For five days of last week, I joined about 50 MUPs from our program in an educational trip to Philadelphia, PA, where we embraced the city through a variety of tours, discussions, and exhibitions.  One aspect that I found to be extremely exciting was the tour I took with the city’s park system administrators at Fairmount Park.

We began at the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art, and discussed the origins, benefits, developments, and trials of the Ben Franklin Parkway, a lovely boulevarded street that connects the museum to City Hall.

Ben Franklin Parkway and extension to City Hall

As we walked along the Parkway, there were many design components that I found intriguing:

Point of View + Viewsheds- the parkway, which was created through demolishing 1700 structures initially, functions much like boulevards in Paris or Washington D.C., creating a viewshed that connects two incredible civic buildings.  The two green, fountained circles along the way (Logan’s Circle and Eakin’ Oval) provide human scale, attainable views, while the magnificent buildings that flank the parkway provide large scale, perspective views that help to give the city character.

One particularly interesting aspect of the importance of view sheds is that when the gentleman’s agreement of 200+  years was broken in 1987 with the Liberty Building rising above William Penn’s hat on City Hall, the city created a viewshed protection that was relatively unique for its time.  There are currently 12 protected viewsheds of City Hall, meaning that from 12 main directions, no building rise to the height that it would be behind a view of City Hall, retaining its silhouette against the sky.

From City Hall Observatory Deck, Mike Mergen for The New York Times

Aesthetics- the importance of continuity whilst not depriving artisans of their creative powers is inherent in the Parkway.  This is seen not only in the classical styled City Hall and main art museum, but with the reflections of them in many of the current and rising civic structures: the main branch of the city’s library, family court, science center, and art museums dedicated to specific artists and collections.  At the same time, Logan’s Circle and Eakin’s Oval boast very different kinds of sculpture and fountains, as well as Love Park further along the Parkway towards City Hall.  The aesthetic balance of continuity and creativity is part of what makes this space so elegantly designed.

City Hall, at one end of the Parkway

Functions- Fairmount Parks is currently struggling with concepts of how to balance every day use of the Parkway with monumental occasions.  For example, how can they keep up nice green areas that are enjoyed by commuters when they are annually trampled by tourists at the gigantic 4th of July celebration?  With federal stimulus dollars, Fairmount is now revitalizing the experience by refurbishing the sidewalks, building more museums along the way, and moving the bike lane away from the central motorized lanes.  There is also a new cafe on the end near city hall that displays information about the Parkway and where tours of it begin.  There is still a major problem with traffic and how to get pedestrians across at Eakin’s Oval, which was changed from a traditional traffic circle to its oval form in the 1950’s urban renewal era.  Hopefully, the functionality of this space for a variety of users will continue to increase.

Executive director Mark Focht explains the pedestrian maps in Fairmount Parks has put inplace