South Philly serves as the subject of upcoming climate change-inspired public art 

The Philadelphia chapter of the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization striving to create green spaces and protect land, received a $265,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage for its “Heat Capture” project.

Above: Lanier Playground, renovated by The Trust for Public Land in 2018. Photo by Elyse Leyenberger/Photo special to SPR

South Philly neighborhoods aren’t necessarily considered typical topics of environmental crises.

For most, more common images, such as melting ice caps, come to mind when thinking about major ecological shifts. 

Ironically, though, some of the most immediate impacts of climate change are unfolding right in Philadelphians’ backyards. 

“When people think of climate change, they often times think of sea-level rise,” said Owen Franklin, the Pennsylvania state director for the Trust for Public Land. “They think of polar bears swimming amongst icebergs. They think of these long-range global challenges, but, in fact, the people who are at the frontlines of climate change are people living in dense urban areas with limited tree canopy. So, this is where we come to South Philadelphia.”  

In one of its latest undertakings, the Trust for Public Land is working to unveil this seldom-recognized but omnipresent concern in areas across the city, including some communities of South Philly. 

Last month, the Philadelphia chapter of the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization striving to create green spaces and protect land, received a $265,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage for its “Heat Capture” project.

“We need to be using every tool available to be talking about one of the most pressing challenges that we have faced as a society,” Franklin said. “And we need to use tools that are effective in the context in which they are applied.” 

In partnership with nationally renowned environmental artist and activist Eve Mosher, the major endeavor, which requires close to three years of production, is utilizing a collaboration between regional artists and community members to create public art related to climate change.

The works, which are currently open-ended, will be installed in parts of the city that experience the highest temperatures, including Grays Ferry and South Philadelphia East neighborhoods, such as Whitman, along with Fairhill in North Philly. 

“My role is to think about, on the citywide scale, how do we link these three communities together, and how do we get their kind of experience and story out and shared throughout the Philly area so that other communities can recognize themselves in these projects?” Mosher said. 

Using a Geographic Information System called Climate-Smart Cities Decision Support tools, the Trust for Public Land determined which regions of Philadelphia experienced the greatest heat on the warmest days of the year.  

As it turns out, the data revealed that neighborhoods generating the most heat are concurrently some of the most underserved communities in the city.

Some of these neighborhoods were even the subject of the Trust for Public Land’s recent green spacing projects, such as Lanier Playground at 29th and Tasker streets and Taggart Elementary Schoolyard at 4th and Porter streets.

“Poverty doesn’t spread itself evenly across the city,” Franklin said. “We have poverty in concentrated areas where people have lived for generations with tremendous challenges, tremendous unfairness, tremendous inequality and what, in many cases, people need more than anything else is the support of one another – the support of their community.” 

For a multitude of reasons, the correlation between poverty and oppressive heat, Franklin says, is not a coincidence. 

Generally speaking, impoverished populations can’t always afford air conditioning. On top of this issue, individuals living in certain areas could feel hesitant to open windows to cool their homes due to safety concerns, such as gun violence or burglary. 

But above all, Franklin says these neighborhoods tend to possess the least amount of green spaces, which not only cools communities but strengthens them, too. 

“For (Trust for Public Land,), a park provides this impactful tool for cooling people when they’re in a space, for cooling the surrounding streets but also, most importantly, getting back to the sense that a park is a place that supports community connection,” Franklin said. “A connected community is the strongest community…Knowing your neighbors and having those social relationships are so important in all aspects of life, including sustaining climate change.”

Building social bonds is the essential premise of the “Heat Capture” project.

Starting in early 2020, Mosher, along with the Trust for Public Land, will lead community engagement meetings with residents living in these “urban heat islands.”

Harnessing a host of voices, the brainstorming process will not only include scientists but strives to elevate the experiences of local residents.

“I really liked the collaboration aspects of working within communities, and use what I learned and my experience to work really deeply with local artists and community members to create outcomes that both serve their needs and have their creativity as a key part of the project,” Mosher said.

  Both Mosher and Franklin stress the effectiveness of using art as a lens to view prevalent problems, such as climate change. 

Society often perceives the media as distorting information, especially in regard to right-wing or left-wing news outlets. At the same time, reading scientific reports sometimes allows for an “absence of emotions,” as described by Mosher.

“They’re not always the most ideal ways to translate information,” Mosher said. “Sometimes, what is really needed is something that’s more experimental. Creativity can be this alternative space for not only learning but also conversations…The creative world allows for murkiness. We allow for complexity. We allow for a range of emotions and responses. That’s really what’s needed now.”

In an effort to capture the genuine visions of the community, there are no set designs planned for the public artworks. 

These final results can range from murals and sculptures to performances and poetry slams. 

No matter the medium, “Heat Capture” hopes to shed light on local climate concerns through community relationships, which, in due course, could foster solutions for the future.

“How do you tie neighborhood identity, neighborhood culture to important policy issues?” Franklin asked. “Art can be that sticky interstitial tissue that connects who people identify themselves with – with a particular challenge that everyone experiences in a different way…Artists play a unique role in helping to make this topic that can seem, for some, very global, very long-range far more immediate and far more palatable and far more connected to local communities.” 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano