By Kellie Patrick Gates
A consortium of civic, community and advocacy groups that wants to line Philadelphia’s two rivers with a ribbon of green space and public trails introduced itself to the public at Schuylkill Banks Park Tuesday evening.
The Coalition for Philadelphia’s Riverfronts was founded on the premise that its various member organizations could accomplish more for the rivers if everyone worked together. The goal, said organizer Rachel Vassar, the Philadelphia outreach coordinator at PennFuture, is to convince City Council to create legislation this session that would lay the blueprint for a city-wide, two-river, riverfront setback.
CPR hasn’t set a specific size for the setback. That will happen during the legislative process, she said. And it would be fine if the width varied in different places. But a standard minimum width must be set for the entire city, she said. And it must be big enough to not only support a multi-use trail, but create environmental benefits as well.
Behind the speakers, the sun glinted off the river and beyond the water, the city’s skyscrapers.
“It’s fitting that we’re meeting here today to inaugurate the coalition,” said Mark Focht, executive director of Fairmount Park. “It was not very far from this site that 165 years ago – if you think of that! – in 1844, our city fathers largely started this movement by buying Lemon Hill, dedicating it to public open space, and beginning the movement that was to protect our green spaces in Philadelphia, to help protect our rivers, and the source of our drinking water. Which today, as many of you know, we still get our drinking water from our Schuylkill and our Delaware rivers.”
John Elliott Churchville, CEO of Liberation Fellowship Community Development Corporation, spoke about the physical and mental health advantages to expanding public access to the rivers. “People who live in concrete places that are cut off from green stuff and flowing water – aside from the leaking that goes on in the basement – are alienated from the very environment that created them,” he said.
“I cannot keep a headache if I go to somewhere where there’s a river, and there’s green around, and I just watch it. My headache goes away.”
Alan Greenberger, executive director of the city planning commission, said that the CPR plan fits beautifully into the city’s green initiatives, and that since other cities have successfully set aside green spaces along their rivers, there’s no reason why Philadelphia can’t, too.
Center City resident Jonathan Weiner hadn’t planned to attend the launch. But he was intrigued by the pro-riverfront signs he saw as he rode his bike along the trail. “In general, the idea of creating a cohesion of different entities in support of greener development along the waterfronts is a good idea,” said Weiner, who is a green building consultant. “There’s power in numbers.”
Italian Market resident Ron Feingold and Northern Liberties resident Zach Falk also stopped by.
Feingold said that a trail would help attract and keep more people in the city. Philadelphia already has a lot going for it, with its universities and relatively low cost of living. “This is something that will really appeal to outdoorsy people,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like an urban setting.”
Falk said a trail would benefit the city as a whole. “It’s good for the health of the city – not just the individuals living here, but the city from an economic perspective.”
Vassar said that while CPR hopes to see legislation passed this council session, it will take a long time to completely line the rivers with a trail. CPR wants legislation that would require the setback with new development, she said. And that means each piece would happen only as new projects were built.
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