Last March, the City of Philadelphia commissioned a study from PennPraxis. The goal of was to add 500 acres of green space to the city in five years and make all city parks a ten-minute walk from each other. Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis asked PennPraxis Director Harris Steinberg to deliver the report by the end of the year. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the commissioner’s office: Green 2015: An action plan for the first 500 Acres became a sensation. A capacity crowd of more than 700 attended the report’s launch at the Natural History Museum on December 7. Mayor Michael Nutter presented the glossy full color report. The following morning editorials raved. The commissioner concluded that the city could begin implementing the plan by Spring 2011.
The report places Philadelphia’s 4,000-acre Fairmount Park on a cultural plane with the city’s art museum and orchestra. But Fairmount also includes more than 5,000 additional acres in far-flung parks scattered throughout the city. By adding 500 more the city hopes to knit together the disparate system via trails, pocket parks, and even schoolyards.
While PennPraxis compiled their research, they found an unlikely ally in the Water Department. A recent federal mandate limiting water runoff into the city’s overburdened sewer system made the department clamor for more porous surfaces throughout the city, including at paved playgrounds. They also collected valuable data on vacant properties, which cost the city $21 million annually. The city owns 1,043 acres of vacant land. The PennPraxis plan argues that the city could shift costs toward greening vacancies instead maintaining blight. At the moment, more than 200,000 Philadelphians don’t have a patch of green nearby. When researchers pinpointed the locales of inequity they also noticed plenty of schools and recreation centers nearby. In fact, there are 1,365 acres of schoolyards citywide. The conclusion: Don’t purchase new land; rework what you have.
“We don’t have the resources for something big and spanking new,” said Steinberg. “The more we got into this, the more we worked with the Water Department and we really honed in on public assets.”
After Steinberg showed DiBerardinis charts that detailed missing parkland beside charts outlying publicly owned property, it became the Ah-ha moment of the venture. “It was really the data that drove the decision making. It was very organic and natural,” said DiBerardinis.
The commissioner said in order to implement the plan his office would use four or five strategies alongside as many methodologies. The report also calls for a series of unique civic bedfellows. Some, like the Water Department, are ready to roll, while others, like the Department of Education, may need a bit more coaxing. Regarding rail corridor transformation, Amtrak participated on an advisory group, while Conrail remained a no-show. The airport intends to mitigate their own proposed expansion plans by giving back to the city 82 acres of wetlands. Universities, including Penn, Temple and Drexel, got onboard. In all, more than forty government agencies and philanthropic institutions participated in the report. The commissioner said his department plans to begin to break asphalt in selected recreation centers by Spring 2011.