Since its inception, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has been meant to be transformative. Embedded in its DNA is the lofty goal of transcending the commonplace. Even if you know nothing about the City Beautiful movement and its emphasis on monumental grandeur, you can’t avoid sensing that the Parkway was designed to make you feel something important, not just be part of your daily routine. You feel this in the Parkway’s scale, every time you get an unobstructed view of City Hall or the Art Museum, and with each Trumbauer column you pass.
But the Parkway has never quite attained this goal of civic transformation, which was so clearly a part its design. It serves as a public space for parades, protests, and concerts, but feels more like a container for these events than a catalyst. And the Parkway’s grand physical reality has been compromised by the grit and prosaic infrastructure of the surrounding city, which it neither successfully barred nor thoughtfully integrated. The Parkway as it stands — with a gash of highway cutting through it, parking on Eakins Oval, homeless encampments, inaccessible fountains, whirring traffic, vacant stretches, seemingly unapproachable museums — is like much of America at the moment: beautiful but broken, ambitious but imperfect, and in need of a jolting transformation.
It is a blessing then that the latest proposed renovation of the Parkway will give us the opportunity not just to reshape the Parkway’s spaces, but overhaul nothing less than the values and priorities of the city. To deliver on this plan, we must prioritize pedestrians and bicyclists over drivers, public space over traffic, sustainability over convenience, Philadelphians over commuting suburbanites, neighbors over tourists, and maybe even community over divisiveness.
Your natural inclination when reading that sentence may be to correct me and say, “Why must it be either / or? Why can’t it be yes / and? A win-win!” Why not? Because to satisfy all people and all needs would be to stay where we’re currently stuck: avoiding tough decisions that require us to make choices and change, and shrinking away from the opportunity to be exceptional — something that Philadelphia, sandwiched between New York and Washington, D.C., has been doing for far too long.
The first way to make these changes more appealing is to see the Parkway’s transformation as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a head start in the race to the future. It often feels like social, economic, environmental, and technological changes are lapping us before we’ve left the starting block. How do we ensure that we won’t be overwhelmed by the challenges of the future, with more climate change, continued inequality, and the new normal of remote work? How? By anticipating the future and honoring it seriously, just as we honor Philadelphia’s historic past.
In 2021, following a year of change on the Parkway —protests, a homeless encampment, reduction in daily commuters, the pedestrianization of MLK Drive for socially distanced recreation— Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Managing Director’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems issued a request for proposals to redesign the Parkway. Shepherded by Drexel University’s Lindy Institute, that process resulted in eighteen proposals, three of which were deemed finalists, and Design Workshop (who has named ten subcontractors), was chosen to create a new vision and plan.
The Design Workshop proposal for the Parkway is unabashedly forward thinking, and makes no concessions to cars. The design returns Logan Circle into its rightful role as one of William Penn’s original park squares. It caps the remaining 676 highway openings at 21st and 22nd streets, and it allows the forthcoming Calder museum to breathe amidst greenery rather than the automobile exhaust of an exit ramp. The moat of roadways surrounding Eakins Oval will be closed, enabling genuine pedestrian and bicycle access to the Art Museum.
These are bold moves, which, if completed, will prioritize the everyday pedestrian and bicyclist, but will also be a boon to tourists who want to make a full day of exploring the Parkway. Drivers, particularly the daily commuters who barrel down Kelly Drive to the Parkway, might be frustrated. But in a city where a persistent 25 percent of the population live in poverty and cannot afford cars, this is a needed move toward equity. At a time when fossil fuels are less viable than ever, it makes sense to plan for a future in which transportation is carbon-free. In the wake of COVID, we can already tell that fewer people will be commuting into the city on a daily basis, and the Design Workshop plan no longer prioritizes the remaining commuters over locals. Acknowledging the rising popularity of e-bikes, scooters, drones, and the delivery economy, the plan is also a hedge against changing 21st-century mobility patterns.
Removing cars opens up a world of other opportunities for the Parkway and for the city. Architectural “follies” or pavilions will dot the avenue between the Art Museum and Logan Square, enlivening that swath that often feels empty on weekdays. The follies will sustain the Parkway’s emphasis on eye-catching architecture, but lower its temperature from the monumental and daunting to the human-scale, greeting people on the street without, hopefully, a hefty ticket price. New pollinator gardens will reverse the old roadway’s heat island effect, demonstrating that greenery is not just pretty to look at, but a boon to the region’s ecosystem.
Removing the roads that separate Eakins Oval from the Schuylkill River will open up new connections. Bikers from West Philadelphia will be able to access the Parkway more easily across a pedestrianized MLK bridge, while Parkway visitors will be able to walk down to the Schuylkill riverbanks, where they will discover a public swimming pool, a pier, and water taxis. This new axis from the Parkway to waterfront will also highlight Philadelphia’s green approach to stormwater management and the importance of green infrastructure in cities around the world.
These changes might strike some as too much. (Swimming in the Schuylkill?) But Philadelphia is far behind other cities in making big moves to address livability, equity, and sustainability. Many people thought Boston’s “Big Dig” was over ambitious, but it has transformed that city’s image from a rusty has-been to one of the prettiest cities on the East Coast. Many New Yorkers, particularly business owners, were appalled by the plan to turn the core of Times Square into pedestrian plazas. Could they have foreseen that giving tourists some room to linger and relax amidst the hubbub would actually be better for business? And in Washington, D.C., the 11th Street Bridge over the Anacostia River will provide space for healthy recreation, environmental education, and the arts, and its economic investment capacity will spread the wealth equitably to long-disinvested communities east of the river.
This kind of major investment in public space and economic development is routinely made in Europe. As parts of Barcelona become fully pedestrianized, as Milan converts miles of road to bikeways, and Stockholm creates one-minute cities where a person’s daily needs are met within a single block, Europeans are liking the transformation of their cities. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo staked her 2020 reelection on the concept of the “15-minute city” and won. This proposition— that all Parisians should be able to satisfy their daily needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from home— was devised to address the challenges of climate change, strangled mobility, and unbridled tourism. To institute it, the city is set to remove 70,000 parking spaces and is planning 112 miles of permanent bike lanes. This comes on top of other efforts to make the city more livable, such as turning the banks of the Seine into a beach in the summer.
This kind of thinking has also influenced Paris’s plan to renovate the Champs-Elysées after the city hosts the 2024 Olympics. The boulevard has been reconceived by Philippe Chiambaretta and his firm PCA-Stream as an “extraordinary garden” that will have limited traffic, “planted living rooms,” noise-reducing pavement, and improved air quality. The Champs-Elysées was once the inspiration for the Parkway, and it can be again. (And Chiambaretta is part of the Design Workshop team.) But there is a critical difference between the two projects: the reimagined Champs-Elysees is the capstone of Paris’s multi-year reinvention, while the Parkway’s redesign will require a new leap of faith for Philadelphia.
We need to formally adopt the new design for the Parkway and also mobilize support for it. We have already completed smaller projects that demonstrate our capacity to make changes. These include the lovely new public spaces of Sister Cities Park and Dilworth Park, which demonstrate the demand for such amenities. We have learned that streeteries can enliven streets and that traffic can wend its way around them. We have seen Eakins Oval engage thousands of Philadelphians each summer and beg to be made permanent. But we must widen the circles of people who not only enjoy these improvements, but are willing to make some sacrifices and take some risks for them. The hard work of transformation will not be just engineering and landscaping, but changing the minds of Philadelphians.
We need Philadelphians from across all the city’s neighborhoods to see their own benefit in this project, and to articulate that to their representatives. And we also need elected officials not only to listen to their constituents, but in some cases, lead them. Finally, we need the next mayor not just to endorse this plan, but to believe that it is critical to the future of the city.
A century ago, we believed that building monumental buildings could uplift and ennoble the people. This time around, we need to change
people’s expectations and beliefs before we worry about the physical transformation of the Parkway. We need people to see that cars and commuters should not be prioritized above the needs of locals, pedestrians and bikers. We need to normalize the expectation that major American cities can and should dedicate money and effort to provide residents with access to nature, exercise, culture, sustainability, job creation, civic engagement, and all the other activities that the Parkway can accommodate. And we should instill in Philadelphians the belief that we can take on outsize projects and see them through to successful fruition. If we can make those shifts in the minds of Philadelphians, it would be big.
Diana Lind is the author of "Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing" (Bold Type Books, 2020).
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