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
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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