A new plan for the first 500 acres of public green space

Last night at the Academy of Natural Sciences, in front of a capacity-plus crowd, Mayor Michael Nutter officially announced “Green 2015: An Action Plan for the First 500 Acres.” The plan is an attempt to address the “Equity” section of his 2009 GreenWorks program, the city’s overall sustainability effort.

That provision calls for the creation of 500 acres of open space in areas currently underserved. Some 200,000 residents don’t have access to open space within a ten-minute, or half-mile, walk, the Mayor said. “Green space should not be a luxury,” he declared, earning a round of applause.

In kicking off the evening, part of the Urban Sustainability Forum, the Academy’s president, George W. Gephart, called the plan an “outstanding example of partnerships at work.” He cited its major contributors, including Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Department, Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, PennPraxis, Penn Project for Civic Engagement, and the William Penn and Lenfest foundations.

The announcement was moderated by P&R director Michael DiBerardinis, who introduced each speaker. “I’m an excitable guy,” he said, “but tonight, I’m really, really excited.” He then called on Nutter, “the man with a plan for the greenest city in America,” to come to the podium. In quoting Theodore Roosevelt — “It is not what we have that will make us a great nation, it’s the way we use it.” — the Mayor homed in on a central point of the plan, that the new open space be created from extant space that is currently underutilized. That includes public and private vacant land, as well as areas currently covered in impervious, tree-less grounds like rec centers and schoolyards.

Nutter also emphasized that every citizen — whether by crafting windowboxes or using rain barrels — bear individual responsibility. And, he pointed out, Green 2015 carefully connects to the City’s upcoming comp plan, Philadelphia 2035.

To follow up, City Planning Executive Director Gary Jastrzab next took the podium. He briefly outlined the comp plan’s three main tenets — thrive, connect and renew — and addressed how Green 2015 supported the four major goals of the last piece. In increasing access to open space, meeting ambitious environmental standards, promoting excellence in design, and preserving and re-using existing resources, he said, Green 2015 will serve to “renew” our city.

DiBerardinis next introduced a video, “Abundance,” produced by Richard Hoffmann of Spring Garden Pictures. After a glitchy beginning, the short, PSA-style video — accompanied by flutey music and a range of voiceovers from the stentorian to the childlike to the ethnic — showcased the abundance of both Philadelphia’s green assets and its vacant lots and paved-over surfaces.

It was then time for DiBerardinis to introduce the undisputed star of the show, Harris Steinberg, director of PennPraxis, the plan’s researchers and writers. DiBerardinis said he turned to the outfit after noting the work it did on the plan for the Central Delaware. PennPraxis successfully used a diversity of opinions to not “water down” but to “lift up” the resulting product, DiBerardinis said.

Steinberg began by emphasizing that the plan was not a “prescription” but a “set of criteria.” Its central recommendation is to think of vacant land as an opportunity for creating high-impact, low-cost solutions to the problem of inadequate access to open space, he said. The plan identifies five major areas where that inequity exists: South Philadelphia around Broad and Snyder, the former industrial parts of North Philadelphia, parts of West Philadelphia, the Lower Northeast, and the Oak Lanes. 

“Opportunity sites” include rec centers, public vacant land, schoolyards, and the more than 30,000 parcels of vacant land owned by the private sector. In total, they add up to more than 4,000 acres. Even with the 1,200 or so required for future housing needs, Steinberg pointed out, in a nod to those who might view this project as anti-development, that left plenty of room for 500 acres of new parks, trails, and open space.

Further, he added, “we’re well on our way,” with 100 acres currently under development and another 105 planned, including projects at the Navy Yard and a plan to extend the Schuylkill River trail. He ended his presentation with a “someday” vision of a 20-mile walk from Mill Creek in West Philadelphia to the area around Franklin Mills mall in the Northeast. The imaginary walk included newly-greened historic stream beds, rail lines, and industrial sites.

DiBerardinis concluded the evening by calling Green 2015 a “bold, smart, and do-able” plan that would not only provide access, but will improve the city’s ecosystem and improve its economic competitiveness. He then reiterated the plan’s “shop in your own closet” approach, its acknowledgement of what’s most important to citizens — that spaces be safe, clean, and ready to use — and its reliance on partnerships with private corporations, institutions like the city’s universities, and public and quasi-governmental agencies like Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., Philadelphia Water Department, and the School District.

In case everyone wasn’t already feeling pretty good — despite the evening’s frigid cold — DiBerardinis then exhorted a coterie of nine citizens to take the stage for a walk-off photo op. “I live in Roxborough — and that’s my park,” said one, accompanied by an image of Gorgas Park. “I live in West Oak Lane — and I don’t have a park,” said another. “I work in North Philadelphia — and we’re building a park,” said a third.

The ebullient crowd then pushed its way into the Academy’s halls, where a Resource Fair — sporting tables from about two dozen organizations, such as PennDOT, Pennsylvania Environmental Center, Delaware River City Corp. — was waiting amidst the taxidermed bison and reassembled dinosaurs. Catherine Smith of Queen Village, a regular Urban Sustainability Forum attendee, said the event made her “feel lucky” about the rich resources of her neighborhood. “This was a very interesting presentation,” she added. “It had a lot of content, and it was nice to see the unrolling of an actual plan.”

Off to the side, two students pursuing their Masters of Sustainable Design at Philadelphia University discussed the evening. Gage Duran said the PennPraxis approach “made sense” and that it was good to see the group present a plan “that people can gather around.” His friend, Jason Sandman, took up that note. “I just want to see them being realistic,” he said.

But Nina Bisbee, who works in facilities planning at the Philadelphia Zoo, said she “was impressed” by how integrated the plan appeared. “I think it’s do-able, and that’s really important that it come across that way,” she added.

Contact the reporter at jgreco@planphilly.com

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