Fall-Winter 2002-2003

Mapping and Community Organizing in Philadelphia
by Eric Hoffman

PACDC logoSince 1995, the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporation (PACDC) has used wireless handheld technology for its member CDCs' neighborhood-based data collection efforts. Early in 2001, PACDC launched a more ambitious program, acquiring a small fleet of Compaq iPAQ Pocket PCs and distributing them to CDCs that were creating neighborhood inventories of their service areas. The primary objectives of the Pocket Neighborhood Inventory System (NIS), the software application developed by PACDC to process collected data, are to increase the quality of data collected by CDCs by standardizing data collection for citywide comparability and to establish a basis for measuring changes in the neighborhood over time. The Pocket NIS is merely a tool for gathering information; however, the exercise itself has provided CDCs with valuable knowledge in their strategic planning, community outreach efforts, and development of policy initiatives.

Proactive Neighborhood Strategic Planning

Neighborhood planning is a process whereby community representatives are brought together to raise concerns and needs, identify strengths and assets, establish goals for improving the neighborhood, and provide recommendations for realizing those goals. By taking a proactive approach to the planning process, CDCs can better understand neighborhood dynamics, prioritize and target resources, and make informed decisions about issues before they become problems. One recent illustration of proactive strategic planning involved a blight reduction project by Project H.O.M.E., a CDC that provides transitional housing for homeless men and single mothers. The stated goal of this project was to "stabilize up to one acre of land, within designated communities, by clearing and re-vegetating underutilized publicly-owned open space."

Project H.O.M.E. conceptual plan
A conceptual plan for Project H.O.M.E. advocates restructuring blocks with older two-story rowhouses (courtesy Brown & Keener/Lager Raabe Skafte).

Project H.O.M.E. elected to conduct a neighborhood inventory based on several departmental databases they had compiled. The databases revealed inconsistencies and other inaccuracies. The most common errors were typographical with variations on the format of property addresses. These errors add to the processing time needed to prepare the data for analysis and mapping. The Pocket NIS reduces response errors during data collection because elements in the survey are structured from predefined lists and checkboxes. Eliminating paper also significantly reduces the survey time by decreasing the number of steps involved in conducting a survey. As well, the Pocket NIS contains necessary geographic identifiers making the transition from the database to maps, tables, and charts a simpler process.

Utilizing the data collected from their neighborhood inventory, the project steering committee and community representatives selected several clusters of vacant lots for cleaning-and-greening, lots covering eight square blocks of the target area. The sites were chosen for their high visibility and low maintenance that could be used as leverage in "creating enduring patterns of land use and development that will stimulate investment and encourage long-time residents to remain in their neighborhoods." The sites were cleared of refuse and were landscaped in August 2001.

The project focused primarily on open space issues; however, the steering committee and community residents had identified high concentrations of abandoned property in rows of older two-story houses in drafts of maps of the inventory data. Older two-story houses are not viable rehabilitation candidates when more gracious larger homes are readily available for low upfront cost. Houses with small livable areas and no yards are also not attractive to prospective homebuyers. The resulting strategic plan advocates that these blocks be restructured as part of a homeownership project which would demolish structures to decrease densities and create open space for yards and off-street parking, and adjoin adjacent two-story structures to increase livable space per unit.

Community Outreach And Buy-In
Women's Community Revitalization Project garden
Neighborhood children celebrate at one of the Women's Community Revitalization Project's newest community gardens.

In developing a neighborhood strategic plan, it is necessary to strengthen neighborhood relationships and make a concerted effort to enlist residents to buy-in to the community development process. Building a sense of empowerment in the neighborhood is absolutely crucial to sustaining community projects after a CDC has completed development. The Women's Community Revitalization Project (WCRP), a CDC that focuses on physical development and advocacy as ways for revitalizing communities in which low-income women and their families live, recently completed an open space management project that involved community participation in each step of the planning and implementation process.

WCRP conducted a survey of residents to identify environmental concerns and to evaluate WCRP's previous open space projects. The issue raised in these sessions was the illegal dumping of trash and the rat infestation that resulted from the associated dumping.

WCRP supplemented the survey with a neighborhood inventory. Since they employed interns and volunteers to do the surveying, it was important that the survey instrument be simple and easy to navigate. The Pocket NIS is intended for use by persons with minimal computer experience. The application is designed to be flexible along a wide range of topics including evaluating the structural condition of property, compiling business data for commercial development, and cataloguing natural resources for open space management. Unnecessary survey elements are hidden from the surveyor to reduce the potential for confusion. Related survey elements are grouped together which leads to greater consistency of responses. An extensive HTML-based help file is contained as a feature of the Pocket NIS to assist in solving questions that may arise in the field. The file provides a definition for each survey element, a description of responses, and a photo.

The analysis of WCRP's neighborhood inventory identified potential greening projects centered on resolving these issues. Residents prioritized sites for cleaning and greening as publicly owned vacant lots located near established WCRP developments and community anchors because of ease of management, residential interest, and the ability to build on relationships in the neighborhood. Enthusiastic residents were educated in water, soil, and lead issues and trained in other maintenance issues. Access to gardening tools and materials for planting were provided to complete the process.

As planned, WCRP is no longer directly involved in this project. They have begun the process of identifying future initiatives to extend their record of creating more than 70 projects, all of which serve as examples of residential resolve. In the final report, neighborhood residents credit WCRP for supporting the community's effort to reclaim vacant land by "creating a neighborhood wide interest in the environment" and getting residents to invest in their community beyond their block and "providing fertile ground for leadership to take root in the community."

Partners in Citywide Initiatives and Policy Change

While implementing strategies for change in their own neighborhoods will always be central to the work of CDCs, there is recognition that CDCs also need to think more broadly about their initiatives. The New Kensington Community Development Corporation established a neighborhood-based open space management program in 1996 to address the growing problem of urban vacant land. The long-term goal of the multi-year effort was to "create an effective system for managing and maintaining every vacant parcel in the New Kensington target area." The project was unique in that it enlisted support from a number of city institutions. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society provided technical assistance and conducted workshops; the Department of Licenses & Inspections cleared the lots of trash; the Office of Housing and Community Development provided funding; and the Redevelopment Authority facilitated the land acquisition process.

After School Club at New Kensington CDC Community Garden Center
An After School Club at New Kensington CDC's Community Garden Center teaches responsible attitudes toward natural resources.

A starting point in the project was to compile a vacant land inventory to identify ownership and the condition of vacant land and to develop a strategy to promote vacant land reuse. Because the project steering committee intended to replicate this model for other neighborhoods, they recognized that standardizing inventory data for citywide comparability would be important in documenting the success of this and future projects. Once a benchmark is established, a set of indicators must be constructed to monitor the changes that take place in the neighborhood. Following data collection with the Pocket NIS, a copy of the completed database was provided to the University of Pennsylvania's Cartographic Modeling Laboratory (CML) who has developed a web-based Neighborhood Information System (NIS). The neighborhood data has been integrated with other data sets from City of Philadelphia agencies. Authorized users of the NIS can generate maps and reports of selected properties and create summary tables of their neighborhood. New Kensington CDC refers to this resource when researching the feasibility of their next development project.

To date, New Kensington CDC has reclaimed 60% of the 1,100 vacant parcels in the neighborhood transferring land to adjacent homeowners for gardens, private "sideyards," and off street parking. The Community Garden Center is supported by local residents and offers free compost, soil, and mulch. An After School Club works with local students to develop a responsible attitude toward natural resources. New Kensington CDCs program received a HUD Best Practices Award in 1999 and the model has since been implemented in two additional Philadelphia neighborhoods.


By summer's end, twelve CDCs had utilized the Pocket NIS for conducting inventories of their neighborhood in 2002. Wireless handheld technology has streamlined and strengthened the neighborhood data collection process and has succeeded in generating interest among other CDCs and neighborhood-based organizations in better documenting their activities. This low-cost, high-tech tool has allowed CDCs to think more strategically, expand participation in the planning process, and enlist other agencies as partners in progress in revitalizing neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

Eric Hoffman is Director of Information and Technology with the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations.

Post a comment

Remember personal info?

* Denotes required field.