?” The ideas have to address an urban issue in at least one of the 26 cities where the foundation invests. In Pennsylvania, State College and Philadelphia are Knight cities.

    After receiving more than 4,500 applications, the foundation has chosen 158 finalists. The cities with the most finalists: Detroit and our very own Philadelphia.

    Ideas from Philadelphia include: creating exhibits that document the stories of the city’s black women; transforming an underused lake into an urban boating destination; and creating a way for residents to subscribe to text message and email alerts about public events, like city meetings.

    There are also several finalists from State College, including proposals for a downtown petting zoo and a hub that would connect entrepreneurs from Penn State with the local community.

    The list of finalists will be winnowed down to the winners, who will be announced this spring. Each gets a share of $5 million.

    Before that happens, here’s a look back at a few of last year’s winners from Philadelphia and what they’ve accomplished.

    The Pop-Up Pool Project

    Ben Bryant discovered Philadelphia’s public pools when he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He noticed that many of his friends didn’t know the pools existed.

    That’s surprising, considering that the city has 71 public pools. As Malcolm Burnley points out in a phillymag.com article, that’s “one for almost every neighborhood in the city.”

    “I always thought [the pools] were this really great asset that was underutilized and flew under the radar,” said Bryant, director of planning & design at Group Melvin Design.

    Bryant wondered whether poolside “pop-ups” could get people to visit those pools. You may have seen a pop-up before; typically they’re temporary installation in vacant spaces, and they include seating, greenery and activities. (Sometimes that activity is beer consumption.) 

    When a friend tweeted the link to the Knight Cities Challenge last year, Bryant submitted his pool pop-up idea on a whim. “I never thought I’d hear anything about it or that it would come to anything,” he said.

    Eight months later, in July 2015, the pop-up launched at the Francisville public pool. The site, designed by Group Melvin Design and Sikora Wells Appel, included palm trees, umbrellas and astroturf. The pop-up also hosted after-hours yoga, Aqua Zumba and several community events.

    Over the summer, the pool brought in 18,551 swimmers, a 43 percent increase over the previous year, Bryant says.

    The design firms also surveyed about 400 pool-goers in person, online and via feedback cards at the pool. More than half of respondents said they recognized more people from the neighborhood since the pop-up opened, and 47 percent said they met a new neighbor at the pop-up.

    Eighty percent of respondents said the pop-up made the pool a better community gathering space.

    “We were able to start a dialogue that made people reconsider the role of public pools, [as well as] reimagine what they could become,” Bryant said.

    Bryant says he doesn’t think all pools need to have a pop-up to be successful. In fact, he’s hoping that people who hear about the Francisville pop-up will try out their own neighborhood pools — whether there are similar amenities there or not. “One thing I’m really passionate about is promoting the whole pool system outside of any of the pop-ups we might do,” he said.

    The firms plan to create two more pop-ups at public pools this summer, in addition to reopening the one in Francisville. And the city is hoping to expand the program to other pools.

    Bryant submitted several projects to this year’s challenge, and two were chosen as finalists. One, called the “Little Music Studio,” would be a “traveling playground for musicians,” with instruments that would be accessible to anyone in the community. The other, “The Family Garden” would attempt to create pop-up gardens in neighborhoods around the city, with activities for both parents and children.

    South Philly’s Stoop

    This project aims to transform the vacant space around a shuttered technical high school in South Philadelphia into a “community living room.”

    The project organizer, urban design studio Scout, is also transforming the school, formerly Edward W. Bok Technical High School, into a space for creators and entrepreneurs. That’s not part of the Knight Cities Challenge.

    The community living room will be located just outside the redeveloped school. To plan the space, the firm started by talking to students from Southwark Elementary School, a K–8 school next door.

    Scout wanted the students to have input into the space because it’s part of their community; indeed, they pass it every day on their way to school. The firm gave the students disposable cameras to take photos of their living rooms at home. The results helped inform the designs for the community living room, says Lindsey Scannapieco, managing partner at Scout.

    Scout also partnered with Storycorps to gather stories of community members, including an Italian Market bakery owner, alumni of the technical school and new residents. And the firm will be installing a dog park.

    Scannapieco says she expects the living room to be completed by June.

    Her advice for future winners? Be flexible with your original idea, and also be realistic “about how much things cost and how much work they take to do,” Scannapieco said.

    DIG Philly

    In many cities, local schoolyards are…kind of pathetic.

    “I have likened them to the scorched earth,” said Lois Brink, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Colorado.

    In these schoolyards, there is usually no trees or grass. And when it comes to play equipment, maybe there’s an old, faded slide or a rusted set of monkey bars.

    “For the most part, they’re just a big slab of asphalt,” Brink said.

    Back in the 1990s, as a Denver resident, Brink thought schools could do better. So she worked with her community to revamp her daughter’s schoolyard, and then worked with another local school to do the same there. Then she formed a public-private partnership that raised $10.6 million to redevelop 22 more schoolyards, according to the Philadelphia Citizen.

    The new spaces, called “Learning Landscapes,” included features like seating, vegetable gardens, boulders, sports fields, artwork, custom play equipment and nature areas, as The Field, a site published by the American Society of Landscape Architects, describes.

    Ultimately, city residents voted to allow Denver Public Schools to renovate every elementary school in Denver. Brink later formed The Big Sandbox, a nonprofit that focuses on schoolyard revitalization. 

    Through the Knight Cities Challenge, Brink has brought her efforts to Philadelphia, where she grew up. The project, DIG Philly, aims to start a conversation with communities, parents and school districts about the value of city schoolyards.

    The project has partnered with the Philadelphia Water Department, which is replacing asphalt in several schoolyards with porous play surfaces that will help with the city’s storm water management.

    Brink has also been lobbying state legislators about the spaces and what can be done to redevelop them. She says Philadelphia’s schoolyards could be an asset for the entire community, not just the students in the school.

    We’ll have updates on the local winners of this year’s Knight Cities Challenge when they’re announced this spring.

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