Can Italian design students solve Philly neighborhood's flooding?

Life long has been challenging in Philadelphia’s Eastwick section, thanks in no small part to the 2,000-acre redevelopment project that never happened, two polluted landfills that became a Superfund site, and epic flooding, stretching back to the 1950s.

So maybe it wasn’t such a leap for residents to brainstorm with experts in a city that knows about flooding: Venice, Italy.  Could a group of students and professors from the fabled city of canals that has dealt with acqua alta, or high water, for hundreds of years help the beleaguered district, situated at the city’s southwestern tip?

On a recent day, 11 students, four researchers, and one professor from Università Iuav di Venezia, an architecture and design school, toured Eastwick seeking solutions.  The students later met with residents, and together they conjured novel flood-control measures that could double as green space, including several levees, an elevated boardwalk, and recreation areas.

“The most important part was meeting with the community,” said Johnny Nocolis, 25, a student. “They explained all the issues.”

Rendering of an elevated walkway a group of Italian students came up with as part of a flood-control plan for Eastwick.

Residents, including Terry Williams, 65, were heartened.

“I’m greatly appreciative of their interest,” Williams said. “They come from Venice, and I know they have some water issues with that city. I asked a couple of students how they handle the problems they have in Venice, and they said, ‘We swim a lot.’ ”

Eastwick has a troubled history.  In 2015, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority ended a 50-year-old master urban renewal agreement it had made with Korman Corp. in 1961.  As part of that old city plan, 8,636 people, Williams among them, were forced out under eminent domain starting in the 1950s for an urban renewal project, much of which never came to fruition. Williams later returned.

Some of the community was built on dredge spoils, with certain areas below sea level.  Some houses sank.  Flooding became a problem. Most notably, Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Irene in 2011 poured feet of water into homes.

Now, the redevelopment authority is proceeding with a new plan for 134 acres, this time with input from residents, the city, and the planning firm Interface Studio as the consultant.  A plan is expected by fall.

Franco Montalto, a professor from Drexel University, also with the Consortium for Climate Risks in the Urban Northeast, brought the Italian students to Philadelphia as part of an exchange program with the IUAV University.  The consortium researches ways to serve communities at risk to climate change. He assigned the students Eastwick as their main project due to its long history of flooding challenges. He asked them to develop solutions that could be presented as suggestions to the community.

Eastwick is situated between the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Darby Creek, and the Clearview Landfill Superfund site to the west and Philadelphia International Airport to the east. The Tinicum Marsh, the Schuylkill, and the Delaware River are also parts of a drainage system that contributes to flooding, especially during big storms.

Map of Philadelphia’s Eastwick section (Interface Studio, LLC).

“What’s refreshing is how the students harvested information from residents,” Montalto said. “They look through fresh eyes. They ask basic questions that get right to the heart of it. … The students are entering the process early where everything is game.” He said their ideas assume that because of climate change, there will be more storms and flooding in the future.

Michael Nairn, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a landscape architect, also helped guide the students.

“The legacy of planning in Eastwick is not good,” Nairn said. “So suddenly you’re seeing a stakeholder process and have a group of young people that can help jump-start that and energize people. They’re saying to residents, ‘We value your ideas.’ ”

Alberto Innocenti, a Ph.D. candidate at Università Iuav di Venezia, said his group sought to disguise flood control as recreation areas.

“We can add layers, we can add parks that would add to the lives of residents,” he said, noting a major difference between planning for Philadelphia and Venice.

“In Venice,” he said with a laugh, “there are no cars.”

Deborah Jefferson, a resident, said she was glad to see residents’ suggestions incorporated into the students’ final presentation.

For example, residents want SEPTA’s Eastwick station to have a multilevel parking lot, an enclosed bridge linking the station to Mario Lanza Boulevard, a coffee shop, and a visitors’ center.

“We were happy with the students,” Jefferson said. “It was great to see our ideas come to fruition, if only on a drawing. It was great to see what the vision can be.  For me, it was more than I could imagine. When I thought of a levee, I didn’t think of a walkway and grass and an area that’s pretty.”

After nine days in the city, the students gave residents a final presentation that focused on four parts of Eastwick:

Near Clearview Landfill and 78th Street.  A levee would serve as an open space and parklike setting with bike path. It would fill during storms and prevent water from flowing into the neighborhood, similar to a retention pond.

A group of students and professors from Università Iuav di Venezia, a university in Venice, Italy, spent the week of May 15 in Philadelphia studying flooding in the city’s Eastwick section. Here is a rendering of a levee.

Vacant land between Heinz Preserve and 86th Street.  Restoring forest on vacant land and using existing wetlands would improve flood control while incorporating a playground and community garden.

A group of students and professors from Università Iuav di Venezia, a university in Venice, Italy, spent the week of May 15 in Philadelphia studying flooding in the city’s Eastwick section. Here is a rendering of proposed green space abutting the Heinz Preserve.

SEPTA’s Eastwick station, 84th Street.  Bike paths and green spaces could connect the station with surrounding area, and a multilevel parking garage could serve as a holding tank during floods.

Università Iuav di Venezia

The old Pepper School.  Residents have been torn about what to do with the school, in an area some call an “inaccessible black hole.” Some want to tear it down, others to make it a community center. The students propose a “green-black hole,” turning the area into a park.  A retention basin would fill during floods but otherwise serve as green space.

The students imagined areas that double as flood control and recreation.