PGDG’s 3rd Annual Open Conversation hosted by Locus Partners and The Philadelphia Citizen
By MAGGIE DUNN
“We are claiming this as our space. We have a right to be here,” Dr. Carmen Febo San Miguel, Executive Director of Taller Puertorriqueño, said in a soft-spoken but forceful voice. She was referencing the development and December, 2016 opening of El Corazón Cultural Center in North Philadelphia—but her emphasis was more universal. Building an equitable place is about “claiming a space where we can celebrate who we are as human beings.”
On Tuesday, June 13, Locus Partners convened their 3rd annual Philly Girls Do Good Open Conversation, co-presented this year by The Philadelphia Citizen to draw a broad audience of Philadelphia’s proactive citizenry. The evening’s program assembled an expert panel to discuss building “Equitable Places and Good Practices” in design and community development. The conversation was moderated by executive editor of the Philadelphia Citizen, Roxanne Patel Shepelavy, and included members of PGDG Cohort ‘17, Jill Roberts, Executive Director of the Healthy Row House Project, Donna Carney, Director of the Citizens Planning Institute, and Carmen, alongside co-founder of Locus Partners and Philly Girls Do Good, Danielle DiLeo Kim.
Perhaps it is Carmen’s 38-year career as a physician, but something about the way she said “human beings” struck a chord. There was an implicit caring for each individual person and our common humanity. Celebrating our unique identities and tapping into a sense of pride in home, neighborhood and city were themes emphasized by each panelist.
“It’s incredible” Jill Roberts commented, “the pride that people, whether they own or rent, have in their own home.” For Jill, building an equitable place has always been about healthy housing and she sees tapping into that sense of pride as one tool in helping Philadelphia residents improve their homes. “It is simple. It should not be a privilege to have a healthy home. Everyone should have one.” Right now, Jill is leading the Healthy Row House Project towards their goal of creating financial instruments and programs to help low- to moderate-income homeowners repair their homes.
In Philadelphia, the home improvement loan denial rate is 62%—high enough to make most people suck in their breath during Jill’s presentations. While the connection between home and health seems obvious to her, it is apparently not so clear to others. The right people aren’t talking to each other. “People working in health, they aren’t talking to the people who are dealing with housing” Jill said, “and people who are talking about health and housing aren’t talking to the people who understand financing.” The Healthy Row House Project is working on improving communication and they are seeing progress: City Council President Darrell Clarke recently introduced a bill to create a Tax Foreclosure Diversion Program to help keep people in their homes. Ultimately their goal is to restore health to 5,000 homes a year.
While the Healthy Row House Project is focusing on housing as a key to equitable development, the Citizen’s Planning Institute (CPI) is providing education to residents about the planning, zoning and development process so they can effectively advocate on behalf of their communities. Donna Carney didn’t initially think of CPI as playing a key role in equitable development until the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations credited the program for improving citizens’ capacity to create inclusive communities. Over the past seven years, CPI has received over 1,400 applicants for the low-cost course and 420 Philadelphia residents have graduated from the program. With so many applicants to choose from, CPI selects residents who demonstrate participation and pride in their communities. One audience member was hailed as a prime example: CPI graduate and PGDG Cohort ’15 member, Joyce Smith, has helped the Viola Street Residents Association in East Parkside work with developers in the community, and she has recently taken up Jill Roberts’ call for housing preservation and healthy homes in the neighborhood. She attended Tuesday’s panel discussion to connect with Jill to get their mutual agenda addressed.
For Danielle, building equitable places begins with thoughtful engagement—a hallmark of Locus Partners’ planning and design process. For a community revitalization project in Wilmington, Delaware’s West Side, Locus Partners strategized a way to bring disparate community groups together to address common concerns and interests. First attuning themselves to each group’s identity and needs, through a process of engagement-based design, they developed a series of playful open spaces to unify the neighborhood and its resources. This commitment to problem-solving with community, and the seamless integration of urban design, landscape architecture, and urban planning is Locus Partners’ strength. Locus Partners is breaking ground with their interdisciplinary approach toward social and environmental justice. While many clients come to them with a specific discipline in mind, Danielle thinks one of the keys to equitable development is looking at problems holistically, leading clients to understand they need more than a design, they need “urban strategy.”
In the audience, Gabriella Nelson, a current student in Penn’s City & Regional Planning Master’s program and CPI grad, was happy to hear such a clear emphasis on people when talking about equitable development. She had been looking for conversation that focused on community in the development process when she heard of Philly Girls Do Good. “It had everything I was interested in,” she said “people, community, outreach, and women.”
The twelve year process of developing El Corazon Cultural Center definitely had people at its heart. The new facility has become a significant resource for the Latino community—hosting everything from an American Heart Association Event for 200 Latina women, to a family’s Quinceañera celebration. But Carmen acknowledges that just developing a physical space is not enough to overcome negative perceptions of a place and build equity. “We’re hoping that the magnetism, the beauty of the space will challenge some of those perceptions.” Carmen said. “That the art we produce will continue to overcome those barriers and bring more and more people to the community.” But, “Build it and they will come?” she questions. “Not necessarily, right? We are very aware of that challenge.”
Together, with a focus on healthy housing, free expression of cultural identity, civic education, and community engagement, the Philly Girls on this panel are piecing together the puzzle of building an equitable city.