The innovative ways in which cities are finding new park space

What do a popular spot for watching toads migrate and a historic cemetery have in common? They’e two non-traditional area examples that can be viewed as part of our overall open space — and as models for finding more.

Representatives from these two bucolic treasures— the Roxborough Reservoir and Laurel Hill Cemetery —  spoke last night at The Academy of Natural Sciences’ presentation, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Finding the City’s New Green Spaces,” co-sponsored by the Academy, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and the Philadelphia Commission on Parks and Recreation.

Roland Wall, director of the Academy’s Center for Environmental Policy, kicked off the evening with the promise that the assembled panelists would “challenge us to rethink the greening of Philadelphia.”

Fellow Cincinnatians (who knew?), PHS head Drew Becher and Commission Chair Nancy Goldenberg, next offered brief plugs for their organizations, before turning over the podium to the evening’s keynote speaker, Peter Harnik.

Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence ( and author of Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities, [] began by pointing out how complex parks are — they involve math, plus horticulture plus hydrology plus sociology, plus communications, he said. He added that Jane Jacobs observed that “pitifully few” rise to that challenge, with the great bulk serving as  nothing more than “vacuums.”

The modern era of urban (as opposed to national) park building could be neatly summed up by three pinnacles — Disneyland in Anaheim, the formation of the Central Park Conservancy in New York City, and the creation of Millennium Park in Chicago — Harnik said. Respectively, and together, they represent what we’ve come to expect from a successful park: heavy programming, private stewardship, and the idea of an economically viable, urban asset.

Harnik soon moved on to the crux of his book: the innovative ways in which cities are finding new park space. First he emphasized that buying land is “always the best” option, the one with the least amount of downsides. He then offered more than a dozen adaptive re-use ideas that included everything from schoolyards to landfills, from rooftops to rail trails.

Several concerned the removal of or tinkering with of parking lots and roads. Expanding on that point later, he commented on the notion of driving to a park space. Not only should good transit options be provided, he said, but “driving and parking [should be made] more difficult and more expensive.” One idea: offer only paid parking, and use the revenues to fund shuttles that can meet passengers at bus stops and train stations.

Parks and Recreation executive director Michael DiBerardinis next introduced three local speakers, Mark Focht, executive director, Fairmount Park; Jamie Wyper, president, Roxborough Conservancy; and Pete Hoskins, president, Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Focht provided a brief overview of Green 2015, the city’s action plan to locate 500 new acres of open space in five targeted areas. Although the program has some exciting ideas, last night’s example of the greening of a rec center in Fishtown was unfortunately pretty unsexy, especially following on the heels of the mega-bucks efforts in cities like Portland and Seattle that Harnik had just presented.

But Wyper’s introduction of what he called a “forgotten corner” of Philadelphia,  the 900-acre Upper Roxborough Historic District and the abandoned 19th-century reservoir that is its centerpiece, stole the show. After an amusing examination of the annual toad migration, he issued a dramatic plea for the preservation of this area which, he said, appears on the city’s list of disposable properties and has been targeted by developers for everything from a shopping center to an Eagles’ training facility.

He ended his presentation with a quote from Proust that encouraged the audience to seek new parkland is unlikely places: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Hoskins next offered a look at the history of Laurel Hill and spoke of its contemporary offerings, including 62 annual guided tours. “Our views of the river have not changed much,” he said, “but we keep finding new things to do.”

The evening ended with several question from the audience, clustered around issues of who to contact regarding ideas for new neighborhood parks, and the specifics of transforming vacant land into public open space. Focht emphasized that, for the short term, Green 2015 intends to concentrate on the five areas that currently do not offer residents sufficient open space, and assured questioners that, indeed, schoolyards, land swaps, and brownfields were all prime candidates.

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