September 29, 2015

Urban Arboreta Student Design Competition



Registration and submission deadlines for the Urban Arboreta Design Competition have been extended to:

  • Registration and payment of entry fee – Monday May 2 at 5:00 PM EDT
  • Submission – Friday May 20 at 5:00 PM EDT

NOTE: to be considered for the competition, payments must be made by the May 2 deadline.

Also note that in addition to individuals, charrettes, and studios, student teams with a faculty adviser may enter the competition.


URBAN ARBORETA: transforming ground invites design students to submit schemes that creatively integrate tree and food production with a new model of public open space, re-purposing two vacant sites in the City of Philadelphia. The design of these landscapes should consider the synergy of different kinds of plant production and ecological performance, community engagement and education, revenue generation, job training and new forms of civic engagement. All submissions will be reviewed by a jury of professionals: the winning submission team will document and implement their design working with professional landscape architects and the Urban Arboreta Team.

This design competition is the second phase of Urban Arboreta: transforming ground, a Knight Cities Challenge Winner.

Student designers are challenged to re-engage the surrounding neighborhoods by creating a thoughtful and compelling, ecologically sound landscape that produces food and nursery plantings, invites interaction with the neighbors, considers passive recreation and contemplation. The two identified sites should be conceived as a synergistic whole that takes advantage of economies of scale with the two production operations, different access points, varying levels of visibility, and distinctions between adjacent communities.


  1. Context
  2. Introduction
  3. The Knight Cities Challenge
  4. Registration
  5. Important Deadlines
  6. Questions and Answers
  7. More information


  1. Register for the competition!
  2. Program Requirements
  3. Submission Guidelines
  4. Site Information
  5. Project Data
  6. Competition Announcement (PDF)


The urban fabric of many North American cities has been radically altered over the past few decades, and a combination of dispersed settlement patterns, decentralized and abandoned urban cores, economic downturns, political shifts, rapid suburbanization, and deindustrialization have led to large inventories of vacant land. The issue of urban vacancies, and the processes that created them, has been well documented in such seminal work as Stalking Detroit and Shrinking Cities. Much of this vacant land is now contaminated and/or in various states of decay and dis-use; the time is ripe for innovative reclamation efforts. The economic realities of urban reclamation strongly suggests that today’s solutions must be resilient and phased over time; the cost of regenerating vast acreages of potentially toxic land and the public’s desire to see immediate progress indicates that interventions must be carefully crafted, embraced by the public, and cost-effective. Such interventions can be both productive and well suited for human habitation and interaction, in other words, hybrid landscapes.

As in many east coast cities, Philadelphia’s fortunes fell with the decline of industrial manufacturing after World War II. Exacerbated by federal highway development and federal housing policies that encouraged new development outside the city, as well as racial and political unrest inside the city, large areas of the city and surrounding neighborhoods fell into disrepair. Today Philadelphia has one of the highest per capita vacancy rates in the country. To date, Philadelphia has more than 40,000 vacant parcels, including 26,000 vacant residential properties and nearly 3,000 vacant commercial and industrial properties.


Dormant, vacant land in Philadelphia can be transformed into productive, inhabitable, performative landscapes through plant production for subsequent transplanting along streets, in parks, areas designated for reforestation, and along depleted riparian corridors. Through design, thoughtful research, engagement of critical resources and business models, and community input, such production can become an integral component of a neighborhood environmental system of green infrastructure that includes stormwater management, bicycle and pedestrian circulation, soil production and composting operations, along with recreational programming.

Food production will be integrated into the design of the two sites, thus careful consideration must be given to economies of scale relative to the components of the two modes of production with shared spatial and operational requirements including but not limited to irrigation, composting and soil manufacturing, planting media mixing and storage, fertilizer and other material storage, service access, and security. Research and design of a hybrid landscape prototype will identify optimum approaches that meet production standards while interfacing with community aspirations. Coordinating with city agencies and schools, this prototype will offer job training in nursery management techniques: skills that can support careers in public service or in the private sector.

This project builds on past efforts of city agencies and organizations to advance conceptual ideas to a prototype tree production operation. It will allow testing of species and growing methods to ascertain suitability, allow refinement of spatial requirements, generate research data on efficacy, and provide a laboratory for the development of a long term maintenance and management strategy. Ecologically performative and programmed for human activity, URBAN ARBORETA: transforming ground will re-purpose vacant land through the design and installation of a prototype self-sustaining nursery production operation that supports the demand for plantings throughout the city, provides job training in nursery production techniques, enhances the environmental quality of the city, and creates actively programmed open space for residents.

The Knight Cities Challenge

The design and implementation of this prototype is partially funded by a Knight Cities Challenge grant (one of 32 winners out of 7,160 applications nationwide) from the James S. and John L. Knight Foundation.

The design competition, launching January 2016, is the 2nd phase of the URBAN ARBORETA: transforming ground Knight Cities Challenge Grant. University design students are invited to participate in three ways (see Registration Options on the registration page). Schemes will be reviewed by a professional design jury, which will select the winning scheme. In Phase 3, beginning June 2016, the winning entry will further design development under professional supervision—completing construction documents and then participating in project implementation. Some components of implementation are contingent upon additional funding.


To register for the design competition, click here. A $25 registration fee applies.


To upload your submission to the design competition, please first review the Submission Guidelines, and then click here to submit. Note: submissions without a paid registration fee will not be considered.

Important Deadlines*

  • Registration deadline: May 2, 2016 at 5:00pm (EST)
  • Submission deadline: May 20, 2016 at 5:00pm (EST)

*Deadlines updated on April 12, 2016

Questions and Answers

Questions regarding the competition should be directed to at any time during the competition period. Answers to all questions, as well as updates to the design competition, will be posted on this website at

Registered competition entrants will receive email notifications when a new question has been answered. The deadline for submitting questions is April 30, 2016 at 5:00 PM EST.

More Information

More information on the design competition, as well as program requirements, submission guidelines, site information, and downloadable project data can be found via the following links:

  1. Program Requirements
  2. Submission Guidelines
  3. Site Information
  4. Project Data

By February 1, a “virtual tour” video of the site will be posted here along with additional photos and site information.