Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Green Country Town

photograph of the Manayunk Trail
Schuylkill River Trail in Manayunk (B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia)

How often have you heard people proudly call Philadelphia a “greene country towne,” quoting William Penn’s evocative description of the city he founded?  Along with “city of brotherly love” – another catchy Penn coinage – the phrase ranks as the granddaddy of all municipal brands, pre-dating “Big Apple” and “Big Easy” by almost three centuries. Penn didn’t just talk the talk: when he laid out the street grid, he gave Philadelphia the gift of five public squares.

Yet it would be wrong to assume from this history that Penn instilled Philadelphia with a commitment to public space. From the city’s earliest days, its parks have been underfunded and under-appreciated. Instead of valuing them as places for leisurely enjoyment, Philadelphia has too often treated its parks as workhorses that can be harnessed to practical municipal goals, especially economic development. Philadelphia’s beautiful parks have continually defended themselves against private interests, parochial concerns, and municipal parsimony in a never-ending struggle for survival.

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While Penn envisioned Philadelphia as a lush American Eden, he was, at his core, a real estate developer – among America’s first. He recognized that the inclusion of open space could help make his urban experiment more appealing to buyers. The five squares were useful because they helped relieve the regularity of Philadelphia’s street grid, while increasing the value of nearby house lots. But deep down, Penn didn’t really like the idea of parks. As historian Elizabeth Milroy has noted, as a young man Penn had written articles warning of the ungodly temptations of public gardens. Meditative strolls had their place, he acknowledged, but such unproductive fun as “bowling greens, Hors races…and such like Sports” was to be avoided at all cost.  Ultimately, Penn’s need to move real estate overrode his moral reservations. That pragmatic approach has informed the city’s attitude toward its parks ever since.

Penn was suspicious of cities in general. His attitudes were shaped, in part, by the back-to-back disasters that befell London during his youth – the outbreak of plague in 1665, followed by the massive fire in 1666 that destroyed the city’s medieval center. When it came time to lay out Philadelphia’s grid with surveyor Thomas Holme in 1683, Penn was determined to improve upon London’s plan. To limit the spread of disease and fire, he insisted that Philadelphia’s houses should be set on big lots and arrayed along wide streets. Penn declared that Philadelphia would be a “greene Country Towne which will never be burnt, and always be wholesome.”

Five Squares With a Funding Dilemma

Having bequeathed those five public squares to the city as part of the plan, Penn then established the great Philadelphia tradition of not funding them. Because no money was allotted for turning the wild blocks into landscaped parks, Philadelphians quickly developed the habit of using their public spaces to dump trash. They became convenient places to hang criminals and bury the poor. It wasn’t until 1820 that the city government agreed to take responsibility for their upkeep. Philadelphia’s reluctance to financially support its parks would become a regular theme.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Philadelphia began to accumulate the large tracts that would eventually become Fairmount Park.  What motivated the purchases? The appeal of Sunday carriage rides along the Schuylkill River was certainly one factor, but what really spurred the city was the practical need to protect the city’s water supply from polluting industries that clustered upriver. Once again, Philadelphia saw no reason to hire a landscape architect to give the park form, unlike other large cities that clamored for the services of Frederick Law Olmsted and other planners.  Philadelphia did fund some improvements in the years leading up to the Centennial Exhibition, as Fairmount Park grew to 2,600 acres, but contributions fell as soon as the event was over. Milroy calculates that in the 1870s the city was spending roughly $83 an acre, a pittance compared to the $916 that New York lavished on each of Central Park’s 862 precious acres.

Today Philadelphia has the unfortunate distinction of spending less on its park system than any big city in America. Fairmount Park has not seen its budget increase in more than two decades. In 2010, the operating budget for Fairmount Park’s 9,200 acres sank to a woeful $12.6 million. Consider: New York devotes $8 million to the four acres of Bryant Park alone. Chicago, which imposes a special tax assessment to keep its green spaces looking spiffy, spends 30 times as much as Philadelphia on parks.

One reason that Philadelphia’s parks are underfunded is because they are not seen as having any practical value. Like Penn, today’s public officials still think of parks as a tool – rather than as an amenity where residents can relax or play games.  It is no accident that we often refer to green space here as a “resource,” a word that suggests the potential for money-making exploitation, as if a park were as fungible as reserves of oil and timber.  It’s no wonder that the city faced little opposition in the 1960s when it sliced off a beautiful stretch of its Schuylkill River frontage to build a highway. Even nowadays when the city adds parkland, it is often with a practical policy objective in mind. The two biggest park projects of the last half-century – Penn’s Landing and Independence Mall – have been viewed as part of a strategy for marketing the city to tourists. It’s telling that neither space includes that most basic of residential amenities: a children’s playground.

Parks vs. Business Interests

This way of thinking about parks cannot simply be ascribed to the misjudgments of the urban renewal years.  When Fox Chase Cancer Center needed room for expansion in 2008, the John F. Street Administration offered to sell the hospital twenty acres from Burholme Park, a popular park in the Northeast. His successor, Mayor Michael Nutter, continued to push the deal until it was overturned in court. The judge had to remind the city that Robert Ryerss – a wealthy Quaker, like Penn – had donated Burholme Park’s sixty acres “for the use and enjoyment of the people forever.” Despite this reprimand, Mayor Nutter came up with a plan two years later to trade away more parkland, this time to help out a tour boat operator called Ride the Ducks. The company called for cutting a trench through the popular Schuylkill Banks recreation trail to make it possible for boats carrying kazoo-tooting tourists to access the river. The scheme was dropped only after a public outcry.

Mayor Nutter certainly would not consider himself to be anti-park. Within months of announcing his intention to hand over a section of Schuylkill Banks to the Ducks, he released a commendable scheme to enlarge the Fairmount Park system by converting the city’s asphalt schoolyards to mini parks. Of course, the plan has a practical benefit that goes beyond providing a softer, more natural environment for kids to play catch. The green surfaces will slow water run-off, thus reducing the need to add costly sewer pipes.

Shortly after this proposal to green 500 acres was announced, the new census confirmed what many in Philadelphia had long suspected: The city’s population was growing again, for the first time in half a century. As energy prices rise, dense urban centers like Philadelphia are well placed to attract more new residents. But, in the age of the internet, the city will have to compete to keep its residents satisfied, and that means providing high-quality parks and amenities.  After three centuries of describing itself as a green country town, it’s time for Philadelphia to live up to its brand.

Inga Saffron is the Architecture Critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Topics: Natural and Built Environment

Gallery: Natural and Built Environment

East Prospect Philadelphia
East Prospect Philadelphia

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Scull and Heap Map of Philadelphia, 1752
Scull and Heap Map of Philadelphia, 1752

Library of Congress

Carpenters’ Hall
Carpenters’ Hall

Library of Congress (Explore in Continental Congresses).

The Wood Street Steps
The Wood Street Steps

Photograph courtesy of Harry Kyriakodis (Explore in Delaware Avenue).

Densities of Structures and People
Densities of Structures and People

Map by Paul Sivitz and Billy G. Smith (Explore in Philadelphia and its People in Maps: The 1790s).

The President’s House
The President’s House

Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Explore in Haitian Revolution).

Offenbach’s Garden
Offenbach’s Garden

Library Company of Philadelphia (Explore in Broad Street).

Manayunk Mills
Manayunk Mills

Library Company of Philadelphia (Explore in Northwest Philadelphia).

Laurel Hill Ground Plan
Laurel Hill Ground Plan

Courtesy of James Hill Jr. (Explore in Laurel Hill Cemetery).

South Philadelphia in 1850
South Philadelphia in 1850

Library Company of Philadelphia (Explore in South Philadelphia).

Consolidation
Consolidation

Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Explore in Consolidation Act of 1854).

Panorama of the Centennial
Panorama of the Centennial

Library Company of Philadelphia (Explore in Centennial Exhibition).

Pier Five
Pier Five

PhillyHistory.org (Explore in Delaware Avenue).

Market Street, 1890
Market Street, 1890

PhillyHistory.org (Explore in Department Stores).

Philadelphia Seventh Ward
Philadelphia Seventh Ward

University of Pennsylvania Archives (Explore in The Philadelphia Negro).

Starr Garden Playground
Starr Garden Playground

PhillyHistory.org (Explore in Settlement Houses).

Willow Grove Amusement Park
Willow Grove Amusement Park

Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Explore in Streetcars).

South Broad Street, 1915
South Broad Street, 1915

PhillyHistory.org (Explore in Broad Street).

Harrowgate Park
Harrowgate Park
Independence National Historical Park
Independence National Historical Park

Visit Philadelphia (Explore in Independence National Historical Park).

Boathouse Row at Night
Boathouse Row at Night

R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia (Explore in Boathouse Row).

Passyunk Square
Passyunk Square

J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia (Explore in South Philadelphia).

Gallery At Market East
Gallery At Market East

PhillyHistory.org (Explore in Shopping Centers).

Philadelphia Skyline
Philadelphia Skyline

Visit Philadelphia

Timeline: Natural and Built Environment

Before Colonization
Before Colonization

Native Americans depend heavily on wood, bark, and vegetable fibers to construct houses and other material goods. The Lenni Lenape use fire to manage forests, clear land for agriculture, and burn underbrush to encourage the growth of young plants that attract deer and other small game. When villages exhaust forests after a few decades, communities settle in new sites a few miles away and the process begins again.

Image credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Colonial Era
Colonial Era

1682: City plan for Philadelphia (shown here) designates gridiron street pattern, a park in each quadrant, and center square for public buildings.

After 1682: Despite William Penn’s intentions for a “green country town” from river to river, settlement clusters close to maritime activity of the Delaware.

c. 1691: Construction of Budd’s Row, first recorded group of row houses.

1694: Market stalls appear at Second and High Streets (later renamed Market Street).

1729: Pennsylvania Assembly opts for site on the outskirts of town, on Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets, as location for State House.

1720s-30s: Georgian-style buildings including Christ Church and Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) signify English culture.

Image credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

American Revolution
American Revolution

1770-74: Construction of Carpenters’ Hall; becomes meeting place for First Continental Congress in 1774.

1772: Preparations for defense of the Delaware River begin with construction of Fort Mifflin, begun by the British and completed by colonial army.

1785: Following the disruption of the War for Independence, the State House Yard (later renamed Independence Square) is landscaped as a park with walks and trees.

Image credit: Library of Congress

Capital of the United States
Capital of the United States

New public buildings in the Federal style flank the State House: a County Court House (Congress Hall), built 1787-89, and a new City Hall (temporarily home to the U.S. Supreme Court), built 1790-91.

1790: Density of structures and population remains greatest closest to the Delaware River. First federal census counts 44,096 residents in the city of Philadelphia and its adjacent suburbs of Southwark and the Northern Liberties, making it the most populous urban center in the new nation.

1795-97: First Bank of the United States (shown here) reflects transition to neo-Classical symbolism for new nation.

Image credit: Library of Congress

Nineteenth Century Before 1854
Nineteenth Century Before 1854

Major public buildings reflect Greek Revival: Second Bank of the U.S. (1818-24), U.S. Naval Asylum (1827-33), Merchant’s Exchange (1832-33), Girard College (1833-47).

1820s: Philadelphia’s original city squares renamed Franklin (shown here in 1839), Washington, Rittenhouse, and Logan; rehabilitation begins after years of disrepair.

1827: Pennsylvania Horticultural Society founded.

1834-45: Construction of Delaware Avenue.

1836: Laurel Hill Cemetery opens; second rural cemetery in U.S.

1853: High Street market houses demolished; street name formally changed to Market Street.

Image credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Nineteenth Century After 1854
Nineteenth Century After 1854

1854: Consolidation extends city to boundaries of Philadelphia County.

1855: Creation of Fairmount Park begins with ordinance setting aside Lemon Hill area for public use.

1858: Streetcars introduced (electrified 1892), allow middle class families to move to West and lower North Philadelphia.

1871: Voters choose Center Square over Washington Square as site for new City Hall (completed 1901).

1874: Philadelphia Zoo opens.

1897: Land Title Building (sixteen stories) anchors developing corridor of skyscrapers on Broad Street south of City Hall.

Image credit: Library Company of Philadelphia

Twentieth Century Before 1945
Twentieth Century Before 1945

1907-1920s: Subway-elevated service extends residential development in West and Northeast Philadelphia.

1914: Northeast Boulevard opens; renamed Roosevelt Boulevard, 1918.

1917: Construction begins for Fairmount Parkway (later renamed Benjamin Franklin Parkway), twenty-six years after first proposed. Completed 1926.

1929: City Planning Commission established.

1932: PSFS Building completed; first U.S. skyscraper in International Style.

Image credit: Library of Congress

Twentieth Century After 1945
Twentieth Century After 1945

1946: Redevelopment Authority established to address deterioriation; efforts in 1940s-50s emphasize slum clearance.

1949-70: As director of City Planning Commission, Edmund Bacon oversees remaking of Center City, including Penn Center, Independence Mall, and Society Hill.

1960s: Construction of I-95 separates Philadelphia from Delaware River waterfront.

1974: Plans for Crosstown Expressway at South Street scrapped after more than a decade of resident resistance.

1986: Groundbreaking for One Liberty Place, first skyscraper to break tradition that no building should be taller than statue of William Penn on City Hall (491 feet).

Image credit: PhillyHistory.org

Twenty-First Century
Twenty-First Century

2006-07: Civic planning process leads to Master Plan for the Central Delaware (adopted by City Planning Commission, 2012).

2007: Comcast Center becomes tallest building in Philadelphia.

2011-14: Renovation of Dilworth Plaza creates new public park and transit hub adjacent to City Hall.

2014: Comcast announces plans for technology center in second, taller skyscraper.

Image credit: Visit Philadelphia

Map: Natural and Built Environment

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