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In Philadelphia, a Porch for an Entire City

A block-long plaza replaces an unnecessary parking lane with tables, shade, and perhaps a farmers’ market or beer garden.

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Courtesy of Shaping Spaces

If you care about green cities, you have to like a lot of what’s happening in Philadelphia lately, from land use planning to watershed management to the greening of vacant and blighted lots and, now, the opening of a lively new public space that makes the city a better place to live, work and visit. In particular, last week I learned about The Porch at 30th Street Station, a very promising new plaza just outside the city’s iconic train station. The creation of University City District, an organization dedicated to revitalization and community improvement, The Porch opened last fall and has been hopping all summer with activity. It is at once ambitious and low-key.

The new 50-foot-wide, block-long plaza replaces an unnecessary outer parking lane and barren sidewalk on one side of the station with seating, tables, shade, plantings and, depending on the week or day, perhaps music, a farmers’ market, a beer garden, or even miniature golf.  It is ambitious because, in its statement when The Porch opened, UCD said that it "sees this new space as Philadelphia’s front porch, a welcoming entryway to the city, as well as a place to linger and socialize, and to entertain and be entertained. The Porch serves to balance the indoor grandeur of 30th Street Station with the wonder and expanse of Philadelphia."

 What a great idea. The space is adjacent to the country’s third busiest train station and within easy walking distance of over 16,000 jobs. UCD’s executive director, Matt Bergheiser, says that 1,800 pedestrians on average stroll along the sidewalk every hour on weekdays. With some nine acres of developable land now covered only by surface parking lots, the area also has the potential for further walkable development linking Center City, the station, and University City. 

According to a fact sheet on the project, UCD was able to take advantage of a larger state transportation project to rehabilitate six bridges adjacent to 30th Street Station. Key partners highlighted in the fact sheet include Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, the city’s Streets Department, Amtrak, and Brandywine Realty Trust. 


Courtesy of the Project for Public Spaces

music and street theater at The Porch (courtesy of Project for Public Spaces)

  The space prior to transformation:


Via Google Earth

the space before (via Google Earth)

The project is low-key because the idea has been to move first with low-cost, small steps - "lighter, quicker, cheaper" as coined by the Project for Public Spaces - rather than large capital expenses in order to find out what works best. Example: according to an article by Lou Mancinelli on the local website NakedPhilly, the site’s planters are recycled and refurbished troughs formerly used to feed livestock.  Tables, umbrellas and movable chairs are provided for anyone who would like to stay a while.


Courtesy of University City District

golf at The Porch (courtesy of University City District)

Look for more to be installed, step by step, in part due to some financial assistance, says Mancinelli:

And there will be more on the way thanks to a recent $500K grant (they fabricated the park with $275K in capital resources) offered by the William Penn Foundation.  According to UCD’s director of planning and economic development Prema Gupta, the vision for UCD is to create a park in phases . . .

It’s possible a permanent retail space, maybe with a rotating cast of retailers, might manifest in the future, or a landscaped buffer wall between Market Street and The Porch, or a public art installation. UCD is exploring many options at this time.  Before anything is decided, however, they’ll have to determine what land-use is acceptable at the location.

Wi-Fi and a food kiosk have also been among the requested additions.  Gupta told Mancinelli that "the era of being able to create a park ... in one fell swoop is over."

The Porch has already hosted circus performances, yoga and kickboxing classes, and French swing accordion music, according to UCD.  The name of the public space was the result of a contest that saw over 500 entries.

Check out this terrific short video on The Porch at 30th Street Station from Streetfilms:

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.