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Pleasure in the Park

By Harris Steinberg

Cresheim Creek in Fairmount Park

Close your eyes and imagine a verdant swath of green, located deep in the middle of America’s fifth largest city, that is nearly three times larger than Manhattan’s Central Park, almost four times larger than Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and twice as big as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Visualize a 2000-acre working landscape straddling a languid river that was begun in the early 19th century to protect the city’s water supply, a landscape that to this day still serves water to more than one million residents. Now, picture a Precambrian gorge carved by a slowly snaking river creating a transcendental landscape of great beauty with historic homes dotting the bluffs and rowers, scullers and joggers hugging the shoreline and cutting through the water course below.

Overlay upon this image in your mind’s eye the remnants of a great Worlds Fair – America’s first – whose traces of fairgrounds and scattered monuments have left a palimpsest of a heartbeat of a memory of a great gathering that to this day stultifies the landscape. Imagine 19th century rail lines that cut through and around the park and a 20th century expressway that surgically cleaves one vast heavily wooded section of the park from the river – all making it nearly impossible to traverse the whole park. Envision ribbons of high-speed river drives and through streets that funnel suburban commuters to and from the city center while forcing pedestrians and cyclists off the roads and cutting off adjoining neighborhoods from the park. And finally, picture 16 halcyon streams and tributaries connecting the uplands with the river with many of them forced underground or turned to marshland as they try to gush forward to feed the city’s water source.

Now open your eyes and you have a picture of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.

Fairmount Park, circa 1900

Fairmount Park – more specifically East and West Fairmount Park – a massive 2050-acre urban park sitting astride the Schuylkill River that, when combined with the adjoining City Beautiful-era Benjamin Franklin Parkway (65-acres) and the adjacent watershed-protecting Wissahickon Valley Park (1800 acres), is one-half of the largest contiguous municipal park in the United States. And yet, Philadelphians take this massive legacy landscape for granted. One reason may be because it was never really designed as a coherent whole. Unlike the great 19th century Olmsted artistic set pieces such as Central Park or Prospect Park, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park is an actual landscape – or rather a series of landscapes stitched together over time. Fairmount Park was not fashioned whole cloth as part of an aesthetic vision – no boulders, trees or plants were brought in to shape the scenic landscape. Rather, Fairmount Park was assembled estate-by-estate over more than 40 years in an area once set aside by William Penn in the 17th century for estates granted to Frist Purchasers who bought lots in his utopian city of Philadelphia. These Liberty Lands to the north and west of Penn’s original town provided the contiguous open land that would ultimately form the backbone of a protective zone enabling a steady supply of clean water to a burgeoning 19th century industrial metropolis.

The park is therefore glorious, rambling and wooly – a peerless testament to that 19th century impulse to engineer an elegant, humane and human-scaled solution to nearly anything – in this case a way to provide clean water to a rapidly urbanizing America while bringing nature deep into the heart of a crowded and dirty industrial powerhouse. As such, it is a monumental landscape of both great beauty and mind-numbing confusion as it is hard to wrap your head around it – hard to picture the park-as-a-whole as the ensemble is not readily imageable. Interestingly, there were three monumental viewing towers that citizens used to glimpse the sweep of the park in the 19th century that are gone today – save for a kiddie ride in a faux hot air balloon at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Fairmount Water Works

In fact, we’ve largely denuded the park of much of the more flamboyant elements of the late 19th and early 20th century public water supply infrastructure that heralded the underlying raison d’etre of the park – it is all about water! This is the nucleus of the park, after all, that caused illustrious 19th century international observers such as Charles Dickens and Alexis de Toqueville to marvel at Philadelphia’s fusion of engineering, nature, public life and civic art in its water supply facilities – the first modern metropolitan water works in the United States of which the park itself is an essential element. Indeed, the seminal and still extant neo-classical Fairmount Water Works of 1812 by Fredrick Graff with sculpture depicting the Schuylkill River bound and unchained by William Rush is an elegiac reminder of a time when Philadelphia was known as the Athens of America. Later in the 19th century, Philadelphians would perambulate the tops of reservoirs and ramble through elegant, palm-filled water filtration chambers as part of a day in the park.

We’ve lost that clarity of purpose and identity in the park over time. To be clear, the park still supplies fresh water to nearly two-thirds of the city’s population – that feat alone makes it one of the most important parks in the world. But ask the average Philadelphian about this and I doubt many would tell you where their water comes from. As you can see, you can’t read the water story in the landscape anymore. Our late 20th urge to strip industry of ornament (read reductivist modernism) and to accommodate the automobile through the imposition of highways (cities as machines for living) through our parks and into our cities dumbed down the message about the critical nexus of water, nature and urban life. And our post-9/11 worries about terrorism have made the water system all but invisible and hands-off to the average Philadelphian. The park then becomes, on one level, an absolutely lovely vehicle for getting into the city and, perversely, an impediment to actually experiencing the park itself.

Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park

Despite this, Philadelphians are using the park in record numbers. Fueled, in part, by a resurgence in urban life amongst the Millennial generation and their Baby Boomer parents, portions of the park are clogged with recreational users on the weekends. Vast tracts remain untouched and the tension between minority communities that ring large parts of the park and the affluent newcomers is mounting. Long-time residents, many of who live at the edges of the park and have weathered Philadelphia’s steep post-industrial decline and are not yet participating in its current renaissance, express a proprietary claim on their park that often goes unheard. The fact is that Fairmount is and always has been a park of many parks. This, too, dates to the founding protect-the-water-supply narrative. With Wissahickon schist escarpments jutting out along the Schuylkill River along the geologic line where the Atlantic Coastal Plain meets the Piedmont Range, and an expressway, rail lines and fast-paced roadways acting as physical barriers, the park is actually experienced as five parks as opposed to one large coherent park. With only four river crossings in four miles – and none particularly pedestrian friendly or connecting like attractions – each of those five sub-parks is really a series of micro-parks with a variety of user groups and stewards.

The list of things that people do in the park today is endless with more than seven million people availing themselves of some part of this seemingly endless landscape. From jogging, to hiking to boating to cycling – the park is a recreational magnet. It is also a place for family picnics and reunions on its vast swaths of lawn. Children play in playgrounds and lovers and thinkers stroll the endless grounds. Its fields are home to all manner of ball games from softball to soccer to rugby to cricket. Horseback riders, hikers, mountain bikers and intrepid walkers ply the rougher terrain and students train for track and field and cross-country races on the multiple-tiered trail system. Weekends see charity walks and 5K runs alongside internationally renowned sculling regattas that festoon the banks of the Schuylkill like a medieval tournament. Then there are the great cultural institutions that include the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Zoo, the Please Touch Museum and the Mann Music Center – all demonstrating how the park is the epicenter of a vast network of formal and informal uses, constituencies, identities and events.

Philadelphia Zoo

And therein lies the paradox, the anomaly at the heart of Fairmount Park. As beloved as the park is and as much as it is a part of the identity of Philadelphia itself, there is no overarching Friends of Fairmount Park group; no conservancy dedicated solely to the care and feeding of Fairmount Park. Nothing like the extraordinary patronage that supports Central Park (witness the recent $100 million gift) or Forest Park Forever in St. Louis (which raised more than $100 million to restore the park and raise and endowment). This lack of support can possibly be traced to the recently decommissioned Fairmount Park Commission, a 19th century good government group created to ensure that the park was not susceptible to political corruption. The old commission was selected by a board of judges who were theoretically independent of the winds of political change and patronage and who could ensure that upstanding civic stewards would be the guardians of this civic treasure. This governance structure operated as a conservancy of sorts when the city was still its ascendancy before the sharp post-WWII decline in industry and population that began to slowly decimate Philadelphia’s economy and social fabric beginning in the 1960s.   And as funding for the park declined and the Fairmount Park Commission’s jurisdiction grew to oversee the entire 9000-plus acre Philadelphia park system (of which East and West Fairmount Park along with the Parkway and the Wissahickon Park is half), East and West Park settled into becoming a ravaged “acres of neglect” as a powerful early-2000s Philadelphia Daily News series laid too painfully clear. And while the series ultimately led to the reform and disbanding of the commission, one unintended consequence seems to be a vacuum of civic stewardship dedicated solely to East and West Park.

The Fairmount Park Conservancy, founded in the late 1990s and recently invigorated under new leadership as a system-wide fundraising arm of the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, is also saddled with overseeing fundraising for the entire system. So, there remains no single group of donors, stewards and advocates whose job it is to ensure that East and West Fairmount Park – the massive 2000-acre park at the heart of Philadelphia’s vaunted park system – receives the kinds of transformational and generational investments in social and physical capital and infrastructure to make sure that the park survives another 150 years – not only supplying Philadelphia with water but also with the psychic, social and emotional sanctuary that it so masterfully provides.

Boathouse Row

A 2014 action plan for the park that was commissioned by Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and funded by the William Penn Foundation entitled “The New Fairmount Park” addresses this issue.[i] The study called the question on the future of the park – asking what the 21st century version of a 19th century watershed park should be? Not surprisingly, the plan looks to the past to inform the future and calls for the water story to be celebrated and used to inform all future investments in the park. This means investing in everything from new public boathouses to floating pools and educational wetlands and new river crossings to new viewing stands for the regattas. But it also means both creating anew and recreating old connections through and to the park from adjoining neighborhoods and within the park itself. Using the 16 creeks and streams that are tributaries to the Schuylkill as the backbone for a greatly expanded trail system, the plan envisions neighborhood gateways created along these creeks that bring residents from the uplands to the river – with pedestrian activated traffic lights allowing safe passage to the river trails as just one example of re-prioritizing water, nature and public life as the underlying DNA of the park itself.

But for Fairmount Park to fully realize its potential as one of the great urban parks of the world – arguably the greatest when you factor in the water supply story – it must develop the civic stewardship and social infrastructure required to support a park of this magnitude. Without a dedicated and well-funded management entity or conservancy established to work in partnership with the city to raise the funds, design the world-class infrastructure and manage and program the park, it’s hard to imagine the park getting out from under the perpetual identity and funding crisis it suffers. Let alone raise the kinds of funds necessary to ensure that it not only survives but also thrives for subsequent generations.

The irony, of course, is that Fairmount Park is the centerpiece of a 19th century park system with roots that reach back to William Penn’s seminal 17th century plan for Philadelphia in which five, then-radical, public squares were conceived as the foundation of urban living. Fairmount Park is, in actuality, the logical culmination of Penn’s impulse to nest democratic open space deep in the heart of civic life. That it is tied inexorably to water – life’s most basic of building blocks – makes the park that much more profound. As the inheritors of Penn’s Quaker city, we are rightly skeptical of political power grabs and the potential corrupting influence of individual illusions of grandeur. Therefore, our first order of business really has to be to find the wherewithal to sustain Fairmount Park in perpetuity. By so doing, our greatest legacy will be the most elemental – preserving and protecting the confluence of land, life and water as the essence of city building.

Harris Steinberg

Harris Steinberg is the executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and a distinguished teaching professor of architecture and interiors in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. He is one of Greater Philadelphia’s leading practitioners and teachers of urban planning and one of the most respected professionals in civic visioning in the region.

News media interested in speaking with Steinberg should contact Alex McKechnie at or 215-895-2705.


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