Upside to Philly’s tailgating ban? FDR Park free of cars and noise, nature lovers say

Two woman paint overlooking the lake at FDR Park. (Courtesy Friends of FDR Park)

Two woman paint overlooking the lake at FDR Park. (Courtesy Friends of FDR Park)

Philadelphians were not happy with the city ban on tailgating to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Yet everyone is trying to do their best to adapt — restaurants and bars are offering special deals while some are looking for other places to tailgate.

Justin DiBerardinis, who directs the city’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park in South Philadelphia near the Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field, is also choosing to see the glass half-full. While road closures around the stadium last and this coming Sunday means less people able to access the park, the ban is also giving residents a rare opportunity.

“To experience all 350 acres of this park with lower densities, without the noise of cars, to see the change in the wildlife that you typically wouldn’t see on a busy weekend afternoon, to see a blue Heron fly right over you and land on the lake. That simply isn’t going to happen with thousands of people in the park,” DiBerardinis said.

DiBerardinis said the park has been seeing record numbers of attendance this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with as many as 1,200 vehicles on recent weekends. And although he enjoys seeing the park full of family picnics, markets, sports leagues and other activities, the road closures are allowing park managers to explore what a car-free park looks like.

It was definitely less crowded. DiBerardinis said he estimates the park got about 90% less visitors than on a normal Sunday, and many more people coming in on bicycles or by foot. Soccer leagues were still playing, and some baseball games were still happening, he said.

“It was more local, it was more family-friendly and more oriented around nature,” he said.

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Fewer cars, more nature

This summer, several local organizations advocated for the city to close more streets to cars, including roads inside of FDR and Fairmount parks, to allow more space for people to enjoy the outdoors safely during the pandemic.

“Parks should be places where we can relax, and be able to walk our dogs, and ride bikes, and scooters, and just go wherever we feel we want to go, within those parameters, without the dangers of the streets,” said Randy LoBasso, policy manager at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

That’s not possible if cars are speeding within park roads, he said.

“Having FDR closed on Sundays to motor vehicles and open to people kind of shows us what a park can and should be in Philadelphia,” LoBasso said, adding that this closure wasn’t the ideal circumstances given the limitations on access because of the stadium-area closures.

Barbara Capozzi, a leader of the Friends of FDR Park since 2004 said park administrators did the best out of a tough situation. But she made clear the Friends group had no choice, that they were not part of the decision and were told at the last minute.

“Our concern was the inconvenience of our regular Sunday users,” Capozzi said in an email.

Lindsey Scannapieco, another member of the Friends group said in general most of the board is happy with the decision.

“It’s not something that will continue forever and ever, but I think, every once in a while, it’s a nice opportunity for a moment of quiet in the park,” she said.

This Sunday, Sept. 27, while the Eagles play against the Cincinnati Bengals at home in Philly, cars won’t be able to access the park from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Those who want to go “down the lakes” for a bike ride or a walk will be able to access the park via bus or subway. All parking in the park will be closed, but street parking is available near the park around the 20th Street entrance.

DiBerardinis especially recommends visiting the former golf course, which closed permanently last year.

“It has become 200 acres of streams and bridges and wildflower meadows, and trails. It’s a remarkable natural land site in our park system and it’s probably the largest meadow habitat anywhere in the Fairmount Park system,” he said.

And although DiBerardinis hopes for car-free Sundays all throughout the fall, that decision has not been made yet.

“Stay tuned,” he said.

FDR Friends’ Capozzi said having no cars permanently on Sundays would be heaven “in a dream world.” Especially for families, cyclists, people seeking peace and quiet and bird watchers. But said that would require time for loyal park users to adjust.

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