Density, Amenity, Serenity: Three Goals to Guide and Improve Fairmount Park's Recently Revised Plans
Philadelphia has historically underfunded its park system despite the dividends green space investment has on quality of life improvements, real estate investment and public health initiatives. Commissioner DiBernardis has cited these challenges year over year as non-profit entities like Friends of Rittenhouse Square continue to maintain their spaces to higher degree than Parks & Recreation can with current budgeting. It is in this backdrop that Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, working with PennPraxis unveiled a new master plan for Fairmount Park.
Overall, the plan is a step forward for our largest, most important green lung of Philadelphia. Site specific plans are combined with some overarching guidelines like increasing connectivity to the park on it’s borders with better pedestrian amenities and traffic calming. These are all welcome developments from our perspective here at This Old City. Inga Saffron noted in her recent column that in her opinion the plan does seem to lack a certain boldness. This seems a bit unfair however. The plan is full of bold ideas, but we’d like to delve into what we see as the key challenges to Fairmount Park being more successful and provide some higher level guidance to improve it.
While New York’s Central Park is flanked with density and high demand housing, Fairmount is flanked with a wider variety of incomes, but almost exclusively low density housing. This creates several problems for the park. Lower residential density flanking a park reduces the potential base of users of that park should attract. Access to high quality green space is linked to a variety of associated psychological health and environmental benefits. Understanding these benefits, former New York mayor Bloomberg made it a planning priority to ensure all New Yorkers have access to high quality green space within ten minutes walk of where they live and work. Fairmount Park, is not accessible to many Philadelphians, particularly those without a car, and certainly not within ten minutes walk of where they live.
The entrances to the park itself are auto-oriented and basic pedestrian access has been stymied by zoning mistakes made in prior generations. Green spaces are tools for economic empowerment. With poverty in the city of Philadelphia surpassing 25% and Fairmount Park bordering some persistently poor and crime challenged neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion, upzoning the park’s borders could stimulate market-rate investments in these areas and stem the tide of violence and out-migration of residents.
CMX-3 or CMX-4 (higher density and height mixed use) rezoning for parcels and blocks bordering the park begins to chip away at green space access issues, by allowing more people to live closer to Fairmount and enjoy the health and benefits and amenities it offers. Upzoning isn’t a guarantee of development but it does provide options to areas that have been stuck in a cycle of poverty and lacking in new investment. Upzoning creates a denser neighborhood, connecting more people within a ten minute walk to a park they will enjoy.
The river itself is a thread running through Fairmount. The plan mentions development of a public boathouse since all the boathouses in the park are privately held by organizations or universities. The plan proposes a location on West River Drive that does seem a bit counterintuitive. The western side of the park near boathouse row is narrow and more difficult for a larger number of users to access. A stilted boathouse on the disused island near the art museum on the east side seems a natural place for a public boathouse. The inlet created by the island is a natural section of slower water that the boathouses past the chain barrier use to enter the river without fear of being pulled into the dam just above the Art Museum. Proposals to build out a pathway into the island haven’t gone anywhere in recent years. A public boat slip would actually provide a much needed new amenity to get people out on the river with canoes, kayaks and paddle boats.
Other recommendations for amenities within the park like a fishing pond in West Fairmount, new swimming facilities and, more clearly marked and connected trails are a welcome development. Perhaps something missing, but one that could generate revenue for the park system, would be the repurposing of unprogrammed lawns along the far east and west sides of the park flanking existing neighborhoods as seasonal temporary dining areas through the selection of vendors. Pop up beer gardens like the PHS intervention on Broad Street last year brought amenity and reason to use a disused open space. There are long borders of Fairmount Park that seasonally could engage new use and provide revenue into the underfunded park.
A park as large as Fairmount invites us to get lost in serenity, away from the humdrum of beating traffic, obligations and deadlines. Yet Fairmount hosts one of the most congested highways in the region, I-76. The strategic plan seems to largely treat the highway as a necessary evil, mentioning some new bridging treatments when 76 is rebuilt.
There are additional treatments that could further reduce I-76’s impact on Fairmount Park. Walling the highway off from the surrounding area with sound barriers would be a good start. This is particularly needed along Martin Luther King Jr Drive as it follows the profile of I-76 just as you approach the Art Museum. Walling has been done along I-95 in Old City and is regularly used to shield wealthy suburbanites from highway noise, why not for Fairmount’s 7 million annual users and why not through PennDOT.
Kelly Drive was mentioned in the report but few specific recommendations were given. Not a year goes by without a driver flying off of Kelly Drive into the Schuylkill, often with fatal consequences. The four lane route is narrow, winds through rock cliffs and encourages drivers to pass each other and speed based on the way it is designed. It also ruins the serenity of the Park that people specifically come to enjoy. The simplest, most cost effective way to remedy this would be a road diet. Narrowing Kelly Drive from 4 to 2 lanes and pushing through traffic on to Route 13, on the edge of the park, offers a more direct route with less curves and higher visibility.
One other existing park element that needs a rethink is the combined bike/pedestrian trail along the Schuylkill on the eastern side of the park. This is the most heavily used path and when crowded (very often) is not a pleasant or serene path to use. Since cyclists and pedestrians are commingled, the path creates conflicts between faster two-wheeled traffic and slower foot traffic. The path width requires weaving in and out of faster and slower users. This is also one of the sites of a fatal pedestrian-bicycle crash several years ago. There will always be negotiations between faster and slower traffic in the public space, but carving out specific paths for bicycles versus pedestrians would clarify this trail and make it more user friendly for all. This is perhaps the lowest hanging fruit to improve the park’s usability and serenity.
We have an example of what separated facilities look like in Philadelphia on the Delaware. There are tricky crunch points along the trail that would need to be mitigated, but additional road space on Kelly drive could be appropriated for bicycle usage, provided some protection via jersey walls or other barriers be provided. Additional vehicular barriers would also help prevent the recurrences of fatal crashes into the Schuylkill River.
Beyond density, amenity and serenity, the plan itself could stand to be a bit more visual and interactive. Though helpful aerial overviews, numbering and images are used to orient the reader within the park system, more ground level photos and more importantly, renderings of proposals would help sell the vision of the Fairmount of tomorrow. The plan strikes the right tone though. We aren’t making the best of our signature park. With further visualizations, planning and political pressure moving into the 2015 mayoral race, that can and will change and we’ll be happier, healthier Philadelphians for it.
Click here to find the full plan of the park.