Steve Buck is a Senior Landscape Architect at SALT Design
If I asked you to think of examples of public open space in a city, what types of places come to mind? A leafy urban park amidst the surrounding bustle of the city streets? A vibrant public plaza filled with people? A quiet seating area overlooking the waterfront? What if the next time you were asked this question, your mind jumped to the space underneath a highway overpass or along a rail line? Sound crazy?
The February issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine featured a series of articles under the title “Found Ground, Putting the City Back Together.” One of the major themes of the issue was how design professionals have found opportunities to create public space around our cities existing urban transportation infrastructure, such as elevated or below-grade highways, rail corridors, and bridges. While this infrastructure serves a critical role creating connections at a regional scale, it has historically neglected to address the spaces adjacent to its significant physical footprint. The ramifications of this development can be seen throughout many cities across the country as countless examples of massive highway and urban transportation projects have demolished large swaths of inner cities and displaced residents, many times forming physical barriers within our cities at the pedestrian and local street levels. The magazine featured several projects that took a holistic approach to the implementation of large-scale urban infrastructure, leveraging this development to create exciting new public open spaces, increase developable land, and strengthen the connections that may have been previously severed.
It is interesting to apply this type of thinking to Philadelphia as significant transportation projects have left some large scars across the dense historic cityscape. We don’t need to look very far to find examples; just look at the decades-long struggle to create better connections between Center City and the Delaware River due to the physical separation caused by the I-95 corridor running along the waterfront. Similarly, the Schuylkill Expressway has virtually eliminated access to the western bank of the Schuylkill through much of Center City. Additionally, there are miles and miles of underutilized space along the urban rail corridors and highways that cross the city’s landscape.
While Philadelphia has its challenges, there appears to have been a change in momentum with a series of recent projects that follow the spirit of the magazine’s premise. Cira Green is a public park located on top of a parking structure that provides a new urban green space near the dense city core (Not to mention providing some dynamic views of the Center City skyline). In the northwestern part of the city, a beautiful yet defunct rail bridge was retrofitted and now serves as a multi-use trail to connect the Cynwyd Heritage Trail to the extensive regional trail network running along the Schuylkill River. Even smaller interventions such as the lighting improvements at the underpass at the Spring Garden Street El station develop improve the public space by creating a well-lit and appealing pedestrian zone under the rail line. Future projects such as The Rail Park and the recently released Schuylkill Yards Masterplan are exciting examples of redevelopment happening in the City that utilize existing urban infrastructure. I-95 has even made recent headlines as Mayor Kenney has provided a $90 million commitment from City Hall to cap an additional portion of the highway and create a significant open space connection to the waterfront. As a landscape architect, it is encouraging to see these types of projects happening in Philadelphia I am truly excited to see how our City continues to be an active player in the evolution of urban public open space.