Restored Spaces & Environmental Projects

In 2008, during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, polls of young people revealed that their second greatest concern was the environment. It was the first time since the 1970’s that this surfaced as a pressing issue. The growing threat of climate change had clearly come to the fore as one of the greatest challenges for the next generation. As an arts organization deeply involved with the health of Philadelphia and it citizens, Mural Arts began to address a range of environmental issues, initially focusing on our youth constituents. The participatory art practices we began to develop around the environment have provided access and served to catalyze new networks of communities, of participants and of supporters and funders. This work has gradually evolved into what visiting curator Lucia Sanromán, refers to as “cutting-edge art practices that blur the boundary between artistic methodology and results, architectural intervention, urban improvement, and activism.”

Under the rubric of environmental practice, Mural Arts has supported Philadelphia’s recycling efforts by creating designs for “skins” for a fleet of recycling trucks in 2009-10 and its solar trash collection with a small herd of Litter Critters in 2011.  Also in 2011, we launched A2O, an art and environmental education program developed in partnership with the Department at Parks and Recreation.  A2O places artists into six-week residencies at Recreation Centers where they engage youth in deep explorations of urban environments.

Perhaps our most ambitious effort in the environmental sphere is the Restored Spaces Initiative, developed and led by Senior Project Manager, Shari Hersh.  Restored Spaces serves as a platform for community action through art and planning in shaping the urban landscape.   

Restored Spaces Initiative 

Photo by Ashley HahnRestored Spaces is Mural Arts’ art-based approach to integrating the activities of city agencies, community organizations, and residents as we collectively transform schools, recreation centers, and commercial corridors into models for sustainable revitalization.  Restored Spaces builds on the City of Philadelphia’s equity-focused strategy to become, as Mayor Michael Nutter described in his inaugural address, the number one green city in America.  At the start of a Restored Spaces project, we identify a site where there is momentum for varied improvements, including new storm water management systems, new playground equipment, new green space, and new public art.  Then, rather than allow these developments to occur separately and without input from the community, we form a steering committee of artists, project managers, representatives from each stakeholder group, and neighborhood residents to create a master plan integrating intended improvements.  Once the steering committee arrives at a vision for the site, artists work with stakeholders as well as teens enrolled in our Art Education program to design and create the public artworks.

To date Restored Spaces has directly engaged more than 1,600 people at six sites in collaboration with a growing list of stakeholders, including schools, city agencies, and community development corporations.  The public artwork—which can include the creation of outdoor classrooms, wayfinding icons, an amphitheater of upcycled materials, gardens , mosaic or mural work, —interprets and expands upon the vision and efforts of participants and partners  connecting their actions to a larger understanding of the environment and the way natural forces shape and are shaped by Philadelphia’s landscape.  We have also found that natural imagery provides a resonant metaphor for the process of connecting and nourishing people and communities.  As Ashley Hahn, a writer for the well-regarded PlanPhilly blog recently wrote, “The whole idea for the Restored Spaces Initiative is multi-disciplinary and inclusive. It is exactly the sort of project that we should see more often in Philadelphia. It’s about thoughtful consideration of how to do better with what you have.”


Restored Spaces has proven an effective way to educate audiences about important infrastructure improvements, frame and build dialogue, encourage buy-in for change, and increase long-term stewardship and utilization of public spaces.  A community resident remarked at the dedication of the Bodine High School site: “For many involved, this site is a project, for others their workplace or school.  For me and other neighbors, this is home.  When I look out my window, what I see is not only beautiful, it also reflects the richness of knowledge, innovation and collaboration that I believe has always existed within the walls of the school.  Now, through this project, it exists on the outside as well, where it combines with and reflects the spirit of the entire neighborhood.”  Bodine’s principal added, “The project which we are dedicating today confers upon Bodine a new and renewable educational resource and a priceless legacy for future generations of Bodine students to cultivate, cherish and preserve.”

Restored Spaces - Room For Growth (Conestoga Shoemaker) mural design by Kim Beck


  • Prioritize a collaborative and participatory process with youth and community.
  • Work where there is momentum for varied improvements, including new green storm water infrastructure, new playground equipment, new green space, and new public art.


  • Create environmental art that actually produces a direct impact on the environment.
  • Educate and raise awareness about sustainability.
  • Use socially-engaged public art as a platform to connect diverse partners, from city agencies to schools and greening organizations, with community organizations and individuals to collaborate and share responsibility for driving neighborhood change.
  • Use community-driven art projects as tools to contribute to the reknitting of the social fabric.

Other Environmental Initiatives: A20

In 2011, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and Mural Arts launched a cutting edge partnership and environmental artist residency program, called Arts & Artists Outdoors (A2O). This initiative brings together youth and rising local artists at a local recreation facility to create a permanent or temporary multi-media artwork that highlights the nearby green space. 

Each artist leads weekly workshops that integrate youth into the project process and that investigate the environmental issues that the project addresses. In a past residency, an artist worked with students to research local birds, took a field trip to the Pennypack Park's Bird Sanctuary, which led to the installation of tape stencils of those birds on the recreation facility's playground floor. A2O'scollaborative artistic exploration of each recreation facility's green space develops the tools for environmental awareness and sustainability, creating an impact that lasts long beyond the residency. 

Learn more about A2O

Some of Our Completed Restored Spaces Projects

Room for Growth

Greening and beautifying a West Philadelphia corridor.

Reading the Flow and chainlinkGreen

How does work that functions at the intersection between art and design challenge...

Norris Passage

 In 2008, The New Kensington Community Development Corporation initiated the transformation...

Shissler Greenway and Impressions of the Delaware

The Shissler Recreation Center and surrounding blocks, often referred to as the Big Green...

The Tree is a City

Artists Jennie Shanker, Eric Okdeh and Beverly Fisher worked with youth in the Mural Corps...

From Roots to Recovery

Our goal was to enhance revitalization efforts on the corridor with a project integrating greening and art...

A Drop of Tranquility

Artist Phillip Adams worked with youth in our Mural Corps program to create a large-scale...

Related Programming


Philly Painting


Mural Arts was thrilled to host world famous Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, also known as Haas & Hahn, for a year-long artist residency here in Philadelphia. 

Philly Painting employed artistic practices that included a robust cross-sector partnership, a sustained presence, a large-scale work of public art, and a commitment to directly supporting steps being taken by the City of Philadelphia to create a healthy, vibrant, and economically viable city.  Both Restored Spaces and Philly Painting build on Mural Arts' goal to shape the city through urban improvement projects.

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