| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter RSS Feed


Q&A: Beth Miller of the Community Design Collaborative

Beth Miller in the AIA bookstore - Arch St

Miller showing renderings from a few recent projects

Miller's workspace

Beth Miller

Phillies bobble heads keep it light in the office

Philadelphia is a city of contrasts. While some neighborhoods, including Northern Liberties and Callowhill, are models of industrial reuse and redevelopment, others, such as South Philly and Fairmount, are dense residential havens where change is happening on a smaller scale through renovation and strategic infill. There are lots of design challenges, but communities often lack the resources to find solutions. For ambitious civic assocations and nonprofits, the financial gap between an idea and a plan is a major bulwark against progress. Fortunately, they have help.

The Community Design Collaborative
looks to service the city's diverse design needs, whether that means planning a neighborhood grocery store in a food desert or reimagining an underused commercial corridor. Founded in 1991, the nonprofit organization connects volunteer design professionals with community groups, civic organizations and nonprofits, offering free design services for projects with a significant public upside. In two decades, they’ve helped community groups brainstorm more than 600 projects.

One recent example is Soak it UP! Philadelphia, part of the CDC's Infill Philadelphia initiative. In partnership with the the Philadelphia Water Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, they called on design professionals from around the country to form interdisciplinary teams and tasked them with a stormwater management challenge on three outdated local sites -- one industrial, one commercial and one residential. The result is a showcase of best practices in green stormwater infrastructure, including rain gardens, green roofs, rain barrels and innovative pourous surfaces.
Flying Kite spoke with Executive Director Beth Miller about the CDC's work.
Flying Kite (FK): What precipitated the founding of the Community Design Collaborative?
Beth Miller (BM): There was a bit of a recession [in 1991]. There were a bunch of unemployed architects with time on their hands who wanted to help the community. There’s a lack of funding when it comes to preliminary design. Members of civic groups reach out to us when they have a vision for change. We compile a team of professionals. It helps groups determine what their priorities are. It’s really about the process and the product.
FK: How are some of the planning projects transformed from paper into reality?
BM: We’re really trying to be a catalyst for action and advocacy. The community organization is really the one we serve. Community development corporations (CDCs) are well positioned to do that work. The group can use the info we provided to advocate for change with their city council person [and others] and to try to secure funding.
FK: Any good examples?
BM: The Big Green Block, a 20-acre site in New Kensington. That was the result of collaboration between a number of city agencies, the Philadelphia Water Department, Parks and Recreation and the New Kensington CDC (NKCDC). Neighborhood planning and advocacy coordinated new investment, built a new school [Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts] and rehabbed the Shissler Recreation Center. The NKCDC was able to leverage public, private and nonprofit resources for a great outcome that sparked economic development, community investment and civic infrastructure.
FK: What are the biggest hurdles the Collaborative faces?
BM: The demand for services is greater than what we can respond to.
FK: How did you choose the three locations for your current design challenge "Soak it Up!"?
BM: We were really looking for opportunities for green infrastructure. It’s really about urban fabric where there is private investment, and the conditions happen over and over again. They were prototypes that happened in other cities. The idea is to have a conversation to show there are innovative and cost-effective solutions.
FK: Stormwater management is getting all sorts of attention. Why has it been overlooked in the past?
BM: Stormwater management is not so new. What is new is the groundbreaking new policy [that requires it be included]. Philadelphia leads the way in this, making green stormwater infrastructure a primary solution. The question is how can we -- design professionals, policy makers, implementers and the community -- apply green infrastructure to older cities.
FK: What are a few locations or neighborhoods that you think are prime for a boom and how might that happen?
BM: There are a lot of places that could use new blood, but there are old timers there too. How do you create new energy where we haven’t seen too much development in the past? I think it’s about equitable and sustainable development. I think it has to do with civic associations and the strength of residents’ organizations. It’s about people and what neighbors are doing to help advance the places they live.  
FK: What is the future of development?
BM: I think the future is really kind of continuing to tap into new opportunities -- like how to reuse or recycle neighborhood anchors, industrial sites, schools and churches. It’s also about how to tap into the opportunities provided by the new zoning code. Can you do a mixed-use project with an old warehouse space at Front and Oxford? Prior to the new zoning code that wasn’t legal.
FK: Are there any experimental or somewhat radical projects the Collaborative is involved with?
BM: DIGSAU [a local design firm] came up with a really great concept for the Oxford Street Site. Although it wasn’t implemented, the team’s selective subtraction transformed a vacant 19th-century manufacturing site into a mixed-use complex that integrated sustainability, preservation and ecology with retail, residential and manufacturing uses in a totally modern way.

LOU MANCINELLI  is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia covering development and neighborhoods. Send feedback here.

All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts