Revisiting “Waterwork” | Urban Voids Proposal

In 2006, the partners of North Street Design were part of the winning team in the Urban Voids Competition.  By combining two of Philadelphia’s civic problems – land vacancy and combined sewer overflow, the project team proposed a solution: using vacant land to create a network of stormwater parks that would alleviate the city’s hydrologic problems while generating new growth and development. The project is now a master planning and feasibility study in conjunction with the Philadelphia Water Department and Drexel University.

The Urban Voids Competition was organized by New York’s Van Alen Institute and the Philadelphia City Parks Association. By assigning a hypothetical site, the competition brief asked for a long-term vision for transforming Philadelphia’s vacant land from an obstacle into an asset. Here are a number of the Competition Boards submitted by North Street Design & Charles Loomis and Chariss McAfee

Phase I Competition Board

The first phase of the competition asked participants to address the city as a whole.  While conducting background research, the team discovered that a network of streams once traversed the entire landscape of Philadelphia.  During the 19th century, most of these streams were diverted underground into culverts and transformed into combined sewers to hold both rainwater and raw sewage.  The original Waterwork proposal called for the stream flow to be daylighted, with the idea that the presence of water would help define place, and thereby spur neighborhood revitalization.

Apart from being picturesque and place-defining, the water in Waterwork would be functional.  It would be used for bioremediation purposes to help clean vacant land, which is so often contaminated by debris from building demolition or illegal dumping.  Waterwork would create a working landscape within the confines of the urban environment.

Phase II Competition Board

During Phase II of the competition, the team re-focused its efforts on stormwater management.  In the City, impervious coverage from building roofs, sidewalks, and streets sends large amounts of polluted water to sewage treatment plants whenever it rains.  In large rainstorms, plant capacity is overloaded, and raw sewage is dumped into the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers.  These combined sewer overflows represent a violation of EPA standards.  It became clear that dealing with stormwater on the surface could both solve these problems and give people the opportunity to re-engage with the urban hydrologic cycle.

North Street Design is currently part a Pennsylvania DCNR and Philadelphia Water Department-funded feasibility and master planning study that grew out of the Waterwork project.  Building upon momentum created by the City’s Greenworks, Green City, Clean Waters, and Green 2015 plans, the study is focused upon how green infrastructure can be embraced by urban neighborhoods.

Text Credits: Juliet Geldi & Gavin Riggall — Partners of North Street Design (

Image credits: North Street Design & Charles Loomis and Chariss McAfee

Project Design Credits: North Street Design & Charles Loomis and Chariss McAfee

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