Plus ça change: Once again, the Oval+ temporarily puts the ‘park’ in the Ben Franklin Parkway

From the Pope’s visit and the NFL Draft, to lengthy construction projects and the rush of speeding traffic, it’s no surprise that the Benjamin Franklin Parkway can feel overwhelmed at times. Even when it isn’t thronged by concert goers or protest marchers, the Parkway often serves as a mere route for drivers and pedestrians to quickly traverse.

Such anxious conditions inspired the Oval when the summer pop-up first replaced a parking lot in Eakins Oval with a park five years ago. This year, the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Department of Parks and Recreation have now expanded beloved temporary park — now called the Oval+ — beyond Eakins Oval, so that Philadelphians can claim more of the Parkway as their own. It’s an attempt to address the recommendation of “more park, less way” from a 2013 PennPraxis study of the Parkway.

In contrast to the Parkway’s frequent private events, “nothing is fenced off, and it’s very open and walkable,” said Erin Nardini of Fairmount Park Conservancy. “We want to create a destination for people to enjoy, a place to have fun and relax and play where maybe they thought they couldn’t.” The “plus” in the Oval+ manifests in larger ground coverage this year, customized physical structures as a means of passive programming, and a premise of “what’s your Parkway?”, designed to spark dialogue.

As in past years, the Oval+ will feature programming at Eakins Oval itself — including dance and fitness classes, DJ sets, movies, mini-golf, and quizzo — as well as a beer garden. Thanks to a partnership with the design firm PORT Urbanism, this year there will also be several new elements at the Oval. A translucent-walled maze inspired by patterns in nature will sit beneath the tree canopy. Three 24-foot tall, glowing installations will touch on one of three themes—nature; dialogue; and art, culture, and play—and will divide the space of the seven-acre Oval along those themes, together providing information about historic and hidden features in Fairmount Park. The installations celebrate what PORT’s Megan Born calls the “high-low mix” of culture on the Parkway — from the museums to the skate park and ball field — and offer opportunities for conversation and interaction through talks with artists and different activities through which people can document their thoughts.

“Through seeing the Parkway through these different lenses — through nature, through culture, through dialogue, through play — you start to realize there’s all these different lives playing out on the Parkway,” Born said. “It’s a really dynamic and diverse place.”

This year’s colorful ground mural encourages interaction too, as it’s a giant, chalkboard-paint map of the city on which people can leave their mark. Beyond Eakins Oval, two more installations can be found at Aviator Park and the newly-reopened Shakespeare Park, complete with programming that will activate those spaces and engage with the adjacent partner institutions, the Free Library and the Franklin Institute.

While the Oval has been the city’s fleeting attempt to emphasize the Parkway as a gateway to Fairmount Park, this year’s iteration focuses on the Parkway as part of Fairmount Park, with the potential for it to be a community space.

“Everybody’s going to have a slightly different point of view,” about the Parkway, said Christopher Marcinkoski, a partner at PORT. “The challenge there is also the promise of great public space, one that can accommodate all those different desires and needs. How do you accommodate different populations in a way that is appealing for all of them?”

The Oval+ will open July 20 and run through August 20.

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