by Sue Ann Rybak
Fairmount Park, just one of Philadelphia’s many gems, is slated for renewal.
Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University, discussed the future of Fairmount Park and examined a recent study entitled “The New Fairmount Park: A Community Vision and Action Plan for East and West Fairmount Park,” which was conducted by PennPraxis, the applied research arm of the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, on March 11 at the Valley Green Inn on Forbidden Drive in Wissahickon Valley Park.
The study was organized for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and was funded by the William Penn Foundation. The lecture, sponsored by Valley Green Bank, was part of the Friends of Wissahickon’s annual Valley Talk series and was rescheduled from last October.
Steinberg, founder and executive director of PennPraxis, said the purpose of the project was to devise a strategic plan to transform “a 19th century legacy watershed park” and reinvigorate it for the 21st century.
“What makes this park unique is that it is a watershed park that still provides water to more than a million people a day in Philadelphia,” he said. “The 2,000 acres of watershed park was designed to protect our water supply.”
He added that with more than seven million visitors a year, it is for many Philadelphians a “fundamental and elemental connection to city life.”
“The park didn’t start big,” he said. “It was assembled bit by bit by bit in order to create this system that protected the water supply. [It] created this amazing public space with access to nature within an industrial city.”
Steinberg said besides researching data for the study, PennPraxis held public meetings and conducted an email survey of park users to get input about how they use the park.
“After talking to folks, I came to a realization that this is really a park of many parks and all of them distinctly different,” he said. “The lack of park-wide connectivity is the biggest challenge to Philadelphians fully using all that East and West Park has to offer.”
“Instead of relying on expensive infrastructure [to connect the park], we can use nature – the 16 creeks that flow through East and West Fairmount Park – to help us clear many of these hurdles.”
The reported focused on five key areas: West Parkside Gateway, East Parkside Gateway, Mander Recreation Center Gateway, Strawberry Mansion Gateway, and Brewerytown Gateway.
Some key recommendations include: developing a new stewardship and civic support for the park, creating safe, attractive entrances to the park, creating a well-connected trail system, restoring pedestrian and bike access to the Columbia Rail Bridge, building new grandstands on an accessible Peter’s Island, making a signature pedestrian bridge across the river at or around Fountain Green Drive, rerouting Belmont Avenue to create a quieter, safer park experience, building a new public boat house to engage more residents in the Schuylkill River, and many more.
Following the presentation, Steinberg answered questions and listened to recommendations from participants.
Several attendees noted the lack of signage in the park and resources such as maps available to park users.
One woman, a longtime volunteer for Parks & Recreation, said, “Before you build one more road, please put in signs – park users have sometimes spent half a day or more lost in the park.”
Another attendee commented that improvements to the park would enhance the quality of life for all Philadelphians – especially those in more isolated impoverished neighborhoods.
“This is not one of those decisions, where city officials should say, ‘Well, it’s either education or investing in Fairmont park,’” he said. “It should be both.”
Steinberg encouraged attendees to reach out to city officials to make this a mayoral campaign issue.
He added that the park plays a vital role in the “life of the city” and should be a priority for City Council and the mayor.
To see the full report go to planphilly.com/uploads/media_items/thenewfairmountpark.original.pdf