What's New in City Design

Playgrounds for Useful Knowledge

Playgrounds for Useful Knowledge held playful community programming on a vacant lot to tackle thorny issues such as gentrification, environmental restoration and housing through participatory design.

Benefits & Problems Addressed

Making policy engaging: Performing arts communicates otherwise policy-driven discussions (trash, housing) in novel ways with messages likely to stick.

Taking government to the streets:  Playgrounds for Useful Knowledge transformed a trash-filled lot into an "office" for civic outreach within the neighborhood facing pressure and change. 

Crossing cultural divides: Playgrounds for Useful Knowledge provided art as a channel to share and collect knowledge in a community known for diversity and growth pressures of displacement, overdevelopment and land speculation.

Tips & Techniques

Background: Playgrounds for Useful Knowledge arose from Philadelphia's Mural Arts program and Cohabitation Strategies (CohStra).

Getting started: The first step in developing a work plan was a storytelling session, in collaboration with Philadelphia-based actors and performers, to list the most pressing local issues to be addressed in the program. This session led to neighborhood committees in charge of programming.

Preparing the lot & programs:  Taking ideas from the storytelling session, the city prepared the vacant lot at 632 Jackson Street in South Philadelphia as a place where neighbors presented their aspirations for the urban development of the area. Participants shared new practices, skills, and transferable knowledge through interactive games and performance with guidance from local artists. The event brought forth alternative ways to address social and urban issues prevalent in South Philadelphia.


The Festival: The Mifflin Square Alliance Festival was a day-long community-organized celebration featuring performances, exhibitions, and knowledge developed in the Playground. Festival events included:

  • Live music, talk shows, dance, and storytelling on the PowerHouse Performance Stage
  • Fun and creative hands-on activities for kids
  • Tips from Trash Academy on keeping the neighborhood clean
  • Workshops for idea-sharing with local community organizations
  • A South Philly Food Contest

Funders & Partners: In addition to the  city of Philadelphia (Dept. of Human Services, Mural Arts program), funders/sponsors included  The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the  PTS Foundation. the FAO Schwarz Family Foundation, Fondation d’entreprise Hermés, and Surdna Foundation.

Hot Buttons: For temporary exhibitions, participants will want to see the most successful aspects carried forward. For Playground, Trash Academy emerged as an on-going program given it's importance addressing many of the real and perceived problems of South Philadelphia. 


Playgrounds for Useful Knowledge Website: Mural Arts Program

Playgrounds for Useful Knowledge Research: Cohabitation Strategies 


Image: Steve Weinik.