Penn State Intercom......February 27, 2003

Students are making life
better, 1 vacant lot at a time

By Allison Kessler
Public Information vacant_lot

The children of Allison Hill are hopeful. Much like many young, bright-eyed children across the nation, these kids have dreams of becoming doctors, firefighters, actors and professional athletes.

Even the conditions of Allison Hill, a low-income, urban Harrisburg community faced with job loss, vacant and deteriorating housing, and a high crime rate that impacts so many of the country's neighborhoods, have yet to dampen these children's spirits.

They still play kickball with their friends after school and play hide-and-go-seek on hot summer nights. But the play space in Allison Hill is not conducive to safe play. The kids play in a community garden where they easily could trip over a flower bed while chasing after a stray ball. All of this, however, is changing, keeping the abundance of innocent hope alive.

A service-learning landscape architecture class, developed in partnership with the Schreyer Honors College and designed specifically to contribute to Harrisburg revitalization projects, took note of the area's infinite potential.

"South Allison Hill is home to some energetic residents who are full of hope and eager to work with us to mutually identify problems, cultivate solutions and identify causes of these problems," said Sam Dennis, assistant professor of landscape architecture.

Last spring the class, together with the Community Action Commission and neighborhood residents, focused on the community's assets to help identify the area's physical promise.

The students all worked on several different community projects, which were developed and implemented in partnership with the residents of South Allison Hill. One such project yielded a landlord map that displays the owner of every building in the neighborhood. Another project developed a community gardening resource book, while another used the community gardens to teach young children about the life sciences.

Mayor Stephen Reed took special note of one particular project, and awarded one of the students, Jesse Hunting, the Distinguished Community Service Award. The award -- the city's highest recognition for public service -- stemmed from Hunting's work on a vacant lot project.

Hunting found two lots in Allison Hill where an old abandoned house once stood. Together with the help of the community, he transformed the lot into a safe place for area children to play.

"Looking back, this class was hands-down the best class I have ever taken. It gave me the guidance and school time I needed to help develop the premise and logistics of the project," he said.

But his project poured out of his academic life and into his personal life. To implement the ideas he and two other students researched during the spring semester, Hunting used his summer vacation to work alongside the community to build a safe play area.

Through the hard work and dedication of a number of different people, Allison Hill area children now have a safer place to play.

These projects and this landscape architecture class, however, were about more than simply beautifying an area through green space.

"All of these projects were highly visible projects that showed the area youth that they too can make a positive contribution to society," Dennis said. "They love working along side Penn State students. It shows them that they, too, can be Penn State students. We're reaching these kids while they're still hopeful."

This revitalization project was not a one-time-only deal. Dennis currently has a new class of students getting to know the Allison Hill area.

Allison Kessler can be reached at