Green Country Town
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.Read More
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
The Philadelphia area is a recognized “hearth” of early American arboretums. Starting almost exclusively within a tight-knit community of Quaker botanists with a reverence for nature, early Philadelphia arboretums left a legacy of emphasis on native plants. Over time, the region’s arboretums also encompassed English naturalistic designs showcasing North American species and increasingly global perspectives, ⇒ Read More
Located on the west bank of the Schuylkill River, Bartram’s Garden, considered the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America, has served as a monument to the storied history of Philadelphia’s botanical endeavors and to the genius of John Bartram (1699–1777) and his descendants. Established as a family farm and garden by John Bartram in ⇒ Read More
Created in the first decades of the twentieth century, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway connected the heart of Philadelphia’s downtown to its premier park and over time became a district of cultural institutions and a commons for civic celebrations. The broad boulevard and its monumental structures reflected the European-inspired, nationwide City Beautiful Movement embraced by the ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia’s Boathouse Row is a National Historic Landmark that reflects the city’s fusion of sport, culture, and history. The boathouses, built in the second half of the nineteenth-century, line the eastern bank of the Schuylkill River just north of the Fairmount Waterworks. Lit at night with thousands of glowing bulbs, they form a welcoming beacon ⇒ Read More
Beginning in the eighteenth century with the botanical enthusiasts who explored the world around them as part of a larger interest in natural history, botany became an integral part of the Philadelphia region’s national and international reputation. It brought scholars and enthusiasts from across the globe to study and explore Philadelphia’s collections and gardens, influenced ⇒ Read More
The city of Philadelphia was built with bricks, giving it an appearance many neighborhoods retained into the twenty-first century. An abundance of local clay allowed brickmaking to flourish and bricks to become the one of the most important building materials in the region. Because it could be accomplished with just a few rudimentary tools, brickmaking ⇒ Read More
“No other street in America quite compares with Broad Street,” wrote E. Digby Baltzell, author of Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, of the varied architecture north and south of City Hall. Philadelphia’s Broad Street goes past stores, churches, synagogues, museums, funeral parlors, fast food places, gas stations, apartment houses, and rows and rows of row ⇒ Read More
First designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1995, the polluted tracts of land known as “brownfields” resulted from Greater Philadelphia’s industrial heritage. For more than a century, manufacturers generated vast amounts of waste and runoff. After industry declined between the 1950s and the 1980s, acres of abandoned structures and soiled land remained. ⇒ Read More
Over a period of four decades, from 1840 through 1880, a commercial district of distinctive cast iron buildings developed in Center City Philadelphia. Born of the iron wealth of Pennsylvania and fashioned by the city’s architects and mechanics at a time of technological innovation, these buildings helped define the downtown of the emerging modern city. ⇒ Read More
Cemeteries have been integral features of the Philadelphia-area landscape since the earliest European settlements of the mid-1600s. Over the centuries, and in tandem with developments such as epidemics, immigration, industrialization, war, and suburbanization, the region’s cemeteries matured from small, private grave sites, potter’s fields, and church burial yards to rural cemeteries, national cemeteries, and memorial ⇒ Read More
Forming a core of civic, commercial, and residential life since Philadelphia’s seventeenth-century founding, Center City has been a continually evolving experiment in urban living and management. The roughly rectangular area of about 2.3 square miles between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, from Vine Street to South Street, occupies the territory of the original 1682 city ⇒ Read More
Grounded in landscape and European architecture and shaped by the politics of the Progressive Era, the City Beautiful Movement emerged in reaction to the physical decay and social congestion that burdened America’s industrial centers at the turn of the twentieth century. Considered the “mother” of urban planning, its promoters and practitioners sought to reorder the ⇒ Read More
Constructed over a thirty-year period at a cost approaching $25 million, Philadelphia City Hall stands as a monument both to the city’s grand ambitions and to the extravagance of its political culture. Controversial from the outset–for its location, its architecture, and the patronage it commanded on behalf of its construction–the structure nonetheless came to be ⇒ Read More
The Consolidation Act of 1854 extended Philadelphia’s territory from the two-square-mile “city proper” founded by William Penn to nearly 130 square miles, making the municipal borders coterminous with Philadelphia County and turning the metropolis into the largest in extent in the nation, a position it held until Chicago leapt ahead in 1889. Consolidation’s supporters believed ⇒ Read More
The rise, fall, and rebirth of the sport of cricket in the Philadelphia region reflected political, social, and economic change. Cricket once flourished in the city, which produced some legendary players known throughout the cricketing world. The rise of other leisure activities supplanted the game, however, until a moderate resurgence in the late twentieth and ⇒ Read More
Delaware Avenue, the north-south thoroughfare closest to the Delaware River in Philadelphia, owes its existence to the richest man in America, who wanted a grand avenue along the central waterfront. The street, including a portion renamed Columbus Boulevard in the 1990s, played a significant role in the development of Philadelphia’s maritime activity, particularly food distribution ⇒ Read More
The four-state compact that established the Delaware River Basin Commission was a breakthrough innovation in addressing the interrelated land and water impacts of natural resources spanning political jurisdictions. For the first time, the federal government and several states joined as equal partners in a single agency to regulate and develop the watershed of an entire ⇒ Read More
The Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) was created nearly one hundred years ago as a bi-state commission for the purpose of building a single toll bridge. By the 1930s regional leaders had started to envision a larger maritime role for their new agency, but efforts to broaden its powers to include port operations were repeatedly ⇒ Read More
Published in 1967, Design of Cities assessed urban development from the ancient through the modern periods while highlighting many redevelopment projects in postwar Philadelphia. Written by urban planner Edmund Bacon (1910-2005) and replete with photographs, sketches, maps, and his insights, the book appeared during a time when urban renewal, historic preservation battles, racial tensions, and ⇒ Read More
Nestled between Second Street and the Delaware River, thirty-two Federal and Georgian residences stand as reminders of the early days of Philadelphia. Elfreth’s Alley exists today as a residential street, historic landmark, and interpreted site labeled the “Nation’s Oldest Residential Street.” The heroic efforts of residents and local historians from the 1930s to 1960s preserved ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia and its nearby vicinities became important sites for entomological study by the nineteenth century due to the presence of the Academy of Natural Sciences (established in 1812) and the American Entomological Society (1859). Entomological writing and illustration also flourished in this center for book production. Over time, entomologists’ interest in insects shifted from the ⇒ Read More
With its industrial past and expanses of natural resources, the Greater Philadelphia region teemed with activity during the environmental movement of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In the years following World War II, people across the United States began to demand new measures to assure their health and safety. The resulting environmental movement, ⇒ Read More
Fairmount Park was developed in the nineteenth century in an effort to protect Philadelphia’s public water supply and to preserve extensive green spaces within a rapidly industrializing cityscape. It became one of the largest urban riparian parks in the United States and comprises the largest contiguous components of Philadelphia’s public park system as administered by ⇒ Read More
The Fairmount Park Commission (FPC), constituted by the Pennsylvania state legislature in the Park Acts of 1867 and 1868, administered the city’s public park system from 1867 to 2010. Consisting of six municipal officials or their delegates and ten private citizens appointed by the courts to five-year terms, the FPC had authority to expropriate land ⇒ Read More
From the mid-eighteenth century, prominent Philadelphians looking for a rural, healthy, scenic environment built small mansions, or villas, along the Schuylkill River, one of two major waterways that define Philadelphia’s geography. In the early nineteenth century, the city began to acquire properties along the Schuylkill, including these villa houses. These purchases culminated in the 1855 ⇒ Read More
For more than two centuries, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works provided two vitally important, but different, services to the city. The first began when Philadelphia’s municipal water system—the first of its kind anywhere in the modern world—was moved to Fairmount and enlarged. Thanks to its charming design and placement beside the bucolic Schuylkill River, its second ⇒ Read More
Upon receiving his grant for Pennsylvania in March 1681, William Penn (1644-1718) immediately set about attracting investors and settlers. To pay expenses and realize a profit from his enterprise, Penn had to sell land. The “First Purchasers” who responded to his promotional tracts provided essential economic support for Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” Penn sought to attract ⇒ Read More
During the 1980s, as regional landfills closed, it became increasingly difficult for Philadelphia to find places to put its trash and the ash from burning that trash. This dilemma became a global odyssey when the city loaded about 15,000 tons of municipal ash on a ship, the Khian Sea, and sent it off to the ⇒ Read More
More than three centuries of private and public efforts have given the Philadelphia area the highest concentration of public gardens in the United States. Although William Penn (1644-1718) originally envisioned five squares dotting his metropolis, the energies of private citizens initially cultivated the plants, gardens, and landscapes of Philadelphia. From these beginnings, public gardens became ⇒ Read More
The widespread adoption of the passenger automobile during the twentieth century altered the physical landscape of Greater Philadelphia and the United States. By the late 1910s, gas stations began to serve Philadelphia drivers seeking fuel for occupational and recreational travel. Since consumers could not visually determine the quality of gasoline, petroleum companies distinguished themselves from ⇒ Read More
Through more than three centuries of building and rebuilding settlements, towns, and cities, the region centered on Philadelphia and spanning southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and northern Delaware became a living museum of American architectural history. The fate of structures ranging from log cabins and colonial mansions to courthouses, warehouses, and the famed Independence Hall often ⇒ Read More
Horses played a critical role in Philadelphia’s growth and development as an industrial city, but over time their role as prime movers gradually diminished, and after the mid-twentieth century their role was primarily recreational. Although horses have become associated with the countryside or the American West, American cities had large, concentrated populations of horses well ⇒ Read More
The history of horticulture in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley has been primarily a story of exploration, beautification, and preservation. Due to the relatively mild climate and fertile soils of the region, Native American groups practiced horticulture long before the arrival of Europeans. Colonists brought gardening traditions from their homelands and ushered in a new ⇒ Read More
Originally the Pennsylvania State House, this eighteenth-century landmark associated with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution evolved from a workplace of government to a treasured shrine, tourist attraction, and World Heritage Site. Its history encompasses more than 275 years of struggles for freedom and public participation in creating, preserving, and debating the founding ⇒ Read More
Encompassing fifty-four acres in Center City Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park preserves and provides access to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and other sites associated with the American Revolution and early American history. Authorized by Congress in 1948 in response to lobbying by Philadelphians, creation of the park transformed an aging commercial district into a ⇒ Read More
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts was designed as the centerpiece of the Avenue of the Arts, a rebranded stretch of Broad Street devoted to performing arts venues. Built by a partnership of public and private entities, the Kimmel Center was part of a wider plan to revitalize Center City via the construction of ⇒ Read More
Founded in 1836 as an alternative to the overcrowded churchyards of rapidly growing Philadelphia, Laurel Hill Cemetery was the first rural cemetery for the city and the second in the United States. With monuments designed by the era’s most prominent sculptors and architects, it served as elite Philadelphia’s preferred burial place for over a century. ⇒ Read More
The 4.1 miles of Lincoln Drive that link Philadelphia’s northwest neighborhoods to Center City was built in three distinct segments over the course of five decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At its south end, a winding mid-nineteenth-century section along the Wissahickon Creek was originally constructed to provide access to water-powered industrial ⇒ Read More
Since the earliest European settlement in the seventeenth century, but especially from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, large houses constructed by elites in the Philadelphia region provided agreeable places to live that demonstrated social status. As architectural fashion and geographic distribution changed, mansions served as conspicuous symbols for elite Philadelphians and were a salient ⇒ Read More
Market Street, one of Philadelphia’s primary east-west thoroughfares, originated in the 1682 city plan devised by William Penn (1644-1718) and Thomas Holme (1624-95) as High Street, one hundred feet wide and located at the longitudinal center of the city. Penn’s knowledge of plague and a devastating conflagration in 1660s London prompted the width of the ⇒ Read More
Greater Philadelphia’s office buildings reflect the aspirations of individuals, companies, and municipalities. Once clustered in cities and later spreading to suburbs throughout the metropolitan area, office buildings have mirrored changing architectural styles and economic patterns. While many celebrated office buildings have been demolished, others (new, restored, or adapted) stand as integral features of the built ⇒ Read More
While Philadelphians maintained scientific interest in birds between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, the region became an important scholarly center for ornithology by the early nineteenth century. Primarily known for taxonomy (the science of classifying organisms), ornithological study transformed in the 1860s after the scientific community discovered a conclusive evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs. ⇒ Read More
Penn’s Landing, a 35-acre redevelopment site between Columbus Avenue and the Delaware River and South and Vine Streets, was designed to attract visitors to Philadelphia’s waterfront. Since construction began in the early 1960s, the vision for Penn’s Landing has evolved from a public space devoted to historic and museum facilities, to a locus for private ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia was the premier urban city in North America during the Early National era, a city so admired that people nicknamed it the “Athens of America.” Between 1790 and 1800, it was the official political capital of the United States. It served as a major commercial hub of the nascent nation and became its financial ⇒ Read More
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, children’s play became an important concern of urban reformers, who regarded playgrounds—outdoor environments designed, equipped, and sometimes staffed, to facilitate children’s play—as essential components in shaping behavior and ordering urban space. Many public and semipublic playgrounds established as a result of their efforts became permanent features of the Philadelphia ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia boasts the oldest and one of the largest urban park systems in the United States, comprising more than one hundred parks encompassing some ten thousand acres. With origins in William Penn’s innovative city plan, Philadelphia’s public green spaces range in size and type from small neighborhood squares to extensive watershed and estuary parks along ⇒ Read More
For more than three centuries public transportation has helped both to shape and define the Greater Philadelphia region. Befitting one of the world’s largest cities, Philadelphia and its hinterland have been served by a bewildering array of transportation options, and these vehicles and routes have helped to define the extent of the region. Public transportation ⇒ Read More
William Penn (1644-1718), the founder and proprietor of Pennsylvania, had high hopes for Philadelphia. He wanted the city to become the economic and moral hub and showpiece of the nearly 50,000 square miles that he had been granted as Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods). Penn outlined his radical notion when he advertised the city for settlement in ⇒ Read More
Lining Philadelphia’s straight, gridiron streets, the row house defines the vernacular architecture of the city and reflects the ambitions of the people who built and lived there. Row houses were built to fit all levels of taste and budgets, from single-room bandbox plans to grand town houses. The row house was easy to build on ⇒ Read More
Once a prominent feature of the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Camden, Smith’s and Windmill Islands were shifting signifiers of the recreational, commercial, and financial development of the region. Originally one island, then segmented by a canal in 1838, the islands attracted early but unsuccessful proposals for bridges between Camden and Philadelphia. Although they served ⇒ Read More
Soon after its founding, Philadelphia quickly crossed the threshold from a mere rural agglomeration into a true city, complete with an urban soundscape. In contrast to the countryside, where large distances and tree lines weakened the intensity of sound traveling between farms, within the city neighbors had no choice but to hear the diverse noises ⇒ Read More
Along its east-west course, South Street has been a space where different types of Philadelphians—white and black, poor and wealthy, parochial and urbane, straight and gay—have met and mingled. From its early days as a theater district, it evolved through various incarnations: from a locus for African American life to a center for immigrant-owned garment ⇒ Read More
The stadiums and arenas of the Greater Philadelphia region provide a physical venue not only for athletic contests, but also for Philadelphians’ passionate connection to their sports teams. Deeply embedded in regional identity and personal memories, the history of the area’s stadiums and arenas reflects broad patterns of regional development and change. During the 1860s ⇒ Read More
Philadelphians, having pioneered the gridiron street layout in North America, also led the way in street numbering. The grid had been in place for more than a century by the time citizens began to experiment with ways to number the buildings that lined their streets in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But by ⇒ Read More
Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia’s growing streetcar network facilitated the movement of upper and middle class Philadelphians to residential districts outside of the urban core. New streetcar-centric suburban developments combined the allure of pastoral living with fast access to work and commerce in central Philadelphia. In this way, streetcar suburbs represented ⇒ Read More
As a region with a complex industrial history that generated numerous chemical, industrial, and landfill operations, by the late twentieth century Greater Philadelphia held some of the nation’s highest concentrations of environmentally hazardous “Superfund” sites. Named for the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), also known as “Superfund,” the designation ⇒ Read More
An expanding network of recreational paths for walkers, hikers, cyclists, joggers, and commuters serves the Greater Philadelphia region. The first recreational paths date to the mid-nineteenth century, when upper-class residents sought idyllic walking grounds in rural cemeteries and urban parks. In the twentieth century, grassroots hiking clubs built additional footpaths, but by the early twenty-first ⇒ Read More
Trees have been culturally, environmentally, and symbolically significant to the Philadelphia region since the city’s founding. They were believed to improve public health, they beautified and refined city streets, parks, and other green spaces, and several were revered as living memorials to past historical events. Trees also faced their fair share of destruction during the ⇒ Read More
In 1777 the Continental Army, unable to prevent the British forces from taking Philadelphia, retreated to Valley Forge for the winter of 1777-78. Selected for its strategic location between Philadelphia and York, along the Schuylkill River, Valley Forge had natural defensive positions, access to water, enough land to support the army, and was far enough ⇒ Read More
One of the single largest sectors of the city of Philadelphia at almost fifteen square miles between the Schuylkill River to the east and Delaware County to the west, West Philadelphia at its peak, in the early twentieth century, attracted an influx of new residents to its verdant, suburban-feeling neighborhoods. But over the course of ⇒ Read More