Philly's renewed urbanity

Friday, July 12, 2013

Link to Original Article

There is a quiet revolution sweeping through Philadelphia.

Just look at the bumper crop of new public spaces popping up across the city. From last year's breakaway standouts - the Porch at 30th Street and Sister Cities Café and garden - to this year's leafy-bowered pop-up beer garden across from the Kimmel Center, Philadelphians are being treated to a renewed form of urbanity. This is a new Philadelphia that fills in the rough edges lost to urban renewal and decades of disinvestment; a new Philadelphia born in the spaces we left for dead in the mad dash to modernize, revitalize, and remain relevant in the 20th century.

If the postwar years were as much about saving the soul of our city as about accommodating the car, we are now blazingly conscious of what we gave up in urban refinement as we allowed the car to determine city form. Look no further than the stultifying impact of Interstate 95 on the Delaware waterfront; the speedways hewn from our gracious river drives; the destructive swath the Schuylkill Expressway cuts through West Fairmount Park; and the traffic-clogged conduit that the Ben Franklin Parkway had become. We nearly paved the precious urban patrimony left by generations of prudent, prescient, and practical forebears.

At some point in the last decade, this all began to change. The urban adventurer became the car - or the driver of urban form - of the 21st century. A hybrid of millennial and empty-nester, the urban adventurer relishes in the sophisticated and yeasty delights of the city. These are the stroller set and the hipster; the cultural consumers and the executives; the patrons of food trucks and tasting menus. With mountain bike, Trailpass, and skateboard in hand, this new class of Philadelphian has carved out a new form of urban within and upon the cracks and crevices of traditional Philadelphia.

The push to create an elevated garden on the Reading Viaduct is one such manifestation of the new urban. It is as much about celebrating and unearthing the great industrial archaeology that built Philadelphia as it is about building new paradigms of public spaces for the new millennium. And another new space will open on July 17, when Mayor Nutter banishes cars (temporarily) from Eakins Oval and invites Philadelphians to linger and lounge in the verdant eight-acre park that for the past several generations has served as a car-choked traffic circle.

This is all about to change. The Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, acting upon recommendations from the PennPraxis report "More Park, Less Way," will be unveiling an amenity-rich urban oasis across from the foot of the Art Museum steps. This area promises to be the first step in a series of intimate new urban garden spaces designed to invite and delight Philadelphians on a daily basis as they make their way along the Parkway.

We've learned from successful urban experiments in placemaking - from Franklin Square to Times Square - that the simple formula of a comfortable place to sit in the shade, or get coffee, or use the restroom, along with a series of varied programs, is the starter kit of public spaces.

It's almost as if we tried too hard to be modern in the 20th century. And in so doing (as the Corbusier show currently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York demonstrates) we became slaves to the machines that were intended to liberate us from the drudgery of life. The beauty of this new form of radicalism of the early 21st century is that it's founded on a social platform - one of people, not machines. And like the best of the social revolutions wrought by new media, this groundswell of change instantly crosses boundaries and is blind to the traditional girdles of social hierarchy and customs.

And so it is with Eakins Oval, and the test drive that Parks and Rec will roll out next week. Born of Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis' charge to finally figure out the Parkway now that it's spick-and-span, the Oval (as it's been temporarily branded) promises to be a beachhead into the Parkway for the 21st century. It will be a parkway that puts people first, one that connects a great city with a great park.