Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Five projects are trying to transform public spaces and bring city residents together.
Philadelphia is up there with the most segregated cities in America, but one organization is going to test whether redesigning some of the city's public spaces can change that.
The Philadelphia-based Fairmount Park Conservancy has just received an $11 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation to repurpose urban spaces and redevelop civic assets, such as libraries. The conservancy's goal with the projects is to engage community members and answer the broader social question posed by its executive director, Kathryn Ott Lovell, in a blog post on the initiative:
Can urban parks once again become democratizing agents that create not just equity, but connection, to each other and to our natural habitat?
The money will go toward five projects, described below, with the overall aim of attracting more people to the city and creating equitable spaces for current residents:
- The Discovery Center in East Fairmount Park plans to offer a wildlife habitat where school children can visit and engage with nature.
- Reading Viaduct Rail Park, kind of like Philadelphia's version of New York's High Line, is a former industrial rail line being repurposed into a green, public space, with walking paths, landscaping, lighting, and seating.
- Bartram’s Mile Trail Project is a plan to convert a stretch of industrial wasteland along the lower Schuylkill River into a park connected to "the Circuit"—a 750-mile pedestrian and bike trail.
- The renovation and expansion of the Lovett Memorial Library and Park aim to help it better meet the needs of children.
- Centennial Commons is a plan to turn an underutilized section of West Fairmount Park into a playground for the surrounding community.
I asked a friend who lives in Philadelphia what she thought about the projects. Sophia Bessias is a public health professional, and says the the Discovery Center project is planned near where she works.
"I can see the potential of public parks as a force for desegregation, but I'm not sure their mere existence will achieve that," she says. "How will the new Discovery Center reach out to young people in the adjacent Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, for example?"
Despite these concerns, Bessias is interested to see how plans unfold for the different sites.
"Lots of possibilities, for sure," she says.