While the Benjamin Franklin Parkway may appear to be nothing more than a congested traffic lane, PennPraxis, the School of Design’s applied research arm, is trying to redefine how Philadelphians view its place in the community.
The Ben Franklin Parkway — which runs from City Hall to the Philadelphia Art Museum — has been the focus of large investments since 1979 College graduate Michael Nutter became mayor. The city of Philadelphia and other private institutions lining the parkway have provided funds to renovate the surrounding buildings and create new streetscapes. Yet questions still remain about the parkway’s future.
“Now that the parkway has been fixed up, what do we want it to be?” Patrick Morgan, chief of staff to the deputy mayor of Philadelphia, said.
PennPraxis’ plan — unveiled on Feb. 4 — identified 13.5 acres of unused park space and outlined how the empty space can be “transform[ed] … as a true public space,” said Harris Steinberg, executive director of PennPraxis.
As part of the plan, PennPraxis suggested that cars be taken off the main traffic circle, Eakins Oval, so that traffic will be reduced and pedestrians feel safer in the area. PennPraxis also identified places for new crosswalks, restaurants and sports facilities.
While the parkway currently has some park spaces, it is currently a heavy traffic zone. Nutter’s administration and Philadelphia residents have consistently struggled with whether the parkway is solely a street or also a pedestrian-friendly community park.
The city turned to PennPraxis to help them answer this question.
In 2010, PennPraxis helped Michael DiBerardinis, the deputy mayor for environmental and community resources and commissioner for the Parks and Recreation Department for Philadelphia, create an action plan to develop 500 acres of new park space by 2015. When it came to looking for a partner to develop a plan to revitalize the Ben Franklin Parkway, PennPraxis was a natural choice.
“[DiBerardinis] felt that our work with communities and civic engagement was a very unusual and worthwhile skill important for creating new park spaces in Philadelphia,” Steinberg said. “Penn has credibility to handle these big scale projects.”
Chrissy Lee, who graduated from the Master of City Planning program at PennDesign last May, worked as a research fellow for PennPraxis this past summer and early fall and contributed to the project.
Lee spent a lot of time on the parkway doing background research, developing graphics and “getting a sense for what the challenges were from the perspective of pedestrians and cyclists,” she said.
“This plan [fills in] a gap in planning efforts that came before,” she added. “Attention has been paid to beautification of the parkway but this seems like an opportunity to take it to the next level.”
The renovation of the Ben Franklin Parkway is just one example of how the city has been trying to revitalize community life over the past few years. At 30th Street Station, the University City District instituted The Porch, in which they converted a traffic island into a space for pedestrians and community programming.
“There is a recipe being used across the country,” Steinberg said. “We are recommending that [Philadelphia] use that kind of structure to create new activity as well.”
Morgan explained that the goal for the parkway project is to implement it within three years, before Mayor Nutter’s term ends.
“This is not a 10-20 year plan, it’s very much about what we can do that’s high-impact, low-cost on the short term,” he said.
Both PennPraxis and the city of Philadelphia have high hopes for what the renovated parkway can bring to both Philadelphia residents and tourists.
“My ultimate hope is that it begins to become an integrated, cherished part of Philadelphia landscape so 20 years from now you don’t think it’s unusual to meet people on the parkway,” Steinberg said. “We want to make it more like Rittenhouse Square than a highway.”
“When we’re done we want the parkway to be part of Mayor Nutter’s overall legacy,” Morgan added.