Re-considering a post-industrial urban landscape

“Landscape is history made visible.”

“Ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins. There has to be an interim of death or rejection before there can be renewal and reform.”

—J. B. Jackson


One hundred years ago, Philadelphia was “The Workshop of the World” and Kensington was the heart of working-class Philly. Textile factories making carpets and then hosiery grew up around the railroads. People lived in modest housing in easy walking distance to their jobs. Smoke from mills filled the air, and it was a sign of prosperity.


But the economy changed. Demand shifted, factories changed or closed or moved. Railroads consolidated and went bankrupt. Buildings were abandoned or demolished. The residents of Kensington and other post-industrial neighborhoods live in the landscape of the wreckage of global economic shifts. As jobs went, the social fabric frayed, and formerly thriving neighborhoods fell to poverty and drugs. Left behind are empty lots and abandoned buildings and businesses that survive on the scraps of former industry.


For our studio project, we were approached by a planning professor who had received an EPA grant to work on the redevelopment of polluted brownfield sites in an area of Kensington along the Lehigh railroad viaduct. We were invited to consider the industrial history of the sites, methods for cleaning the contaminants out of the brownfields, the needs and desires of residents, and the future of the neighborhood.


As Jackson says, the history of the neighborhood is physically present, and mostly what is left is ruins. Factories are shells, houses are crumbling, the land is primarily urban fill–the soil is as much trash as it is humus. Plants thrive in any crack in the paving, but they’re almost exclusively exotic invasives that prefer the hostile soils that can’t support natives. The plants themselves make the history of the place visible: a Paulownia monoculture means industrial brownfield.

A seedling emerges from the trash in an abandoned lot on Somerset Street
E Rush Street looking north, with an impressive canopy of Paulownia in the abandoned lot on the left


The neighborhood has lived through its “interim of death or rejection.” Industry moved out and heroin dealers moved in. The ruins do seem to mean it’s time for a sea change, and plans are being written up by government, by nonprofits, by academics. There is a sense that the people in the neighborhood would like to return to the community some of them knew at midcentury: modest but thriving, a tight-knit neighborhood enlivened with commercial activity and activities for the kids. There’s also a sense that Kensington shouldn’t become just another Fishtown or Northern Liberties as the homogenizing gentrification wave sweeps northward.


The words Jackson chooses (restoration, return to origins, renewal, reform) echo the words of the EPA grant (remediation, reuse). Just as some residents want to go back to a barely-remembered golden era, the training we’re receiving in ecological restoration says to look back to the difficult-to-define indigenous plant communities of this place. The language of the next landscape and the next community is about going back, doing again, but also with a sense of undoing. But the neighborhood can’t be returned to both its industrial heyday and its unsullied ecological past. In the urban context, maybe “restore” and “return” can’t be the right words. Instead, a new path that looks different from the past: re-new, re-use, re-form. And even remediate, from Latin and French, “to cure again.” We study the past, we undo some of the worst, we make use of what we can, and we try something new.


When efforts to improve the environment and the community in Kensington become the past, what will the landscape reveal about that history? Because ecological restoration also means learning to look forward, sometimes beyond a human lifetime, what can we plan to make visible for this neighborhood?