Monday, October 11, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Every year, the University of Michigan planning program puts on Expanded Horizons.  It is a 5 day break from classes and takes many of the first year planning students on a trip to explore some city withing driving distance of Ann Arbor - all for a class credit (assuming we manage to participate and turn in a short paper when requested).

I returned from this one week ago.  Our destination this was Philadelphia, PA (which has a ridiculous number of one-way streets)!

Last Wednesday morning the planning students crammed onto a bus for our 11 hour ride to the City of Brotherly Love.  The trip went like most long rides and all of us were relieved when we finally arrived at our hotel: A Holiday Inn Express right in the center city.  After settling in, we went to wander downtown a little to grab some dinner and drinks.

On Thursday morning, we met up with the director of the Preservation Alliance, piled onto our bus again, and took a tour of the city learning everything we wanted to know about Philadelphia.  We went past Independence Hall, through Society Hill, Temple University, and many other places (some pretty sketchy).

After our tour, we went to Reading Terminal Market for lunch.  An indoor farmer's market, Reading had just about every kind of food you could want and was simply a unique place with many different people wandering its crowded paths.

In the afternoon we began splitting into groups, which went to various organizations throughout the city, to see what kind of planning-related activities were happening.  My first one was Greensgrow urban agriculture.  Like any urban agriculture project, Greensgrow was doing a lot with sustainability, education and outreach, and supplying healthy, locally grown foods via the market and the CSA (which includes some kind of protein with the vegetables each week).  However, it was interesting to learn that they did not start out of the local foods movement or for social justice issues, but rather as a way to simply use vacant land.

The farm is located on the site of a former factory that polluted the ground with many heavy metals and is an EPA-classified brownfield.  To "fix" the site, it was covered over by a concrete slab, so none of the farming is actually done in the ground of that site.  The first farming they did was for-profit hydroponic lettuce, which was sold to high-end restaurants in downtown Philadelphia.  Eventually they moved in the direction to where they are now as they responded to the needs of the neighborhood and added a nursery and market, etc.

Much of what they sell is grown above the concrete in raised beds within greenhouse structures or is purchased from other local farmers to distribute in the neighborhood.  They are just beginning to break even on the food growing side of their enterprise, but have been able to rake in money from selling flowers and other plants from the nursery to cover expenses.

On Thursday night, we held a social event and met up with a bunch of planning students from UPenn (Ivy Leaguers!) at the bar.

Friday was a continuation of meeting various organizations, and in the morning I went to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.  Here we learned about how they are working to make Philadelphia more bicycle and pedestrian friendly.  Various types of bike lanes are being implemented and we walked down to look at one that included a buffer zone between drivers and riders.

Another project was the conversion of parking meters into bike racks.  As the city converts to parking kiosks for entire blocks of spaces and the old meters are removed, the poles are left behind and places to lock bikes to are being bolted on.  Other projects included larger bicycle trail systems and general education for drivers, riders, and pedestrians.

In the afternoon was my final session.  A group of us walked down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and talked with the executive director of the Fairmount Parks system (who has a niece that went to Calvin).  We began at the Philadelphia Museum of Art where Rocky ran up the steps and ended down near city hall.  Along the way we learned about the green space, traffic concerns, and current construction projects.  There are a couple of new and remodeled museums along the way as well as many other civic buildings such as the library.  It is quite the historic stretch of road: created as Philadelphia's ChampsElysees during the City Beautiful movement.

If I had to pick a session I didn't go to, but wished I had it would be Postgreen ... or Interface Studios: joint creators of the LEED Gold or Platinum, 100k home.

We spent Friday night bowling and socializing.  Making sure we got to know all the people who went on the trip - another purpose of such a trip.  Many of us ended up walking to the Piazza at Schmidt's, a development by Tower Investments - where a number of others went for one of their sessions.

Later in the night, a number of us decided it would be cool to head over the Delaware river to Camden, NJ - one of America's most dangerous cities.  Probably not the best idea ever.  The place seemed like a literal ghost town, and after talking to some police officers who said we were a "huge red flag" we went back to where we came from.

Saturday morning we did some community service work cleaning up parks and a business district.  We disposed of trash, raked, weeded, mulched, etc.

That afternoon, a number of us went to Tony Luke's to get cheesesteaks and then ended up at the bar to watch the Michigan-Indiana football game with the Alumni Club of Philadelphia.

Overall, it was a fantastic trip that allowed me to see a different city, learn quite a bit, and get to know my classmates a lot better.