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News > Context Summer 2024 > Feature: If You Build It, They Will Come

Feature: If You Build It, They Will Come

In the era of remote and hybrid work, thriving public Spaces have the power to transform downtown
Philadelphians recreate on the Schuylkill River Trail. Photo: C. Smyth for
Philadelphians recreate on the Schuylkill River Trail. Photo: C. Smyth for

By Matt Rader and Patrick Morgan 

According to data from Forbes, 20 to 30 percent of office workers now have greater autonomy over where to live thanks to evolving work-from-home and hybrid work policies.1 Philadelphia’s urban core has been greatly impacted by this shift: While Center City Philadelphia achieved 82 percent of October 2019 pedestrian traffic by November 2023, West Market Street and JFK Boulevard have remained at 53 percent.2 This reorientation is both a test for office-heavy downtowns and an opening: There is a new geo-flexible population of white-collar workers who are able to live anywhere. Cities need to compete for these residents, capturing their spending and tax revenue.  

To that end, how can Philadelphia successfully make its case to residents and employees who have more choices than ever?  

Part of the answer is high-quality public spaces. Exciting recent projects have prepared Philadelphia to compete, but there is more to do. In this new environment, downtowns need to become dynamic neighborhoods, and seek inspiration in the dense mixed-use areas that successfully attract residents, small businesses, and visitors. 

The benefits of thriving public spaces go far beyond just economics. Well-designed parks and plazas address mounting challenges such as isolation, polarization, access to quality health and educational amenities, and climate change. Last May, the U.S. Surgeon General released a report on the epidemic of loneliness in this country, comparing its negative health effects to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.3 The number one prescription? Strengthen “social infrastructure.”  

Residents already know the benefits. During the pandemic, demand for public spaces grew significantly, even in cold weather. Philadelphians expect these shared amenities to be maintained at exceptional levels and programmed with free and diverse activities year-round. Meeting these expectations will require investment.  Unfortunately, funding has not risen to match demand. The result is streets, sidewalks, playgrounds, and parks that are strained, unwelcoming, and breaking down precisely when we need them the most.  

Centering high-quality public space as a defining community asset is nothing new. Ed Bacon did this in Society Hill, designing a series of charming walkways and smartly-placed parks, and Center City District has invested heavily in projects such as Dilworth Park, Franklin Square, and Sister Cities Park, as it helped grow the downtown population 54 percent in the past two decades.4 

What is new is centering a holistic public space strategy in Philadelphia’s bid for residents who can choose to live, work, and play anywhere. Improving the day-to-day experience on streets and sidewalks, and in public parks, can make these spaces the unifying factor that defines downtown.  

This evolution sped up during the pandemic. The success of “streeteries” as a safer alternative to indoor dining; temporary pedestrianization of important commercial streets in Philadelphia and other cities; expanded programming in places like Logan Circle and Dilworth Park; the creation of pop-up multicultural markets and performance spaces in Love Park and the Ben Franklin Parkway; and the transformation of recreation centers into learning hubs all stand as examples of COVID-era successes.  

In April 2021, the City of London, London’s central business district, prioritized this strategy in their COVID recovery plan. The goal was to create “the world’s most innovative, inclusive and sustainable business ecosystem as well as an attractive place to work, live, learn and visit.”5 About half the plan’s initiatives were targeted at encouraging people to live and play — as well as work — in this historically office-centric area.  

This ethos has been repeated in other cities, including Philadelphia. But it is easier said than done. Realizing this potential requires big mindset shifts such as a more inclusive definition of public space that includes streets, sidewalks, and parks; a willingness to center quality public space as the defining experience of downtown; and increased spending on operations.   


Philadelphia must shift from viewing public space as “nice to have” to “must have” infrastructure. In terms of budget, Philadelphia is behind other U.S cities. According to the Trust for Public Land’s Park Score6, Philadelphia’s park system is ranked 31st, largely because the city spent just $56 per resident, way behind other municipalities including Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Baltimore. 

Let success be its own argument for investment. Here are a few of the recent public space improvements that have boosted the city.  

Love Park and Dilworth Park are dynamic hubs of activity for residents, visitors, and families. Both provide space to showcase local artists, creatives, and businesses. Seasonal activations such as the Christmas Village and the Made in Philadelphia Market have become must-do traditions for residents and visitors alike. 

Cherry Street Pier is a mixed-use public space built out of a former municipal pier and warehouse on the Delaware waterfront. It features an open-air public garden on the river, a market/event space, and incubator workspaces for artists and makers. According to the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC), over a million people have visited Cherry Street Pier. 

Making Space is a program that gives local creatives entrepreneur-in-residence opportunities. Participants set up shop in recreation centers and provide free programming and business exposure to local youth. Of the more than 600 applications to the initiative, around 80 percent were people of color. Imagine bringing this program into downtown recreation centers or even underutilized office buildings lobbies. 

Street trees and gardens can do wonders for our shared spaces, providing shade and color to the urban environment. Public-private partnerships led by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, and others are committed to greening the city. Witness the glorious summer mixed borders in Logan Circle, pollinator gardens along the river in the Navy Yard, or the beauty of well-tended street trees in Fitler Square to see the impact of this work. Next up is the creation of the Philly Tree Coalition to fund and implement the ambitious Philly Tree Plan. A federal grant of $12 million will help increase well-maintained tree canopy to 30 percent citywide. 

Schuylkill River Trail is a multi-use trail that provides safe, scenic pedestrian and cycling routes. Executed by a wide variety of public and non-profit partners working with foundations and government agencies, the trail is spurring a revitalization and reconnection to the river. It is also a model for how a large-scale vision can be carried out in complex partnerships. With the completion of the link to Bartram’s Garden, the trail will now connect Center City to neighborhoods in Southwest Philadelphia.   


Creating a unified, high-quality experience requires knitting together public space elements managed separately and to different expectations. People don’t register streets, parks, recreation centers, and trails as different kinds of space. They experience them as the urban environment and know their condition impacts quality-of-life, health, and safety. The definition of public space should respond to this intuitive understanding.  

The future system must encompass all outdoor spaces used by people, beginning with sidewalks and streets and extending to include vacant land, community gardens, office building plazas, institutional spaces, and public parks and recreation centers. This entire network must put people at the center, and be imagined, built, and connected under a cohesive vision. 

Expanding the definition of public space also means embracing a wider range of uses including space to work remotely, high-quality gardens, local vending, tree-lined blocks, and community programming. Achieving this network requires openness to a wider range of public space operators and funding beyond the government. 


Centering high-quality public spaces as “must have” essential infrastructure will require significant, ongoing capital investment. Today, resource constraints are a limiting factor on public space. While one-time grants can help build spaces, it takes stable long-term revenue to operate them well. Philadelphia has not succeeded at growing these operating revenue streams. Seeing the competitive advantage that comes from delivering high-quality public spaces and amenities, other cities have gotten creative when it comes to funding their parks and public spaces. One option is expanding public-private partnerships. Despite successful examples like Center City District’s Dilworth Park, PHS’ investment in trees and gardens in public spaces, and privately-operated park concessions, public-private partnerships are sometimes controversial. Concessions provide amenities for park users while helping fund maintenance. For example, Hudson River Park’s concessions fund most park maintenance (to the tune of about $17 million a year)7 while concessions in Philadelphia help support local public spaces such as Spruce Street Harbor Park, Franklin Square, and Dilworth Park. The Philadelphia Flower Show raises funds that power public space investments like tree planting and public gardens. Philadelphia’s successful Parks on Tap program, which stages pop-up beer gardens in neighborhood green spaces, could be scaled and expanded to draw new audiences into parks. 

While Philadelphia lacks a revenue stream dedicated to public spaces, creating one would give the public space network a fighting chance at catching up on maintenance and programming while providing greater predictability around budget planning. It would also better position our system to leverage other funding sources including federal opportunities like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, ensuring Philadelphia gets a significant piece of this historic federal investment in urban green spaces. 

Some parks departments can issue bonds to invest in parks and public spaces. Philadelphia Parks and Recreation does not currently have this option. Imagine a Tree Bond that could finance the planting and care of high-quality street trees, transforming our city’s sidewalks?  

Some cities support parks and public spaces as critical components of the visitor experience. As Philadelphia looks to 2026’s Semiquincentennial festivities, how about a voluntary contribution solicited from overnight hotel stays that would fund parks and cultural institutions? Visitors could be offered the option of checking a box to add $1 or $2 per day to a new parks and cultural fund. 

Imagine a future where we invest in parks and public spaces so they can be the civic infrastructure for a changing climate and the social infrastructure to bring people together face to face. Imagine a day when every sidewalk is cool and green on a summer day, and wide streets have flourishing median gardens that relieve heat and add beauty.  

Philadelphia can realize this future, but it will require shifting mindsets, a willingness to center public space as Philadelphia’s greatest asset, increased spending, and the collective courage to imagine and invest in a reimagined public space network. The future will be defined by the actions we take today. 

Matt Rader is president of PHS (Pennsylvania Horticultural Society). The organization is expanding its use of horticulture to advance the health and well-being of  
communities in the Greater Philadelphia region and beyond. Rader is also a distinguished non-resident fellow of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University and was a 2020 Eisenhower Fellow. 

Patrick Morgan is a distinguished resident fellow for civic design at the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. He previously served as first deputy commissioner at Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, led the Knight Foundation’s grantmaking efforts in Philadelphia, and was chief of staff for Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for environmental and community resources. 



2. Page 1. 

3. Project for Public Spaces. “2023 Annual Report,” 

4.,for%20residential%20or%20hospitality%20uses. Page 6 


6. Trust for Public Land. “2023 Park Score Philadelphia,” 

7. Friends of Hudson River Park. July 2020, “Realizing the Benefits of Hudson River Park,” 

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