Ecotopian Toolkit

Facing contemporary ecological challenges with critically attuned and creatively oriented tools


Watch this space for a call for toolmakers to come in Jan. 2022!


2021 Ecotopian Toolkit

Tool making is a signature trait of the human species. What tools can we make, and might we require, in the age of the human, the anthropocene: a name for the present geological epoch when humans are the most potent force shaping earth’s systems? Global warming and other anthropocene challenges, including the ongoing sixth mass extinction event, often lead to apocalyptic visions, or apathy. Through the Ecotopian Toolkit initiative, we explore a longer history of the anthropocene to help represent—and respond to—our contemporary moment. Might a utopian approach to the problem of global warming help us navigate warmer, rising waters and build forms of refuge? What tools can STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) educators in universities, museums, and nonprofits design and develop via the history of utopia and its hope for better futures?

In 2017, PPEH hosted our first design competition and a series of workshops to build ecotopian tools for WetLand, the art boat-meets-science lab conceived by then-PPEH Artist-in-Residence Mary Mattingly, in cooperation with Bartram’s Garden. In 2018 we partnered with Bartram's Garden and ran a design competition inviting proposals for tools designed with the Schuylkill River at Bartram's in mind, and in 2019 we worked with the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum to do much the same. Each year "toolmakers" were selected from the pool of applicants, provided a stipend by PPEH to realize their design proposal (or a prototype), and asked to offer a public workshop about the tool. Workshops ranged from community build sessions to construct Jacob Rivkin and Eric Blasco’s floating bio-remediating water filter and bird habitat, to more traditional lectures like Deirdre Murphy’s discussion of her process of creating prints from historic and current migratory data. Other toolmakers offered book-writing and design workshops for children, guided trash walks, multi-species movement and listening studios, and more.


Plants in a floating filter

Jacob Rivkin and Eric Blasso, Bio Pool

2 people working together to build a wooden frame

Community build of Jacob Rivkin and Eric Blasso's Bio Pool

illustrations of plants

Detail of Mandy Katz's Pocket Field Guide to Plants of the Lower Schuylkill River

Now in 2021, PPEH is supporting the creation of another cohort of human toolmakers who will retain an engagement with floating on/sinking in/and otherwise living with urban waters; and will similarly explore what it might mean to face contemporary ecological challenges with critically attuned and creatively oriented tools. In partnership with the Independence Seaport Museum (ISM), we will turn our focus to the Delaware River and to water justice. Each artist/team's project will be highlighted in a public demonstration led by the artist/team, documented on the PPEH and Schuylkill Corps websites, and archived and included in ongoing Toolkit initiatives. 

This collaboration will begin in Bethany Wiggin’s Fall 2021 “Environmental Humanities: Theory, Methods, Practice” class, which will guide the call to toolmakers. Together with the ISM curatorial and educational teams, particularly the high school students in their River Ambassadors hands-on learning programs, we will consider what kind of tools we need with and for the Delaware River and watershed. With the Delaware as muse and teacher, selected artists, River Ambassadors, community members, and ISM visitors alike will embark on a year long practice as visionary toolmakers for healthy and just futures for all humans and non-humans along, and in, its waters. Through workshops, publicly interactive spaces, research and deep inquiry, the Ecotopian Toolkit project calls on each of us to intentionally imagine what we and this landscape can be—and to then actively build the tools we need to become.

Each step of the process will be documented and shared through an evolving exhibit at ISM and via a companion digital platform, intended to engage visitors in reflection, participation, and action. In the first phase, we will ask Museum visitors and River Ambassadors to suggest what tools they need for water justice. The second phase will announce the selected toolmakers and share their proposals, followed by documentation of their tool creation process. In the final phase, we will document how the River Ambassadors play-test the new tools in and around the Delaware.

This work will culminate in a companion print catalog and collaborative online resource for future visionaries to use in their own inquiry, conversation, and craft. We are hopeful that these outcomes will become tools themselves, ensuring that our home environment is tended to, well-considered, equitable, resilient, and dynamic for generations of future Philadelphians.

2018 Ecotopian Toolkit

Ecotopian Toolkit Catalogue

                                                            Check out the 2018 Ecotopian Toolkit catalogue here. 

Mandy Katz, Pocket Guide to Plants of the Lower Schuylkill, Ecotopian Toolkit 2017

Download Field Guide

Cecily Anderson, Tidal Schuylkill, Ecotopian Toolkit 2017
Cecily Anderson, Tidal Schuylkill, Ecotopian Toolkit 2017

Download Map

2017 Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene Conference Keynote Speakers:

Click here for the 2017 Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene Conference full site.



   Writer, historian, environmental and human rights activist







James Hansen


   Director at Earth Institute; former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for
   Space Studies










   (Dan Rothenberg, Mimi Lien, Troy Herion)
   PPEH artists-in-residence








Media Coverage

​​​​​​Kathering Unger Ballie (April 10,2017) Penn Program in Environmental Humanities Competiton Winners Presented at Bartram's Garden. Penn News

Samantha Melamed (May 25, 2017) A Giant Water Filter for the Schuylkill? Philly Artists Respond to Environmental Challenge.

Bethany Wiggin (Spring 2017) Forgotten Places and Radical Hope on Philadelphia's Tidal Schuylkill River. Open Rivers:Rethinking The Mississippi, no. 6