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06.17.2014
Framework for Development
Master plan hopes to spur transformation of Philadelphia's Fairmount Park.
Philadelphia's Fairmount Park along the Schuylkill River.
Brian Aydemir / Flickr

Philadelphia has unveiled plans to overhaul the 2,000-acre Fairmount Park. Though more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park, it has never been utilized, or revered, as has Olmsted’s masterwork. Philly is trying to change that. In mid-March, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation unveiled a sprawling plan called “The New Fairmount Park,” which proposes to transform the open space with bike lanes, trails, redesigned streets, landscaping, a public boathouse, and a host of other interventions.

Fairmount Park comprises two parks, East and West Fairmount, which are separated by the Schuylkill River. It was originally designed as a watershed park that was meant to protect the city’s water supply. “It has never been conceived of as a whole park, or as a singular park,” said Harris Steinberg of PennPraxis, which created the master plan on behalf of the city. “It stands in contrast to the great Olmsted parks.”

Despite the park’s original function as a public utility, and not necessarily a public space, it still manages to attract 7 million visitors a year. To increase those numbers even further, the master plan calls for reconnecting Fairmount with the city, and the expansive park with itself.

 
The PennPraxis plan proposes to improve connectivity within the park, as well as to the surrounding city.
Courtesy PennPraxis
 

To begin that process, PennPraxis suggested that the city start from the park’s outside edge and work its way in. The master plan proposes new pathways and “attractive entrances” to better join the park with its bordering communities. Inside Fairmount, restored and reoriented trails create a more comprehensive way to move through the hills. Steinberg called these interventions “quick hits” because they can be implemented quickly and without too much capital. Ideally, they will build momentum for the more transformative proposals, like a public boathouse and pedestrian bridge across the Schuylkill.

It will take a lot more funding, planning, and political will to get the plans off the page and into the park. “Philadelphia has a long history of supporting visionary projects, but losing steam over time,” said Steinberg. For that reason the master plan is, in many ways, a political document meant to encourage those with the power to write bills and sign checks to refocus on Fairmount’s potential. Steinberg calls it a “framework for investment” and a “philanthropic to-do list.”

Given that the current mayor only has 18 months left in office, though, the future of this plan is uncertain. Some of the proposed “quick hits” could be executed in the near future, but, according to Steinberg, the bigger projects are being “teed up” for whoever leads the city next.

Henry Melcher