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Salt and the practice of landscape architecture

How does a volunteer stint with the Israeli army lead to a career in landscape architecture? Just ask Sara Pevaroff Schuh, an energetic landscape architect and volunteer with the Collaborative. She has lent her leadership to five Collaborative design grants and countless project reviews. You may have caught her presentation on how to lead a community meeting last year.

Sara was working as a legislative assistant to Texas Congressman Martin Frost. Everything seemed to be on the right track until Sara was in a serious a car accident. “I wanted to go and do, to give back,” she says. She happened to see an advertisement for a volunteer corps in Israel—a free trip in exchange for public service. Instead of being placed in a kibbutz as expected, Sara did manual labor for six weeks with the Israeli army.

Sara says her senses were heightened by the entirely new environment. “I saw people who were given the right to create public spaces and those who were disenfranchised. By being there, I got a notion of what it means to make place and how place affects behavior. I became obsessed with the notion of making place.”

At the time Sara had never heard of landscape architecture. Back in DC, still suffering from jet lag, she picked up a USDA catalogue for continuing education. The pages fell open at the “L” section and she saw the words “landscape architecture.”

This was in 1991, pre-Internet. But Sara had access to the next-best thing: Congressional research services. She contacted them, asking, “Give me everything you have on landscape architecture…” Much to her surprise, a giant stack arrived at her desk 24 hours later. That stack—and the advice of others already in the loop—led Sara to the University of Pennsylvania, where she received her MLA.

Salt and the practice of landscape architecture
The name of Sara’s firm – SALT Design Studio—reflects her philosophy about landscape architecture. “Salt comes from the earth, you can’t survive without it,” she says. “It was once used as currency.”

“I was driven to practice by wanting to challenge the notion that landscape is an extra. My firm’s goal is to reposition landscape as the thing you cannot live without.” Fortunately, Sara notes, perceptions of landscape architecture’s worth have changed dramatically since she began her practice. Landscape architects have been increasingly getting significant projects that involve infrastructure.

Child’s Play Design Charrette
Sara and her firm are currently teeing up the Child’s Play Design Charrette, where designers will collaborate on nature-based play spaces for family child care in Philadelphia with child care providers, families, and educators.  

 “What’s amazing [with this design charrette] is that you’re thinking about the whole emotional and intellectual development of children in the physical design.”

Sara is already familiar with the small residential rear and side yards that will be addressed through the design charrette. “Our office is about the same size as the project!” She notes that she and her staff often use their office to think about scale. “We have the tape measure out all the time.” The staff often walks a few blocks to Sara’s house to check out plant materials in her test garden too.

Hope Partnership for Education 
Last year, Sara worked with Hope Partnership for Education, which changes lives by educating middle schoolers and adults. The nonprofit organization has relocated to Fairhill because it wanted a permanent home at the epicenter of the neighborhood that needed it most. 

Sara admires Hope Partnership’s deep commitment. “At our first meeting, they said, ‘We know that this is an experience where the honeymoon comes at the end.’”

Hope Partnership is located along a corridor that lost residents early in Philadelphia’s decline and never regained its footing. “What struck me on my first visit was how many boarded-up houses there are. The 11th Street corridor has more abandoned than occupied houses.”

Hope Partnership will knit the community back together by providing education when it is most crucial (and hardest to find) as a bridge to new opportunities. It wants to mend the community in more tangible ways too. That’s why Hope Partnership came to the Collaborative to map out a strategy for the large vacant lot across from its headquarters and school.


The power of light
Sara was immediately drawn to the project. “These are the places where I want to work as a design professional. Here, the designer needs to put ego to the side and tap into something very realistic.

The lot was once a church that offered stability and salvation to the neighborhood. “I see a parallel between the church and Hope Partnership—both represent places that will accept you, even in your darkest hour,” says Sara. “But Hope differs in that it is ecumenical. Its mission is to break the cycle of poverty.”

The volunteer team’s approach to the Hope Partnership intersection and the lot was incremental. “It felt like lighting was key,” says Sara. “Light is what makes people feel safe, less vulnerable—and Hope’s mission is about bringing light into people’s lives.”

Using “the power of light” as a guiding concept, the Collaborative volunteer team developed a toolkit to revitalize a large vacant lot across from the school and re-engage the community step by step with lighting, colorful graphics that span street and sidewalk, plantings, and light-reflective paving, seating and fencing.

Sara notes that another nonprofit in the area, the Village of Arts and Humanity, has a distinct style based on its famous mosaics. The volunteer team’s conceptual design—with its scattering of lights across the intersection and warm yellow palette—begins to shape a visual identity for Hope Partnership and its community.

The first community engagement around the site was a clean-up day hosted by Hope Partnership in June. The clean-up and subsequent programming will help resident see the space as part of their neighborhood again.

Sara wants to see an infrastructure partner step up to get capital funding for street and sidewalk lighting. The other improvements would stem from that.  “It’s a flexible sequence, but the lighting has to happen first.”

The conceptual design for Hope Partnership for Education community open space is one of three finalists for the Collaborative's 2014 Community Design Award




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