Commentary: Polishing Philly’s crown jewel

In a city with a thousand jewels, what’s one more?

That’s how I often think we respond to the embarrassment of riches we’ve inherited in this remarkable town. One of these gifts – arguably our single greatest inheritance – is the majestic, 2,050-acre Fairmount Park, which stretches from East Falls to the Spring Garden Bridge and from 33d Street in Strawberry Mansion to Parkside Avenue in West Philadelphia. At the center of this billowing plume of green is the placid and meandering Schuylkill.

Philadelphians rightly love Fairmount Park. It is a neighborhood park first and foremost to the more than 70,000 citizens who live within a 10-minute walk of its borders. It is a park that draws numerous recreational users to walk, run, row, play ball, and commune with nature in the vast and myriad expanses of the park. And the great art, music, and cultural institutions within the park serve a wide regional audience as well. Indeed, use of the park is at an all-time high, with more than seven million visitors a year.

Until now, remarkably, there hasn’t been a strategic vision to guide development in the park. The New Fairmount Park aims to rectify this by providing a guide for investment in the park over the next several decades. With input from more than 1,000 citizens, PennPraxis, the applied research arm of the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, prepared the study for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation with funding from the William Penn Foundation.

The project began with this framing question: How do you position a 19th-century watershed park to remain vital into the 21st century?

We started by understanding the genesis of the park – an aggregation of estates and parcels over more than 50 years to create a protective zone around Philadelphia’s drinking-water source. Incredibly, more than a million people a day continue to receive their water from the river. That fact alone makes Fairmount Park unique among all big city parks in the world. It’s consciously not Central Park. It’s about water, not real estate.

It is hard for us to conjure up an image of the whole park. There are special and beautiful moments, but no real sense of the park as a whole. But then, as an assembled landscape, Fairmount Park was never conceived of as an interconnected whole. Indeed, it is really a series of many parks. This makes getting into and through it all the more difficult, as roadways, expressways, rail lines, and natural cliffs create zones within zones, segregating the various parts of the parks.

The plan aims to make it easier for all citizens – from near neighbors to recreational users to regional visitors – to more fully use and enjoy the park. In recommending a whole host of ideas from the micro-scale (like opening up stairs that have grown over) to the grand (like rebuilding Interstate 76 on stilts so that the park can flow under the Schuylkill Expressway), our goal was to make it fun and easy to use the whole park.

We organized the plan around some pretty simple ideas:

Use the 16 creeks and streams in Fairmount Park as the armature for a robust trail network that will connect all the disparate pieces of the park;

Create fun ways for citizens to get into, use, and play with water (the park is all about water, after all); and

Tame the negative influence of the car.

Along the way, we recommended a graceful new pedestrian bridge over the Schuylkill that would connect Smith Playground with the Please Touch Museum and the zoo; a new boathouse on King Drive to alleviate the recreational pressures on Kelly Drive; a footbridge to new viewing stands on Peter’s Island; and the gentle rerouting of Belmont Avenue to create a beautiful new landscape that would stretch from the heights of George’s Hill down to the river.

The creation of Fairmount Park in the 19th century was a bold and visionary act of city-building. In assembling the land that would become Fairmount Park, the city bequeathed a priceless gift on future generations, and it is our responsibility to be good stewards of this civic treasure. There is no need for heroics in Fairmount Park, as the park itself is the irrefutable big idea.

The new strategic plan honors the integrity of Fairmount Park by knitting its pieces together and creating a new and improved park that is more than the sum of its lovely parts. And along the way, we have the opportunity to buff this gem by adding some pretty wonderful spaces, places, and memories for future generations.

Harris M. Steinberg is executive director of PennPraxis at the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania. To view the plan, visit

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