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Bethany Welch

I mobilize youth to strengthen our neighborhood through place-making.


November 29, 2016


Point Breeze


Fall 2015

Since completing CPI, Bethany has been working in her role as Director of the Aquinas Center to collaborate with a diverse group of South Philly teens to explore placemaking and ways they can encourage more youth-inclusive public spaces.

The most important thing I learned from CPI was how much neighbors need to be actively involved in the planning process. Everything from zoning to placemaking should engage community residents, but many of us aren’t aware of the pathways to become involved or of the power we actually have as residents to shape the future of our city.

During the summer of 2016, she developed a youth camp curriculum with a Penn intern that engaged 17 local teens in a week long experience of visiting Philadelphia’s newest public spaces, such as The Oval, the newly renovated Dilworth Plaza, Sister Cities Park, and more.

People sit on benches in a park.

Aquinas Center youth visit Dilworth Plaza to learn about public space & placemaking

They prepared for visits to these locations by dialoguing about different concepts articulated by the Placemaking 101 resources from the organization Project for Public Spaces. The teens used journal prompts to record what they saw, how they felt in each location, and what made it a viable space, particularly for youth.

They also visited spaces constructed by community members, such as Las Parcelas in the Norris Square neighborhood.

These gardens and art installations were particularly compelling to the teens because they emphasized the culture and folklore traditions of the neighbors, something these largely immigrant and refugee teens really value.

People stand around in a garden.

Part of the summer camp involved making a presentation on their findings to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) staff. This was an exciting opportunity for the youth to dialogue with staff in the public sector and resulted the PCPC staff coming to Point Breeze during Fall 2016 for a neighborhood tour and conversation, led by the youth!

This is the work I love the most! Equipping high school youth with the tools they need to explore, critique, and mobilize action to better their quality of life in Philly. I believe that both the youth and the city officials feel empowered to work together for a stronger future.

During Fall 2016, Bethany led the Aquinas Center in completing a four month long Migrant Mosaic Mural project in their beautiful courtyard. The youth conducted surveys with over 60 neighbors to capture the aesthetic dimensions of their journeys to the Philadelphia area.

The idea of centering migration narratives emerged in the summer when the world seemed to alight with anger toward those fleeing dangerous and poverty stricken regions in search of safety. We wanted to try to find a way to illuminate the stories of our community and share the many ways people come to our city to find a new home.

South Philly Barbacoa provided a scholarship for a team member to train alongside mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar. She and Bethany then worked together to design a mosaic across three support columns in the outdoor space.

The finished product shows the movement from agricultural and rural areas across desert, ocean, mountain, small villages, and by air into our great city with a span of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the skyline in the final frame.

Six people stand under a tree looking at a glass mosaic on a building.

Bethany and the Aquinas Center Youth Voices and Youth Entrepreneurship Project programs are already looking ahead to the next project: implementing teen-led pop-up activities, which include more vacant lot remediation, murals, a farm stand, and a monthly cafe series that could be held inside or outside.

I gained a good deal of energy from my CPI cohort and the alumni that I met through the program, which I have been able to share those connections and resources with the many teens and interns that come through the Aquinas Center programs.

For example, in the CPI elective on “Public Spaces for People,” Bethany learned about block party permits and other city services that help neighbors claim space temporarily for community-building activities.

She used this knowledge to create an activity for the teens to go to various City of Philadelphia offices to learn how access public services. They visited Parks and Recreation, L&I, the Office of Immigrant Affairs, and the Streets Department. Bethany elaborates:

I probably would not have been as knowledgeable about the interworking of all of these departments without class time in CPI.

She has also worked with CPI alumni Miguel Garces (Fall 2014). His final project was a mini-grant program for Point Breeze and Bethany applied for and received a $250 grant on behalf of the Aquinas Center Youth Voices for help with a temporary fence and flowers to stabilize an abandoned lot that had a lot of dumping on it.

The mini-grant eventually attracted $1,000 of private donations from other individuals who wanted to see the teen led work continue in that blighted area.

Young teens stand in front of a community garden.

Bethany has worked with other Citizen Planners as well. She always appreciates the work journalist Jim Saksa (Spring 2014), also from Point Breeze, does at PlanPhilly. Eliza Michaels (Fall 2016), who is a realtor and fellow Point Breeze resident, helped Bethany buy her house and really commit to Philadelphia by putting down roots.

Beyond her role as director of the Aquinas Center, Bethany also continues to research and publish articles on the built environment and cities. She recently had an article published in Penn’s Graduate School of Education’s Perspectives on Urban Education on how murals help reclaim marginalized urban space.

Bethany is also collaborating with teens and interns at the Aquinas Center on two chapters for a forthcoming book called Fostering the Inclusion of Youth in the Public Realm.