Creative Communities

Philly to test reimagined public spaces

Posted: Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Source: City Paper

With an initiative titled "Reimagining the Civic Commons," Philadelphia has attracted $11 million from the William Penn Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to help create or rebuild five public spaces that would become links between low-income neighborhoods and wealthier sections that are flourishing in the current construction boom.

The project, announced Monday, makes Philly a national leader in the creation of a network of public open spaces that straddle disparate areas.

By developing facilities — including a nature center, an elevated park and a new playground — in the five locations, the foundations hope to bring together new and existing users in public spaces, and help to level the economic playing field.
It's an idea that the Miami-based Knight Foundation had been developing for a while and found its opportunity by partnering with William Penn in Philly.

 

 

"We had been thinking about this idea of reimagining the civic commons, but we didn't have a place to test it — it was all conceptual," said Carol Coletta, the Knight Foundation's vice president for community and national initiatives, at an event launching the project at the Fairmount Park Horticultural Center.

The concept turned into a reality when William Penn invited Knight to become a partner in the plan to turn the five underused or neglected areas into "reimagined" spaces.

The five projects, which were already being developed before the two foundations got involved, and which are now receiving more financial help, are:
— The Discovery Center in East Fairmount Park: a center for nature study and outdoor education jointly being managed by the National Audubon Society and Outward Bound Philadelphia on the grounds of the disused East Park Reservoir adjoining the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood;
— Reading Viaduct Rail Park: a former elevated industrial rail line that is being repurposed by Center City District as a green public space;
— Bartram's Mile trail project: a stretch of former industrial land being developed by Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Schuylkill River Development Corporation along the lower Schuylkill River that will link to a 750-mile regional trail network called the Circuit;
— Lovett Memorial Library and Park: the renovation and expansion of an existing library to serve all sections of the economically divided Mount Airy neighborhood;
— Fairmount Park Conservancy's Centennial Commons: an underused section of West Fairmount Park near Memorial Hall will get a new playground on the edge of the adjoining Parkside neighborhood.

Backers argue that Philadelphia's large number of former industrial sites with the potential for conversion to public spaces, the city's rising national profile and an influx of millennials make it especially suitable as a national testing ground for a new kind of public space.

"It's the combination of tremendous momentum and the opportunity to do more for those who are underserved," said Laura Sparks, executive director of the William Penn Foundation.

The new project, which will be led by the Fairmount Park Conservancy, aims to create more spaces like Dilworth Park or the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk that have rec-ently enhanced the public environment in Center City, but which are not immediately accessible to residents of poorer neighbor-hoods like Strawberry Mansion or Germantown.

"We've seen tremendous growth in beautiful public spaces in downtown Philadelphia and we believe that all citizens should have access to assets like that," Sparks said.

But such projects may not succeed without policies that allow longtime residents to stay in gentrifying areas, argued Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, which recently issued a report calling for equitable development.

"It's important we have policies in place that help existing residents and small businesses stay and benefit from the improving neighborhood after these projects are complete," Sauer said. "Without such a strategy, we could push out the very people these projects should benefit."

Joyce Smith of the Viola Street Residents Association in the Parkside neighborhood said she hopes the playground investment in West Fairmount Park will attract more private developers.

"We can't get a lot of interest in the neighborhood to address some of the blight," Smith said at the project announcement. "We're hoping that what they are doing in the park will help create and stimulate more development. We believe it's going to help us leverage what we're trying to do."

As planned, the overall project sets a national precedent in open-space management, said Peter Harnik, director for city park excellence at the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.

Although other cities, including New York and Atlanta, have individual projects that link economically disparate areas, Philadelphia is the first to have a network of them, he said.

"It's where everybody should be going," he said.

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