VIGNETTES: Revisiting Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk with an Architect's Touch

The difference even a simple design can make.

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2014 has been quite a generous year in the life of Philadelphia’s public space. Several high-profile, fun, and ephemeral spaces were launched to great fanfare. 4 beer gardens, including Independence Hall Beer Garden at the base of the Rohm & Haas building, Spruce Street Harbor Park, the PHS Pop Up garden on South Street and The Oval in front of the Art Museum all breathed new life into what had been underwhelming existing spaces. Dilworth Park opened in early September, and most recently the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk reconnected us to the “Hidden River.” 

The Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk adds on to the Schuylkill River Trail (SRT) and continues growth of The Circuit, a series of hundreds of miles of suburban and urban trails that the Bicycle Coalition and other groups have been connecting segment by segment. The Boardwalk, like other portions of the Circuit, is the recipient of federal and state grants that have made this 18 million dollar project possible. Though the trail now ends at the South Street Bridge, once the CHOP site at 700 Schuylkill Ave is fully developed, the Schuylkill River Trail will continue south eventually taking users all the way to Bartram’s Garden and beyond. CHOP was also recently awarded 1 million in funds from the State of Pennsylvania for its multi-modal connections on the new site. This includes a new stairwell/connection to the trail. 

And yet it is this recently completed section of the Boardwalk that generated much anticipation. On October 2nd the net went abuzz with photos, selfies, posts of runners and cyclists enjoying a new segment of trail for exercising and strolling. Articles even sung praises of Philadelphia’s very own new “High Line,” along the river.

With comparisons to the High Line, this is what the Boardwalk would have looked like as a High Line. (No, we're not proposing this for the Boardwalk)

Most of the articles covering this new space, including those by veteran critics who usually shred projects through the blades of their keyboards, raised barely a hint of criticism. One exception was Geoff's review on the site here at This Old City. But by and large with reviews so overtly positive, did this project develop some sort of immunity to criticism, or have we as Philadelphians grown to expect so little from new public space projects? With the overwhelming success of Spruce Street Harbor Park and the other aforementioned beer gardens, it seems as if we’d expect more. Yet this trail extension has given us little more than a connection, albeit an important one that we’re happy we have, but one nearly devoid of design.

No architects, landscape architects or planners were engaged for the construction of this connection. Many don’t seem to mind. As one article stated with the trail being “this close to the river, it didn’t really need one.” Um what? Some of Philadelphia’s most thoughtful public spaces old and new are built at or over the water. Think of the Schuylkill if the Water Works to the north were only an engineering project. Surely weddings wouldn’t be gracing the classical columns at the river’s edge. What if Spruce Street Harbor Park had not enlisted Groundswell Design and they had just turned on the old fountains? What if Washington Ave Pier had not included any public art from Judy Pinto? What if Race Street Pier was little more than a plain Boardwalk with no plants?

This is what the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk is. It is an engineered space, but not a designed one. There’s no amenity other than a few viewpoints and benches. There’s no environmental component with the river, just pilings into it. But it is easy to criticize and much harder to support and encourage. So how can this existing trail be improved? 

What it can become:

Though it would have made more sense to hardwire major design elements into the original Boardwalk, a small list of retrofits could improve the feel of the existing structure. We are not talking about lipstick on a pig, but a series of small gestures could drastically improve the experience of the space.

A combination of intervetions: shading, path definition, wetland edging.


One of the many differences between this project and the High Line is the complete absence of any form of vegetation. We might get a few mosses and algae after a major flood but that’s it. A dozen oversized, well-designed planters could punctuate this passage with grasses, shrubs and small trees and add a natural, human scale to the space. These planters could be permanent, or seasonal, as it is done in Paris for their annual Paris Plages installations. Large enough to withstand movement from flooding, planters would create shade, nooks, habitats and seasonality. With a natural water source directly below the Boardwalk, non-potable pumped Schuylkill water sprinklers could help maintain these planters.


In addition to having a nice collection of urban sculpture, the city through its ever expanding number of parks and plazas, has also acquired a sizeable collection of bright, fun, colorful and engaging urban furniture. Yet these are painfully missing at the Boardwalk. Having a custom-designed series of benches would give the space a more finished, less industrial look. Movable furniture could also achieve this effect.

Shading leading into the entrance of the trail at the bottom of the long ramp could create a greater sense of place and some much needed shade from hot summer sun. 

Mature trees and a greener bank to the left with better surface treatments and darker railing on the trail.


The current design of the handrails seem to separate trail users from the river more than just physically. These shiny excessively heavy handrails go beyond any building codes or regulations and are visually bulky, with their reflective surface distracting the eye from the water. Though the material wouldn't weather well long-term, if we look at Spruce Street Harbor Park's railing, the darker color used and more open grid left a greater feeling of openness towards the river. Painting the existing Boardwalk handrails a dark color would help reduce that distraction and reduce the barrier-like feeling one now has between themself and the river.  

This view shows how darker railing (right side vs. existing left), new benches, planters, surface treatments noting distance and green edging on the banks would transform the Boardwalk.


The bright concrete surface of the boardwalk cuts through the dark waters of the Schuylkill. Concrete tends to be brighter when new and will probably darken up with time and weathering. There are linear board patterns on the ground to prevent slipping and those work well. There are signs noting the importance of the South Street Bridge and Schuylkill Expressway, but these don't seem enough for the space. The cement surface of the Boardwalk leaves room for creativity. To reflect the creative buzz that’s burgeoning in the city, distance benchmarks, milestones, or colored banners dividing the two lanes etc could help clarify the space for different users while adding interest. 


As Geoff mentioned in his critique of the Boardwalk, this section of Schuylkill is almost canal-like, with high walled edging and rail and road hemming in either side of the river. Environmental remediation would be welcome here. Aquatic plants form large surfaces for bacteria, algae and animal organisms to develop, creating a nutrient rich ecosystem for various species. They also create shade and shelter for various native fish and provide an ideal nesting/spawning area for new generations.

In order to help foster this life in this canal-like portion of the river, we can take a cue from Spruce Street Harbor Park. Floating raft-like beds of plants would create shelter, food and nesting grounds for various species and soften the river’s edge. They could be extended in a grid with underwater cabling to prevent excessive drifting and prevent flooding events from sweeping them away. 

The new Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk is a welcomed addition to the city's network of trails and connections. The space we have defined today is a framework, a blank slate if you will for many future design opportunities. Injecting amenities and better design into this trail can transform it into a space in its own right, a space that better relates to its surroundings environmentally, but also visually and emotionally.


Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 October 2014 @ 04.46
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Abdallah's picture Abdallah Tabet Architect, Landscape Architect About the Author:

Abdallah Tabet is an architect and landscape architect from Lebanon, with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (MLA), the American University of Beirut (BArch) and Lebanese University (DESS-MHP). He has lived in and loved Philly since 2005.

He is currently working at OLIN on a river restoration project in Normandy, and on several cultural, residential and planning projects in Europe. He has previously worked at WRT with Penn Praxis on the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware and the Trinity River Project in Dallas. He also has developed design and environmental guidelines for river restoration projects in Lebanon and Spain, in addition to several architectural, preservation and planning projects.