Big things are in the works at Penn’s Landing, a part of Philadelphia that bridges a multitude of scales, multiple and layered histories, and countless memories and experiences — for Philadelphians and many others.
At Penn’s Landing nowadays people enjoy activities ranging from New Year’s Eve fireworks, to runs and strolls against the backdrop of the Ben Franklin Bridge, concerts and movie screenings, cultural festivals, ice skating at the Blue Cross RiverRink, perching atop the stairs of the Great Plaza, and (sometimes) the exciting challenge of finding the Penn’s Landing exit on I-95. Penn’s Landing also serves as a reminder of the working character of the waterfront — a place that offered many jobs and livelihoods to Philadelphians of previous generations. The waterfront gave birth to the city that we know and love today, serving across the centuries as an entry-point for commerce and immigration, as well as the place where slaves were first brought and sold. As a site that is so nearly synonymous with Philadelphia, and with so many multi-faceted, often conflicting associations, approaching its planning and design challenges requires great care and attention to a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives.
Today, a confluence of transformations is happening on the waterfront, some directly impacting Penn’s Landing, others not, which will dramatically alter the appearance and experience of the place. In many minds, these transformations will be great aesthetic and functional improvements. However, since experiences at Penn’s Landing are as diverse as the city itself, the collection of public input about possible changes must be truly inclusive, bringing new ideas and insights to the table, and promising that the input will made be visible, not just in physical design, but in ongoing programming and management.
One of the most visible projects underway is “The Park at Penn’s Landing,” a new, nearly 12-acre park that will cap I-95, achieving the longstanding vision of bridging the gap between the city and the waterfront with a seamless connector of public space. Planning for the park has been ongoing for more than a decade, with important milestones occurring in 2012 (the completion of the Masterplan for the Central Delaware) and in 2014 with the feasibility study by Hargreaves Associates. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC), in partnership with the City of Philadelphia and numerous other funders and partners, has been working tirelessly through the intervening years to develop public space and transportation projects that have incrementally improved the quality of public space — and ultimately the experience — along the waterfront adjacent to Center City. A 2017 landmark funding commitment of $225 million from the city, PennDOT, and the William Penn Foundation (among others) enabled the final design and planning of the park to commence.
The Park at Penn’s Landing is just one of several projects now under development. In addition to the long list of projects realized over the past decade, DRWC and partners are currently overseeing the development of the area directly north of the new park at Penn’s Landing, which was the focus of a national request for proposals, the completion of the Delaware River Trail (DRT), various connector streets, and numerous parcels for public or private development elsewhere on the waterfront. The transformation of Penn’s Landing is also part of the gigantic planning and engineering effort to redesign I-95 as it passes through the city. As such, much of the funding for the park is coming from PennDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, and it is largely informed by those entities and their planning processes. This of course builds on the years of fundraising by DRWC, the city, and its philanthropic partners that have brought the project to this point.
PennPraxis was brought on to lead the community engagement associated with the programming of the new park in 2019. Earlier phases of the project had included some engagement, and due to the complexity of the engineering and site constraints, a number of design decisions had to be made at that time. Developing a new engagement strategy that enabled participants to offer more than superficial, unrealizable adjustments to an already-developed plan was tricky. Yet this work was essential to fulfill the vision of a “park for all Philadelphians” that was articulated by the Knight Foundation, which provided supplemental funding for engagement activities.
This was not the first time PennPraxis had been involved in this area. In fact, more than a dozen years ago, PennPraxis led the process that dramatically shifted perceptions of the Delaware River waterfront and brought it more into public consciousness. A Civic Vision for the Central Delaware was developed between 2005 and 2007, with numerous public meetings that attracted hundreds of residents, mainly from the waterfront-adjacent neighborhoods, and the involvement of many members of the Philadelphia design community. The vision focused on bringing activation and connection to the waterfront, including public space, movement systems, and development. It was followed by an Action Plan for the Central Delaware (2008), which added specificity and timelines to these broad visions, and made what followed possible. While robust public engagement was the core of all this work, the approach for the current park project had to be different — reaching beyond the waterfront-adjacent neighborhoods and design community to hear from other Philadelphians — even those who had never been to Penn’s Landing.
Between 2019 and 2021, PennPraxis oversaw a process characterized less by large-scale public forums and more by small, specific focus groups that could provide guidance about the kind of vibrant programming desired for the new park. The aim was to go directly to groups that were less likely to attend a citywide conversation. SEAMAAC, Make the World Better Foundation, and the Village of Arts and Humanities were hired to facilitate community-specific discussions, and Little Giant Creative provided messaging and communications support. The discussion facilitators were chosen not just on the basis of geographical location, but because of the particular engagement experience that each brought.
SEAMAAC draws together ages ranging from youth to elders and unites the enormously diverse Southeast Philadelphia neighborhood around shared assets, culture, food, and public space — bridging countless cultural and language barriers. Make the World Better Foundation (MTWB), founded by former Philadelphia Eagle Connor Barwin, is focused on youth and public space engagement, specifically around recreation and sports. It is known for long-term investment, year after year, in cultivating community relationships in South Philadelphia and Kensington. The Village of Arts and Humanities shared the perspective gained from engaging North Philadelphia residents about matters of importance to them and brought additional insights into youth development, the creation of welcoming public space, and engaging residents affected by extreme violence, prejudice, and incarceration. Little Giant Creative, having led a great deal of engagement with BIPOC audiences, provided guidance on language that would resonate with broad audiences.
Together, the consultant team formulated an engagement plan that centered around thematic and neighborhood-based focus groups, including food as social capital, freedom in public space, intergenerational play, accessibility, operations and management, musicians and promoters, and cultural entrepreneurship. In addition, the three place-based partners held discussions in their neighborhoods — Southeast Philadelphia, Southwest, and North Philadelphia. Participants in these conversations, who were compensated for their time, provided unique insights based on their experience with Penn’s Landing, the waterfront overall, and other Philadelphia public spaces. It was exceptionally useful to hear how residents from throughout the city experienced public space, what they viewed as a “welcoming” public space, and what would draw them to the new Park at Penn’s Landing. Topic-specific focus groups provided meaningful input about programming, such as the need to provide a multitude of food options (especially at affordable price points) and accommodate local artists and musicians, not just big name shows. PennPraxis, in partnership with DRWC, PennDOT, the City, and AECOM, also co-hosted a public forum in October 2019 to capture wider public input into the programming of the future park, which reinforced many of the concepts that came from the smaller discussions.
PennPraxis developed tools to aid in the conversations around design. A basic site model was made to show the various nodes of the park, including play areas, gardens, festival accommodations, the pavilion, and the river walk, and input was sought about each. Additional materials explained what was possible within the design, such as which parts of the park would be built on fill and which on a platform. Meetings were facilitated by the nonprofit partners, who worked with the model and the meeting toolkit provided.
While comments from the focus groups varied, key points of feedback included the need to provide more “nodes” for gathering, shade, areas for quite respite, places for local public art, and ample venues for local artists and artisans. Preference was stated for materials that were typical of and representative of Philadelphia. Members of the design team, Hargreaves Associates, working with KieranTimberlake, participated in several of the conversations, and many of the recommendations were incorporated in the final design.
But not all the feedback was about design; the most resonant recommendations had more to do with public space management. Hearing from individuals whose experiences were dramatically different than that of the typical participants in the design process was very poignant. The Freedom in Public Space focus group articulated the uneasiness that many experienced in widely praised public spaces such as Rittenhouse Square and the Schuylkill River Trail. To this group, “safety” was the essential ingredient in a welcoming public space, which meant that people had to be assured that they would not be type-cast as undesirable because of the way they looked, dressed, or interacted. Similarly, the accessibility conversation shone light on the public space experience of those with sight, hearing, or mobility impairments and cognitive challenges. In total, these conversations highlighted the enormous challenge of making a public space truly accessible for everyone. Every detail of the park design must take these many needs into consideration, and — more importantly — so must future management. Recommendations included sensitivity about surveillance, affordability, opening hours, local hiring, and providing employment opportunities for young people.
At the crossroads of many aspects of Philadelphia’s history, what is happening at Penn’s Landing is representative of trends in the entire city — and where it is moving. It is creating an exciting new public space. It is completing essential transportation links that will enhance its accessibility and attractiveness as a public amenity. It is inciting new, large scale commercial and residential development. In the foreseeable future (the park is due to be completed in 2026), decades of planning and visioning will materialize in a cohesive and interconnected waterfront, connected not only along the length of river, but to the city itself.
However, as more development and high-quality amenities arrive, questions about equity are brought into sharp focus. Penn’s Landing has long been a place where Philadelphians from across the city, of all income levels, could feel at home. As these spaces are transformed and physical connections improve, it is essential to make sure that these emotional connections are not lost. Public space is a critical ingredient in maintaining our city’s welcoming spirit.
The inclusive engagement process that informed the new Park at Penn’s Landing can serve as a model for the future. For the “big projects” that are now shaping the face of this remarkable, diverse city, extra care and effort is going to be required. It essential to go directly to residents, rather than expecting them to come into a process, and ensure that their input is acted upon and the conversation continues once the process is complete. While Penn’s Landing has changed dramatically in the past decade, the Penn’s Landing of the future must continue to offer the dynamism and diversity that characterizes it today — a place to remember that is uniquely Philadelphian.
Julie Donofrio is the managing director of PennPraxis at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, where she led the most recent community engagement process to inform the Park at Penn’s Landing. She also teaches about community engagement in the Department of City and Regional Planning. She lives in South Philadelphia and enjoys spending time at Penn’s Landing and in all of Philadelphia’s public spaces.
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