Student Project | Sowing Ground | Selina Cheah and Elizabeth Servito

Sowing Ground reimages the former PES Refinery site into a new food hub for Philadelphia. For over 150 years, the PES Refinery was the largest and oldest refinery on the East Coast that was shut down in 2019 by a massive fire.  Today, scars of extractive industry permeate the site while polluted air continues to affect nearby communities. To cultivate lasting healing and equitable growth, we look to the site’s Lenni-Lenape roots and the once-fertile agriculture land as a foundation for an abundant future.

Layers of agricultural history, economic opportunities, and local interests in food sovereignty support site programming around food and seed. For over 10,000 years, the Lenape settled and cared for this area’s once fertile grounds, utilizing regenerative agricultural methods for sustainable hunting and growing. These methods can inspire a new approach to food systems in the present day.

Philadelphia is a city with strong economic and social ties to food. A food hub offers a lot of jobs for those without college degrees, immigrants, and entrepreneurs, allowing the site and community to mutually grow. Furthermore, multiple local community organizations have a vested interest in local food sovereignty with values rooted in social justice.

Our design is organized through five strategies: establishing a food identity through diverse programming, connecting to the neighborhood and within the site with a central spine, returning the water edge, raising new grounds for growing, and using a seed farm as a connective tissue between sites.

Recognizing that seeds are the foundation of our food system, a seed farm knits together the entire site and programs together. This productive landscape allows for a unique agrarian experience in the middle of the city. The chosen planting includes nitrogen-fixing legumes and grasses to build richer soil over time and used throughout the site.

Within the seed farm is the memorial to lost seeds, an engraved wall of the 570 lost plants and seeds in the last 250 years. The memorial frames the Lenni-Lenape garden, connecting visitors to traditional plants that were used and valued by the Lenape. Benches are embedded into walls that allow space for inward reflection while paths above are outward-facing towards more expansive views of the Schuylkill River.  

Paths through an oak-hickory forest open visitors up to a picnic grove, which sits at the bottom of a terraced berm that also acts as a noise buffer for the I76 highway.  The cookhouse, a community building embedded within the berm, becomes a fluid space for large groups of people to gather, eat, and celebrate.The community kitchen hosts programs such as intergenerational cooking and nutrition classes while community garden plots foster a deeper relationship to the land and offer access to fresh food.

Sowing Ground is a long-term vision centered around the economic and cultural power of food and seed to catalyze change and bring people together. Nourished by engagement of the land and its deep history, the design looks to further a community’s vision of what this site can be.

Sowing Ground

Student Names: Selina Cheah and Elizabeth Servito

School: University of Pennsylvania, Weitzman School of Design

About Damian Holmes 3075 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at