Award Winner Profile: Amber Knee

In May 2014, the Vacant Property Research Network announced the recipients of its first student paper competition. The awards recognize two masters students whose research in a single-authored paper contributes to new knowledge and practice around vacant properties.

Amber Knee, one of the winners, was selected from the submission of a single-authored paper (12-30 pages in length) on a “vacant property” topic, which we broadly called anything from de-industrialized landscapes, distressed cities and shrinking regions to land banks, code enforcement strategies, and housing courts. 

Knee is graduating with a masters from the city and regional planning program at the University of Pennsylvania. She spoke with us recently about her work and the paper that won her this recognition, “Strengthening the Core: Recalibrating Philadelphia through Vacancy.” Below is an excerpt of our conversation.

Your paper frames vacant land as a void. Could you explain this idea a bit? 

In planning we’re drawn to figuring out how we can develop and bound the city, but the void—as a concept—allows for unbounded spaces that are flexible and temporal. We can use the term “the void” to remove the negative connotation that vacancy is just leftover, neglected space, and a hindrance, and instead see it as an opportunity to be flexible in addressing the changing needs of the community in the future. Changing the perception of vacant spaces, without necessarily bounding or creating a permanent fixture, helps people re- imagine vacancies as vibrant spaces.

Why did you choose the Point Breeze neighborhood in South Philadelphia to study?

It was hard to choose, and I thought about the potential in many different neighborhoods. Currently, I’m an intern at a nonprofit that works to increase access and improve areas along the Delaware River waterfront. Through my work I think a lot about vacancy along the waterfront and the post-industrial areas that could transform into parks or trails or other public spaces. I ended up selecting Point Breeze in the end
because it has great access to a number of amenities that can be leveraged and built upon.

What is one way to tackle Philadelphia’s vacancy?

Vacancy is a great way to address some of the city’s public health concerns like access to recreational green space and better stormwater management. Philadelphia is currently doing truly innovative work in terms of using green infrastructure to counteract issues with the combined sewer system.

What is a lesson you learned while researching and writing your paper?

I learned a lot! But essentially I learned about the importance of the movement to revitalize vacant land and how challenging it is to make a dent in addressing widespread vacancy. There is just so much of it in Philadelphia. I learned that site selection is really important and choosing key locations that can serve as catalyst projects that spur positive changes in nearby communities. Also the importance of working not only at the citywide scale and individual block or neighborhood level, but switching between them to ensure projects are part of a cohesive system and also site specific to address current and evolving needs in neighborhoods.

What advice would you offer a masters student starting a capstone project?

I think it’s important to remember that you don’t have to solve every problem, and sometimes the most important thing you’ll contribute is starting a new discussion. Ending a study with a question can lead to more conversation and research on a topic.

Graduation is around the corner. What are your plans for the rest of the year?

Nothing definite yet, but I’m determined to stay in Philadelphia and would love to continue some of the work I started in graduate school with Philadelphia’s vacant land movement.

And, we’re curious, what book are you reading right now?

I’m reading the Mindy Kaling book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?