Student Stories: Urban blight the focus of CED major's capstone project

Urban blight in the western Pennsylvania city of New Castle is the focus of Chase Palmer's internship. The rising Penn State junior, double-majoring in Community, Environment, and Development and in Geography, will spend the summer looking back at the Lawrence County community's past, and looking ahead to its future.

New Castle once enjoyed economic prosperity, fueled by steel and paper mills, car-manufacturing plants, a bronze bushing factory, and limestone quarries — all of which employed tens of thousands of Italian and Polish immigrants throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. At its peak in the 1950s, the population swelled to 50,000 people.

Unfortunately, like many cities in the Rust Belt, New Castle's population declined as industry left the area. Its current population hovers around 20,000.

As part of the Scholarship, Sustainability and Civic Engagement program, which counts as the required capstone project for his CED major in the College of Agricultural Sciences, the Richboro, Pennsylvania, native is spending eight weeks in New Castle assessing the vacant homes prevalent in the city.

"I was given a list of 500 homes that were presumed to be unoccupied in the city. I drive to the site of each home and record data, such as its street and parcel number, the condition of the exterior, and whether or not people appear to be living there," Palmer explained. He also takes a still photograph of each house.

Twenty to 30 percent of the homes Palmer has documented have been listed for sale, while the rest are boarded up and largely forgotten.

"The city hopes to demolish these old structures. It's my job to make sure they are definitely vacant and to research the history of each home," he said.

Palmer uses the city's databases, provided by the city's director of community development, to research the history and past owners of the vacant homes. The research he assembles will be used to help the city's zoning and planning office make decisions on the fate of the homes.

In addition, Palmer will use GIS software to map all 500 vacant homes after he is finished surveying them.

"I learned how to use the GIS software in my geography classes, and it's beneficial to practice my skills in a real-life setting. My CED classes prepared me for this internship," he said.

Palmer and his classmates who participated in the pilot year of the Scholarship, Sustainability and Civic Engagement program took a 2.5-credit preparation course last spring and will follow their one-credit internship with another one-credit debriefing course in the fall, when they will present their experiences to the rest of the class and engage in follow-up research.

"I feel so fortunate to have this hands-on internship experience, which is tailored to my specific interests," Palmer said.

To supplement his research and mapping experience, Palmer also will attend city council and county planning and zoning leadership meetings throughout the summer to observe firsthand how a local government operates.

He is considering public administration and urban and regional planning as potential career goals.

"Working with New Castle's city leaders is a great experience, which will help me with decisions on my career path," he said.

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Last Updated July 12, 2016