On Thursday, Philadelphia will open its annual pop-up park at Eakins Oval, on the Parkway.
For the fifth consecutive year, The Oval will take over the parking lot in front of the Art Museum with vendors, games, and a beer garden.
“We originally committed to doing this for just a few years, but it became so popular that it feels like just part of what happens over the summer” said Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. “There really wasn’t a question about whether we would bring it back. The question was: What do we hope to do with it?”
This year, The Oval got serious.
It will still be programed with fun things – like movies, miniature golf, musicians, and food trucks – but after four years of the urban experimental successfully attracting between 50 and 70 thousand each summer, the city now wants to know exactly how many people, where they are coming from, and how long they are staying. The park is hungry for data.
“We have these benches called Soofa benches, that let us know where people’s wifi is coming from as they pass through The Oval,” said Jamie Gauthier, acting director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy. “That sounds really creepy, but it’s not. There are no individual identifiers. We are able to see where people are coming from, and how much foot traffic we have at The Oval.”
One section of the park features a large outline of the city painted with chalkboard paint, allowing visitors to write or draw in chalk their vision of the future of the city. Automated overhead cameras will take thousands of images over the course of the five-week pop-up, documenting whatever will be written.
The park will also solicit responses from visitors in more traditional, straightforward ways: by asking them to write down ideas and submit them. Coasters in the beer garden will be designed as feedback questionnaires.
The temporary park was designed by a company called PORT Urbanism, which installed structures encouraging visitors to think about what the Parkway looked like in the past, to better spark conversations about what it might become.
“That was really exciting for us, to think both super short-term this summer, and also this long-term thinking about what happens here in the future,” said PORT Urbanism partner Megan Born.
This year, the Parkway has already seen major changes, most significantly the completion of an expanded cap of the I-676 highway. Thusly, The Oval has also expanded to encompass that real estate: PORT Urbanism installed structures in front of the Free Library and the Academy of Natural Sciences.
The Oval is funded in part by Artplace America, PNC Bank, the Knight Foundation, and the city of Philadelphia. Its five-week window is sandwiched between two concerts: Welcome America on the Fourth of July, and Made in America on Labor Day. In recent years, the Parkway has increasingly become the site of major events, from the Pope to the NFL Draft.
The department of Parks and Recreation is using The Oval to inform a Parkway redesign that will be everything to everyone: automobile traffic, large events, and neighborhood pedestrians.
“How could we envision a Parkway that truly became a grand entrance to the [Fairmount] park, and attracting people to the Parkway, and to connect with all that the grand boulevard has to offer?” asked Commissioner Ott Lovell.