[Editors note: As part of the plan to reimagine the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the City held a public ideas workshop on June 9, followed by a discussion with stakeholders the next day to kick off a five-week design challenge for the three architecture/design firms in the running to remake the long public thoroughfare. This article pulls from public comments the author made at the June 10 event.]
I was asked to talk about the Parkway and its importance to the cultural community. As you heard at the kick off event, the Parkway is as much a physical place as it is a symbol. The Parkway is filled with great institutions of high culture that represent the societal importance of education, history, science, artistry, and mutual understanding. How ironic then that these bastions of culture are separated from the city by a moat of cars.
But it is not just cars that could threaten this backbone of the city’s arts and culture scene. These old forms of established culture, like so many other things, are being disrupted right now. I am sure that these institutions will endure and continue to be important, but they could also become like opera or theater—a rarified experience—if they do not adapt. If culture continues to be something that requires a $20 ticket, that can only be accessed in an old building, it will continue to get an audience, but it will ultimately be irrelevant to the broader popular culture. If we want people to value the kind of culture we have on the Parkway, we have to make it as irresistible and accessible as the video someone could watch on their phone.
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Instead of our current situation, imagine all of our Parkway institutions spilling out into the streets through permanent structures and kiosks that meet people where they are. Too often people are intimidated by these buildings, by the cost of entry, by their own concern that they will not get the meaning of a museum experience.
How could the Parkway accommodate more permanent outdoor functions, explicitly built to enable outdoor events like performances or readings, or even whole classrooms of children or adult learners? And how could the cultural scene of the Parkway expand to include organizations that could not afford their own spaces here, but could benefit from the cultural visitors that are already attracted to the area? There is already a symbiotic relationship happening between the existing institutions—how could that be expanded to encompass new institutions that reach new audiences and new topics?
Thinking with my business hat on, I cannot help but think that there is so much potential for development here. There is room for multipurpose buildings that could bring housing, businesses, schools, healthcare, and even logistics hubs to the Parkway. Imagine the Parkway as a source of daily jobs that rivals Market Street. Imagine those jobs are not just once-a-year major events, not just tourism jobs. What vision for the Parkway would create the most jobs? I certainly hope that people evaluating the proposals think not just about the physical transformation at hand, but what option will provide the most equitable opportunity for economic development.
Imagine that the Parkway becomes dedicated not only to old ideas of culture, but new ideas of social infrastructure. Education, health, and care, all packaged in new spaces and places here.
Speaking of equity, the Parkway was a bold intervention for its time. It was also created with a vision of what made a city beautiful a century ago. Let’s honor that legacy of bold interventions and ask what makes a city beautiful now. The answer is equity, access, and sustainability. Almost no one would say the Parkway is an equitable space right now. It is physically difficult to get to and around when not in a car, its institutions are not affordable to many, or do not signal they are welcoming. It is only when it is transformed into a pedestrian, free experience does it fulfill its role as an equitable, public space.
So how do we adapt the Parkway with equity in mind? How can we do that so it enhances the experience for all residents, and furthers the Parkway’s implied mission of enlightening and inspiring people?
Here are a couple of thoughts:
We should return Logan Circle to being a square. Indeed, William Penn’s 1682 plan for Philadelphia put squares in the four corners of the city as a gesture of geographic equity. This quadrant of the city deserves a square without cars driving in the middle of it. Period.
Think about flexibility as equity. I love the case studies on the new Parkway website, which include examples like the Quartier Des Spectacles in Montreal and Discovery Green in Houston. I would add Union Square in New York as another example. Four days a week, it is transformed into a fully pedestrianized farmers market. Pre-pandemic, the farmer’s market brought 60,000 people every day to Union Square. It’s an incredible asset to the restaurants and residents of the city.
We have new priorities as a country now. We will never have the same number of daily commuters we did before. Let’s use these opportunities to embrace our shared dream of truly getting a place that doesn’t just meet its potential, but exceeds it in ways we can’t even imagine possible.
But it has also become a place where people can compost and recycle and is a piece of social infrastructure. The Parkway has already become a place for feeding the homeless—it will probably always be that. Let’s intentionally take on that challenge and use the Parkway as a way to feed the city, especially the many others who are dealing with food insecurity, particularly children.
Flexibility of spaces demonstrates equity as it allows many different uses and users and ensures no one group or activity is monopolizing the Parkway. Imagine then that the Parkway becomes dedicated not only to old ideas of culture, but new ideas of social infrastructure. Education, health, and care, all packaged in new spaces and places here.
Let’s also embrace the Parkway’s potential to have some serious traditional infrastructure to it. If part of the idea of the Parkway was to connect Philadelphians to Fairmount Park, then we should actually connect Philadelphia to Fairmount Park, with a bus that goes from City Hall along the Parkway and all the way to the Wissahickon. Spaces like a new Logan Square or the new Oval could have a dignified bus depot built into it.
And parking! It is the first thing to be discussed at any community meeting. Could we get rid of free car parking on Pennsylvania Avenue and have school bus parking there on weekdays and paid parking for events on the weekends? Could we use subterranean parts of the Rail Park as parking? Could those new multipurpose buildings be required to build underground parking?
Let’s honor the Parkway’s legacy of bold interventions and ask what makes a city beautiful now. The answer is equity, access, and sustainability.
And so I will end here with a mundane thought like parking. Because it is these mundane issues that have kept the city from embracing the bold and beautiful approach that could be possible. We don’t need more small pilots to prove what good design can do to our public spaces.
We can see what the transformation of Sister Cities Park is like on any given summer day and then look at the rest of Logan Circle—we see the difference. We can experience the north side of the Parkway, with its lush allée of trees, and look at the south side, with uncapped 676 and no one walking on that sidewalk. What we can’t seem to do is let go of our fears of things like parking.
The pandemic has given us this blessing of rethinking everything. We have new priorities as a country now. We will never have the same number of daily commuters as we did before. Let’s use these opportunities to embrace our shared dream of truly getting a place that doesn’t just meet its potential, but exceeds it in ways we can’t even imagine possible.
Diana Lind is executive director of the Arts + Business Council, Fairmount resident, founder of a Facebook group called People for a Better Parkway, and a Citizen board member.Header photo by C. Kao / Visit Philadelphia