Let’s Get Physical: Rethinking Philadelphia’s Post-Industrial Cityscape
There are currently more than 100 million people in the United States that live in urban areas but have to walk more than 10 minutes to access a park. This lack of green space has economic, environmental, social and health impacts, and when left unaddressed, creates widespread urban challenges for policymakers at the local, state, and national levels. As many U.S. cities begin to grow again, there has been a renewed interest in incorporating green space and vegetation and high quality public space into the urban environment as a way to address a variety of challenges. This is particularly true for postindustrial cities, which contain many vacant and or undertilized formerly industrial spaces lots that could drive the revitalization of neighborhoods and communities.
Philadelphia is no stranger to these trends and the opportunities that disused former industrial sites hold for their surrounding communities. Philadelphia is hoping to follow in the footsteps of cities like New York City and Chicago and transform the Reading Viaduct, a derelict overhead rail line, into an elevated public park. With groundbreaking expected in early 2016, this park will provide much needed urban green space and help knit together communities near the very center of the city. However, while it would provide greenspace to communities in need, it is just a drop in the bucket within the context of opportunities throughout the city.
The Lehigh Viaduct is another infrequently used CSX rail corridor that connects to the Port Reading rail yard and bisects several diverse and working-class neighborhoods. A key part of the industrial heritage of Philadelphia, the Viaduct is currently an off-limit corridor that divides surrounding communities visually and physically. Currently acting as a divider, this viaduct, like the Reading Viaduct, has the capacity to connect and transform several low-income neighborhoods through the development of a linear park; ultimately connecting the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River through a greenway connection.
The William Penn Foundation is leading the effort in Philadelphia to create great public spaces that result in a more vibrant and livable city. The foundation focuses on supporting projects that improve and enhance access to green spaces, with a focus on underserved communities that benefit from the development of accessible and vibrant public spaces. It was their extensive work and passion for great public spaces that led them to support a German Marshall Fund workshop in Philadelphia in early 2015.
In February 2015, GMF, in partnership with the Penn Foundation and Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation (DU), convened 26 local and transatlantic experts to develop recommendations and strategies for the creative reuse of former industrial infrastructure in order to better meet the needs of the city’s residents. While half of the group focused on the Delaware Power Station, the other half of the group was tasked with injecting national and transatlantic perspectives based on their professional experience and knowledge into the potential transformation of the Lehigh Viaduct and similar sites.
Experts were selected to participate based on their professional knowledge, either regarding the local context of Philadelphia or, in the case of the transatlantic experts, based on their knowledge of projects in their home city that were relevant to the two local case studies. For example, Ellen Lamberts, a spatial planner from the city of Antwerp in Belgium, participated in the discussion and shared her knowledge regarding the development of Park Spoor Noord, a 60-acre modern park developed in a reclaimed railway land that is intensively used by the surrounding communities for recreational and cultural activities.
One of the key strategies that arose from group discussions emphasized the importance of looking beyond the viaduct to the surrounding neighborhoods as future uses are explored. The viaduct has extensive capacity to connect at a variety of scales, whether by increased movement between neighborhoods, connecting residents to the two rivers, or more broadly, acting as an east-west backbone to help provide residents access to the rest of the city. Workshop experts encouraged the city to also think strategically about how these spaces can connect to the broader network of greenspaces throughout Philadelphia.
Former industrial spaces within Philadelphia are an opportunity to effectively engage the community in efforts to revitalize the diverse neighborhoods that are part of the city’s DNA, as well as address more holistically some of the chronic challenges they face. As Gil Penalosa, Founder of 8-80 Cities said: “We need to think of parks more as outdoor community centers where we need to invest in uses and activities so they can fulfill their potential. When we improve parks, we’re really improving quality of life.”
For more information on the workshop and to read the resulting white paper, click here.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.