Forums seek a neighbor-friendly vision for Benjamin Franklin Parkway

The Philadelphia Horticultural Society was buzzing with energy on a recent summer night as community members who live, work, and play near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway gathered to sketch a more people-friendly future for the city’s grand thoroughfare.

This was the second of four community engagement meetings for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway Action Plan. Tthe last two are tonight (July 30) at Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church, 22nd and Mt. Vernon streets, and tomorrow (July 31) at the Storefront for Urban Innovation, 2816 W. Girard Ave.

This community input project is a joint effort among the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, PennPraxis, and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement. The intent of the plan is to make the Parkway a friendlier space for those who live nearby.

Michael DiBerardinis, the city’s parks and recreation chief, kicked off the Horticultural Society meeting.

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“It’s been a pretty good 10 years in improving the amenities along the Parkway,” said DiBerardinis to the crowd. Two new museums, improved bike lanes, the Logan Circle restoration, and Sister Cities Park are among some of these improvements.

However, work remains to be done. “The effort tonight is: now that we’ve fixed it up, what do we want it to be?” explained DiBerardinis.

The commissioner emphasized that the plan’s focus is to develop short-term projects that will help connect nearby neighborhoods to the Parkway.

“This is really about what we can do in the next three or four years,” explained DiBerardinis. “How do we use the existing Parkway? How can we support use from you as the Parkway neighbors?”

Harris Steinberg, director of PennPraxis, a clinical studio at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, guided the crowd through a history of the Parkway, starting with its early 20th century vision as a cultural boulevard that would connect the center of Philadelphia to the edge of Fairmount Park.

Balancing ‘park’ and ‘way’

After the presentation, Harris Sokoloff, director of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, divided the room of about 60 citizens into four small discussion groups, and charged them with a set of questions to guide their deliberations.

“Who uses the Parkway, and who’s missing?” asked Sokoloff. He pushed the attendees to consider why the space is important to them as Philadelphians, and to think about what activities and future developments they’d like to see happening on the Parkway.

“What is your imagination telling you?” Sokoloff asked the room.

Once the groups settled down into their separate rooms, the ideas started flying. In one room, almost everyone seemed to agree that treacherous lanes of traffic remain an obstacle for anyone trying to visit the Parkway.

“It’s been a hazard to cross, especially with children,” said Mary Ellen Dugan, who has been living in the nearby Fairmount neighborhood for more than 30 years.

The same group also shared a common desire to see the Parkway become a more friendly, useable green space, and less of a thoroughfare.

“It’s more ‘way’ than ‘park,’ ” said Helene Furjan, a young Penn professor who is raising her small children a few blocks from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. “What we need is more ‘park’ than ‘way!’ “

The small groups spent over an hour talking about concrete ways to make the space more community friendly, and shared ideas ranging from farmer’s markets to outdoor performances.

The Penn Project for Civic Engagement and PennPraxis are working to create a final report that pulls together the themes of these four public engagement meetings.

Katie McCabe an intern for NewsWorks also worked this summer as an intern for the Penn Project for Civic Engagement.

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