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The above was completed as part of the Better Philadelphia Challenge competition hosted by the Philadelphia Center for Architecture.  The following is an excert from the official competition website:

The Mantua/Belmont section of Philadelphia was chosen as one of President Obama’s first “Promise Zones” for economic development – one of only five in the country. This neighborhood is bordered by some of Philadelphia’s largest institutions (the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the Philadelphia Zoo, and Fairmount Park), as well as by large industrial sites (most notably the AMTRAK rail yards). As part of this neighborhood’s development, what physical design interventions could encourage healthy and active lifestyles, thereby improving public health among residents?


The competition entry sought to address the complexities of the prompt through the following strategies:



The neighborhood of Mantua in West Philadelphia is caught ‘in-between’.  Two leading institutions, Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania are located on the southern edge of the neighborhood.  To the north, Fairmount Park (one of the largest urban parks in the United States) provides a myriad of amenities like the Philadelphia Zoo and regional pedestrian trails.  


Even so, Mantua benefits little from these entities and is instead taxed with pervasive urban blight.  Mantua is trapped by cutting off access to the east through an active regional railyard; decrepit bridges entrap and isolate Mantua likely contributing to the high levels of crime in the area.


Furthermore, scarce employment opportunities and lack of access to food (Mantua is considered 100% food desert) contribute to the alarming rate of vacancies. 



In early 2014, President Obama, designated 5 metropolitan areas in the United States as ‘Promise Zones’.  These Promise Zones would receive preferential  status when applying for federal resources to combat poverty.  The 5 zones are San Antonio, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky, The Choctaw Nation and West Philadelphia.   


Mantua, located in West Philadelphia, is a representative neighborhood demonstrating enormous potential in alleviating issues of health, education and poverty.



As a tool of implementation, our design seeks to address the most pertinent and crucial aspect of Mantua; its overall disconnection and lack of symbiosis between its people and assets.  Our site analysis strategy consisted of 1) mapping clusters of vacant properties 2) highlighting community amenities such as parks, schools and community centers and 3) prioritizing urban corridors as a tool for connection.  


These urban corridors offer the most potential to holistically serve Mantua as a whole and provide a legible and cohesive tool for connecting to existing amenities and incubate new opportunities for renewal.


Through an overlay of maps and diagrams, 3 urban corridors emerged as having the most impact for revitalization; 1) Spring Garden Street 2) Powelton Avenue and 3) Girard Avenue.



Community revitalization often talks about new buildings, new parks, and new amenities that will be added to a neighborhood. The problem with building so many ‘nouns’, is that it doesn’t instill the neighborhood with long-term change.  The West Philadelphia Exchange (WPE) is designed to engage the community of Mantua with ‘verbs’. 


The WPE is a call to action; by creating a framework we focus on decentralization allowing for mobility and flexibility.  This materializes as a loop of activity that connects and fosters the 3 urban corridors:


1) TRAIN + EMPLOY: Spring Garden Street serves as a hub for teaching and learning related to technology and creativity.  


2) FOOD CO-OP + PLAY: Powelton Avenue is designated as an incubator for the mind and the body by creating a relationship between healthy eating practices with unexpected opportunities for exercise.


3) TRANSIT STOP + EATERY: Girard Street capitalizes on the transient nature of the intersection by linking to regional transit and pairing them with opportunities for event and leisure on a daily basis.



The distributed nature of the WPE creates intersections for different demographics and skill sets to come together in a new platform; e.g. rather than simply proposing a job skills center, the framework can provide opportunities for new ways of thinking for the modern workforce.


The flexible and mobile nature of the WPE capitalizes on the radical notion that neighborhood ownership can be transformative; the project  provides unexpected ways to give the neighborhood agency and allow it to participate in its own future.


Fall 2015


Better Philadelphia Design Challenge


Gray Garmon / Jean-Pierre Casillas / Eduardo Santamaria


Philadelphia, PA

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