Phila U. design students set sights on Gorgas Park project

The frigid winter wind blew through Gorgas Park in Roxborough on Wednesday morning while students from Philadelphia University huddled in a recreation shelter.

The landscape architecture students were on site to survey the 5-acre urban space, the first step in a project that has students re-imagining the design of the area and presenting proposals for an upgrade. 

As Friends of Gorgas Park president John Boyce walked them through the park, he noted that community focused work needs to be flexible. More than 10 years ago when he started the Friends of Gorgas Park organization, he thought it would be best to reforest the land.

“I was wrong, it’s not a forest, if you want a forest, go back to the Wissahickon,” he said, addressing the room of design students. “A park space is not a woodland but a people space.”

Boyce, a veteran mail carrier, regularly passed the old Gorgas Park during his daily route nearly two decades ago. He says he was tired of waiting for the park to change. So with the help of the Philadelphia Horticulture Society, volunteers, and local businesses, he planted 40 trees on Arbor Day in 1997 along with time capsules planted under each tree. Boyce says the park is underestimated from the street level.

“When you’re up top [on Ridge Avenue] you have no idea there’s all of this,” he said sweeping his arms to the wooded vista below, “It is amazing,” he added.

Mixing beauty with function and sustainability 

The plan is two-fold, says adjunct professor of Urban Design at Philadelphia University Nate Hommel.

“It teaches students the value of listening to community members, not being the stereotypical egotistic designer saying this is what you want, this is what you need,” he said explaining that the focus on a sustainable ecosystem in the park sends a message back to the larger community about what is social responsibility.

Hommel says the goal is to have beauty and function in a master plan for the park, especially with the pressing stormwater runoff issues. “We want to make sure we handle as much stormwater as possible to make sure there aren’t problems downstream in Manayunk and towards the Schulykill,” he continued.

The tip of Gorgas park splits into two watersheds, westbound rainwater heads into the Schuylkill and eastbound water funnels into the Wissahickon.

Wednesday’s ideas included a small statue commemorating the Lenape Indian tribe inside a fountain, solar panels for the bathroom roof, a water cistern to use for gardens in the park, rain gardens, new sidewalks, curb cuts and bus shelters at the entrance to the recreation hub.

Students took photos of problem areas of the park and will eventually create an inventory including aerial photos to analyze.

Third year landscape architecture design student Ian Schieve says that design and details are key in making the park inviting.

“It could be anything from how a walkway meanders to how high a bench is, that determines whether or not people will be in that area,” he said.

But the 20-year-old Blue Bell native says that a successful project is subtle.

“The point is not to think about design but when you’re in a space, people engage with it and they don’t even know they are, that’s a good design; they’re there because it just feels right,” he added.

A work in progress 

Residents say the park details could use some extra care. José Casalina, who lives a few blocks away says he brings his son to the playground after storytime at the Roxborough library and visits the park daily. He and his wife decided against moving to the suburbs and plan to raise their family in the city.

Ideally, Casalina says a fountain, better lighting and sidewalks would improve the park but that the site is already a popular spot.

“When they have concerts here, there are over 1,000 people for a concert, when they have the harvest festival, this place is ridiculous. There is a really large community effort that goes into this park,” he said.

In the past four years, Boyce says that the Friends of Gorgas Park has raised over $100,000 towards improvements to the sidewalks, steps, playground, war memorial and even a mini native woodland path that serves as the southwest entrance to the park.

Boyce says that a master plan was completed for the park in the 1990s but that the Friends of Gorgas Park would like to see less concrete and non-porous material and more sustainable designs. They hope to partner with Roxborough High School students and volunteers to make the project happen.

In Feburary, the class will present 14 different vision plans as part of an incubator project that would offer suggestions to be implemented at the park.

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