Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Panel Discussion Summary

Charlene Mires began the evening by welcoming participants to the third event in the Greater Philadelphia Roundtable series as part of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.  She explained the Encyclopedia as a partnership of several organizations that will create an information resource based on the Roundtable series, group discussions, audience comments and questions, published essays, and panel talks which will help to shape the content of the project.  Mires especially thanked the following program sponsors: Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.  The conference room was nearly full and Mires recognized the night’s attendance as a testament to public interest and participation in the creation of the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.  She introduced the moderator of the evening’s discussion, Drew Becher, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Becher set up the “Green Country Town” discussion with a phrase for Pennsylvania: the horticultural hand basket of the United States. He asked the audience to consider the wonderful green spaces and plant life throughout the state. Specifically in Philadelphia, one must consider the original intentions of the city’s open spaces in William Penn’s map.  Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 8, 2011, Inga Saffron’s essay examined and questioned the motivations behind Penn’s planned parks and their place in the city today.  Tonight’s panel discussion will both reflect upon and challenge Penn’s intended “green country town.”  Becher compared the history of open spaces in Philadelphia to that of Chicago, a city whose parks had seemed to disappear for decades before recently being transformed into chic plazas and trendy lakefront squares.  How does this model measure up to Philadelphia’s park system?  What is the importance of public spaces to our future in relation to our past?  Becher then asked each panelist to speak briefly about his/her experience with green places in Philadelphia.

Pete Hoskins, now Executive Director of the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, first became involved with parks in Philadelphia as the director of the Fairmount Park System in the 1980s. A longtime supporter of urban parks, Hoskins hopes to see the park system expand and maintained.  Now, he noted, the parks seem to be the “workhorses” of the city – everyone wants to use them, but not many are willing to pay to take care of them.

Eugenie Birch, the Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research and Education and Chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, lives in New York City and works in Philadelphia. She constantly finds herself comparing public spaces and parks in both cities. Most recently, she is the co-editor of Growing Greener Cities: Urban Sustainability in the Twenty-first Century, a collection of essays on urban sustainability and environmental issues published in 2008.

The third panelist and essayist for the program, Inga Saffron, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, was delayed and joined the panel later in the evening.

To commence the discussion, Becher asked the panelists to speak about their favorite park or public space in the world and explain their decisions.  Birch answered that she was not going to choose, and the audience laughed.  She reasoned that there was not one single park that she could love the most. As an avid traveler, she has experienced open spaces all over the world and found interesting stories behind all of them. For example, some of the most beautiful parks in Paris along the Seine River were once slaughterhouses. Birch explained that she is always pleasantly surprised at the different ways in which urban parks change and shape the city around them.  Hoskins, on the other hand, named his single favorite park as Rittenhouse Square. He admired the space as a crossroads of everything that a park should be.  It has increased the property value of surrounding buildings, become an outdoor space for local residents and workers, and exhibits attractive design. Rather than serve as an epicenter for tourists, Rittenhouse Square serves the people who live and work around it.

Becher’s next question for the panel addressed the roles and requirements of urban parks. Hoskins responded first and used Central Park in New York City as an example of how parks can define neighborhoods and even cities. Prospect Park in Brooklyn serves as a model for what Philadelphia parks should be.  In large numbers, people use the park to relax and play as a community.  Birch declared that parks make cities livable. She finds that the contrast between the overwhelming presence of nature and the urban backdrop makes parks in cities exciting and refreshing.  Green spaces are the lungs of urban centers and give economic value as well as spiritual solace to a city.  A park provides common ground for different social and class groups to mingle and create community.

What iconic images of Philadelphia, Becher asked, are based on open spaces? Hoskins remarked that two rivers, the Delaware on the east and the Schuylkill on the west, literally define the city.  Although the Schuylkill riverbank serves as a better park, he hopes to see the Delaware waterfront developed into a more green space. Birch named Independence Park and Boathouse Row as the most iconic parks in Philadelphia.  In those places, she argued, a unique history exists that one cannot find anywhere else.

Becher’s next topic of conversation addressed the design element of parks.  He argued that design elements define effective public spaces.  Hoskins agreed and cited Swann Fountain in Philadelphia’s Logan Circle as a paradigm of open space design: it makes people want to go there. On the other hand, Hoskins pointed to Dilworth Plaza as a case of poor design where the atmosphere feels sterile and uninviting. Birch expanded on the latter example, adding that Dilworth Plaza is defined by structure and sculpture, rather than a green public space. She explained that human beings have always found ways to make urban space usable and welcoming to the people who live there.

Design is not always a top priority in Philadelphia, Becher stated and asked the panel for their opinions.  Inga Saffron answered first.  She explained that there is never enough money for open space design and later maintenance fees. After William Penn organized the city with its original parks, he did not plan for long-term protection and preservation of the land.  No endowment exists to maintain the city’s parks and Saffron argued that now is it easier to raise money for park construction than for park maintenance. Hoskins added that much of the city’s budget is allocated according to political priorities and citizens must pressure local government officials to make it a main concern. In 2011, the budget for city parks was the same as the budget in 1987 and it was never enough money then. Birch suggested that when government budgets are under stress, parks need supplemental monies from private donors. To help fund parks, a balance should be reached between public and private support.  For example, Birch spoke about a luncheon in New York City which raised $3 million for the preservation and maintenance of Central Park.

Expanding on this topic, Becher wondered if private money and funding would create a tiered park system, where some spaces would flourish while others, namely those in less wealthy neighborhoods, would be ignored. Hoskins looked at Prospect Park as an open space supported by the city and private donations from all economic classes in the surrounding neighborhoods. He emphasized that the people who use the park must do their part to encourage donations, as well.  Becher reminded the audience that the Chicago park system was mainly used as a dumping ground or parking lot from the 1960s through the late 1980s.  Even with a dedicated funding stream, the park system was falling apart. Perhaps, he suggested, the city should levy taxes specifically to cover maintenance costs and community programs to keep parks alive.  Hoskins did not agree that a special tax should be imposed upon citizens, but that money from the city budget should be shifted to support open spaces.  He also proposed initiatives to empower the parks commissioner in order to serve the needs of the city and its communities better.  Birch recommended regional alliances with parks outside of the city proper to create a larger coalition for open spaces.

Becher’s last question for the panel asked what role parks should play in the economic development of neighborhoods and the city. Saffron spoke about increased real estate values for homes and buildings by parks, specifically pointing out Rittenhouse Square. In the last decade, she explained, high-rise developers have been seeking land plots near parks and the waterfront to enhance the value and desirability of their properties. In light of this situation, public officials have recognized the potential to make money by selling public lands (including parks) for development. The city treats parks as a resource, she argued, like a commodity to be traded, and this idea reflects how we think about parks. Saffron encouraged people to care for parks for what they are: places to relax, open spaces, irreplaceable areas in the city that should not be traded.  Hoskins commented that many people can use parks as an investment, predicting that their property values will increase with better parks. Birch concluded the conversation with two compromises.  If open spaces and parks must be sold, the owners must be compensated at fair market value for the land.  Additionally, the city can purchase vacant, abandoned lots to create more green urban spaces.

At this point in the program, Becher opened the discussion to the audience for questions and comments about the Philadelphia parks system.

One audience member noted that while the city’s budget has been under stress for years, many parks are nicer now than they have been in the past 30 years. Have private investments, perhaps from the Center City District, helped transform these parks? Has the city government seeded responsibility to private groups? The panel responded that partnerships with private organizations have helped some parks (although they are not always easy to coordinate) combined with the voices and votes of active citizens have helped Penn’s original parks flourish in the last few years.

The next question asked what must be done to prioritize the protection and maintenance of parks in Philadelphia. Saffron proposed that the city needs a cheerleader figure – a high-ranking public official (namely the mayor) to make the park system a top issue in the city’s agenda. This person would be responsible for pressuring companies, businesses, and investors to increase private fundraising and encouraging the city to apply for federal grant monies to protect the green open spaces.  In her opinion, a shift in environmental policy direction from City Hall government will help all Philadelphians prioritize their parks. Birch noted that Mayor Nutter initiated Greenworks Philadelphia, a plan to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the United States by 2015, and that the Philadelphia Water Department announced a plan to control the city’s watershed.

Another audience member commented on the surprising number of vacant lots, especially in Center City, that have great potential as green open spaces and parks through private ownership.  Next, a guest emphasized the need to educate citizens about the importance of parks with history, markers, maps, and stories about how parks have changed over the years. One man shared a story about how a park has changed his life: as a professional photographer, he was taking pictures of Rittenhouse Square during a snowstorm in 1999 when he almost immediately fell in love with the city and changed the way he looked at Philadelphia forever. The last question addressed the lack of parks and open spaces in areas of urban decay. The panel agreed that the city needs to make these spaces more accessible and a high priority as part of the Greenworks plan to redesign city parks.

Becher concluded the discussion and thanked audience members and panelists for their contributions to the evening’s conversation.  Although Philadelphia has much to improve upon, the city’s parks are a unique asset. He reminded the audience that although the discussion referenced other park systems in Chicago and New York, those cities are having the same conversations about the same problems.  Programs like the one tonight keep Philadelphia ambitious, aware, and informed about green open spaces.

Audience members continued the discussion in smaller conversation groups, with one person from each group then sharing an idea not previously discussed that evening. Groups commented on traffic and noise from major roadways in parks, additional bike lanes and racks; local dog parks; Independence Mall as rather disconnected from the rest of the park system because it is geared for tourism; and educational programs that connect children and their parents to green spaces.

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