Benjamin Nardi ‘found beauty in the commonplace’ with community-inspired proposal to create an inviting green space in West Philly.
Launching his landscape architecture applied-studios project in January, Benjamin Nardi was on a mission to hear the “hopes, dreams and concerns” of community members who lived near the Overbrook Environmental Education Center (OEEC).
Nardi, then a junior within the College of Architecture and Built Environment major, found Jefferson to be “a natural fit” for him because of its great reputation in his field of study and renowned cross-country program. His love of the outdoors, passion for landscape architecture and a mission to listen to those with ties to the West Philadelphia site bore fruit in more ways than one.
Months later, Nardi’s “Finding Beauty in the Commonplace” presentation was widely embraced locally. It would transform a recently purchased 1.1-acre brownfield site directly behind OEEC’s buildings into a green space featuring native flora, fauna, urban agriculture and more to reconnect residents and visitors to the land’s Overbrook and Millcreek watershed roots.
“Though often overlooked and inaccessible, vacant urban sites are teeming with wildlife and a special delicate beauty,” reads the project’s mission statement. “These autonomous landscapes that have been cut off and forgotten, provide places to think, walk and refuel.
“The design reconnects the community to the native flora and fauna, allowing both wildlife and community members to seek refuge in a sea of dense urban development. … The OEEC executive director Jerome Shabazz wanted the design to create a sense of wonderment and reveal ecological processes not typical in urban environments.”
The proposal also caught the eye of judges in the American Society of Landscape Architects’ (ASLA) student competition. After considering 560 entries, the ASLA had awarded Nardi a prestigious Honor Award in the general design category.
His proposal will be featured in the September issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine. It’s the first time a Jefferson student has taken top honors in this national competition, says program director Kimberlee Douglas.
“The odds are pretty incredible since this is a junior up against master’s students. Ben’s project was timely, and he worked closely with people in the community, an under-resourced neighborhood, to put the submission together,” Douglas says. “This puts Jefferson on the national stage with the ASLA.”
Suffice it to say, the recognition blew Nardi away.
“It’s exciting, and I was surprised,” shares Nardi, who spent the summer working for a landscape architecture firm in Baltimore.
The path toward the award-winning proposal started in mid-January. Nardi made several visits to the environmental center to sketch, take photographs of, and connect with the “wonderment and beauty in the hidden details of the site.” He also explored Overbrook’s history “through a social and ecological justice lens.”
Then, he attended several community meetings.
At the first session, Nardi merely listened to what residents wanted to see created there. He heard both their aspirations for the site and their frustrations about previous promises that had fallen through, an experience not uncommon for underserved urban communities.
At the second meeting, he brought his images and asked attendees to match their senses—hearing, smell, taste, touch, sight—to their hopes for the site.
“Originally, they saw an abandoned vacant lot with nothing going for it,” Nardi recalls. “When they saw the photos, they knew there was something else here, that there could be nature, wildlife, flowers, plants and a better understanding of the processes that happen in that sort of landscape.”
I wanted to give voice to people traditionally without much of a voice. They all have the right to be heard, and this gives them that voice. It’s their design, not my design. –Benjamin Nardi
Matthew Tucker teaches the Landscape Architecture Design 6: Urban Restoration Management course which led to the award-winning submission. He says what set Nardi’s submission apart from others is his commitment to listening, and the times in which we’re currently living.
“We always work with communities with these sorts of projects, and the issues the students are exposed to—environmental justice, white privilege, etc.—are front and center right now. We’re already talking about these issues in the program,” Tucker says. “One of the things Ben keyed in on early was listening to community members. That’s what captured people’s imaginations about his project.”
While the pandemic limited the number of meetings, Tucker could hold classes at the OECC early on, which offered an immersive process. He lauds Nardi’s accomplishment and the quality of his proposal.
“It’s a superior design, looking at the experience of people in the environment. He’s turned it into a marvelous place,” says Tucker.
As an example, Tucker zeroed in on an existing alleyway that’s now an intimidating, harsh, rush-through-it setting but would become a welcoming scene with a “water wall” with maps of the Mill Creek watershed because residents “said they wanted to interact with water.”
Tucker continues that the larger, program-wide context relates to “empathy for the community as a designer and practicing what we call ‘ecological sovereignty,’ that the community should make its own decisions.”
The result of Nardi’s design matched up with what Shabazz envisioned from the start: making it a welcoming space and lush oasis that’s different from the surroundings encompassing it.
“We’re very proud of Ben. We consider him part of our family,” says Shabazz, who has long-standing community ties with Jefferson. “The prerequisite for us is being heavily community engaged when you come over here. Ben sought to understand what the community wanted first, and this was a really good process. Jefferson students are always really interested in hearing what residents have to say.”
The OEEC started out with a brownfield site in 1998 and, by building partnerships with public and private entities, has developed into a community mainstay with a farm, greenhouse and stormwater management system.
“We’re what it looks like to get things done without a lot of money,” Shabazz quips. “That’s the cool part of the work with Jefferson: We really give young folks the opportunity to see themselves doing the work, so we try to (connect with Jefferson) as much as we possibly can–this is project-based learning at its best.”
When Nardi’s proposal comes to fruition, it will also feature a nature retreat with upland forest, dry meadow and wet meadow sections, an aquatic-learning lab and, among other attractions, elevated walking path with canopy. He takes pride in both the award and the path traveled to achieve it.
“I wanted to give voice to people traditionally without much of a voice,” says Nardi, who would like to work at a firm in Seattle, Portland, Ore., or locally upon graduation. “They all have the right to be heard, and this gives them that voice. It’s their design, not my design.”