Philadelphia’s Incremental Landscape
In 1996, the City of Philadelphia Streets Department, matching a $5 million federal grant, undertook the first steps in an incremental public realm restructuring for the Schuylkill River. Recognizing an erosion and stormwater control problem was causing increased contaminant levels in the river and threatening the right of way of a critical CSX freight line, the City reinforced the shoreline with bulkheads and graded smooth the resulting made space. Today this same piece of waterfront is nearly unrecognizable. New high rises, activated park spaces, and improved connections are making what was once a degrading industrial site into a welcoming civic amenity. But this dramatic transformation was not the result of any single, sweeping overhaul. Instead, the Schuylkill Banks represents an important example of the power of incremental landscape infrastructure. The armature, created by a simple paved path, led to impactful offshoots and a networked public realm where previously there was none. The park is a prime example of the ability of landscape to provide socio-cultural value while simultaneously jump starting a powerful economic engine.
The idea for a trail goes back to 1965, when the Philadelphia firm of Adleman, Collins & DuTot created a master plan for Fairmount Park, and featured a sliver of parkland along the riverbank. Over the next 30 years, with the continued efforts of John F. Collins, FASLA, and many volunteers, conditions finally aligned, and repair work began that would rapidly change the public’s perception of the Schuylkill’s east bank. By 2000, two years after bulkheading was completed, an asphalt path was laid down, lit up at night, and made accessible to pedestrians and bikers through a deal with CSX.
As users began to discover the trail and the advantages it offered, including access to the Art Museum, Water Works, Boathouse Row and the greater Fairmount Park system, the City, along with the Schuylkill Banks Development Corporation (made up of public and private interests such as Amtrak, the University of Pennsylvania, CSX, interested developers, and the City of Philadelphia) continued to make incremental improvements.
Gradually more landscape features were added, from benches and boulders, to fishing piers, trees, and boating facilities. As the amenities grew, the users increased, and a positive feedback loop emerged in which the growing number of users encouraged further investment.
The result has been nothing short of transformational, as the impact of the trail has sent reverberations deep into surrounding areas of the city. Development has been sparked on both sides of the river, and has included major changes to city infrastructure, showcased by the restoration and conversion of the historic post office at 30th Street, the sale of a 14-acre city storage yard to the University of Pennsylvania for the creation of Penn Park, and ongoing enhancements to 30th Street Station and its grounds.
Most recently, major improvements to the trail have included the new Paine’s Park skate park and a new dog park, along with safer, more accessible crossings of the train tracks. These have brought more users to the trail, which UPenn now lists as one of its nearby assets and tourists discover as they meander down from the cultural amenities of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The City has also invested heavily in the bridges that span and provide access to the river and its trail. Lighting, new sidewalks, and bike lanes have appeared on the bridges, making it not only easier to get to the trail but also easier for the trail’s reach to extend further into the city. These bridge improvements help stitch together Center City and University City, and nurture a critical mass along the Philadelphia’s interior riverfront, closing a once wide void in the city’s connectivity.
This incremental investment in permanent landscape infrastructure is continuing, with an extensive boardwalk and connection ramp to the South Street Bridge, where the banks are pinched too tight to allow a land-based trail between the water and the CSX line. Importantly, the trains still run full of freight, enlivening the space, and increasing the level of interest and activity.
Further opportunities exist, as the Schuylkill Banks continues to grow in popularity and significance. Parking lots still border areas of the Center City side, and the large train yards on the west beckon for a connection into Drexel University, which is undergoing major growth of its own. Plans call for the trail to extend much deeper south, including initial concepts for the Lower Schuylkill Master Plan, a major reinvestment in the former Sunoco Oil lands near the confluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers.
Communities and cities should not be afraid to adopt incremental strategies for intervening in the public realm. Simple moves can quickly gain momentum when adopted by users, and in turn feed further investment and benefit. The master plan may represent the vision and framework in which this occurs, but by taking that first step, a municipality can show commitment and build support. Oftentimes projects just need to get off the ground with an infusion of public funds, and the spark can create an influx of private money, further enhancements, and an increased quality of life for the citizenry.
Incremental landscape infrastructure can create opportunities to improve ecologic functions, enhance the civic experience, and ignite economic investment. The Schuylkill Banks Park and trail system and its surroundings were created over time, but instigated by a simple move, and carried on the back of a revitalized Center City and an expanding University City. This line down the middle, once a boundary to be crossed, has become an adhesive to be gripped, a destination to be claimed, and a landscape to be enjoyed.