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In Philadelphia, a Porch for an Entire City

In Philadelphia, a Porch for an Entire City
Courtesy of Shaping Spaces

If you care about green cities, you have to like a lot of what’s happening in Philadelphia lately, from land use planning to watershed management to the greening of vacant and blighted lots and, now, the opening of a lively new public space that makes the city a better place to live, work and visit. In particular, last week I learned about The Porch at 30th Street Station, a very promising new plaza just outside the city’s iconic train station. The creation of University City District, an organization dedicated to revitalization and community improvement, The Porch opened last fall and has been hopping all summer with activity. It is at once ambitious and low-key.

The new 50-foot-wide, block-long plaza replaces an unnecessary outer parking lane and barren sidewalk on one side of the station with seating, tables, shade, plantings and, depending on the week or day, perhaps music, a farmers’ market, a beer garden, or even miniature golf.  It is ambitious because, in its statement when The Porch opened, UCD said that it "sees this new space as Philadelphia’s front porch, a welcoming entryway to the city, as well as a place to linger and socialize, and to entertain and be entertained. The Porch serves to balance the indoor grandeur of 30th Street Station with the wonder and expanse of Philadelphia."

 What a great idea. The space is adjacent to the country’s third busiest train station and within easy walking distance of over 16,000 jobs. UCD’s executive director, Matt Bergheiser, says that 1,800 pedestrians on average stroll along the sidewalk every hour on weekdays. With some nine acres of developable land now covered only by surface parking lots, the area also has the potential for further walkable development linking Center City, the station, and University City. 

According to a fact sheet on the project, UCD was able to take advantage of a larger state transportation project to rehabilitate six bridges adjacent to 30th Street Station. Key partners highlighted in the fact sheet include Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, the city’s Streets Department, Amtrak, and Brandywine Realty Trust. 

music and street theater at The Porch (courtesy of Project for Public Spaces)
Courtesy of the Project for Public Spaces

  The space prior to transformation:

the space before (via Google Earth)
Via Google Earth

The project is low-key because the idea has been to move first with low-cost, small steps - "lighter, quicker, cheaper" as coined by the Project for Public Spaces - rather than large capital expenses in order to find out what works best. Example: according to an article by Lou Mancinelli on the local website NakedPhilly, the site’s planters are recycled and refurbished troughs formerly used to feed livestock.  Tables, umbrellas and movable chairs are provided for anyone who would like to stay a while.

golf at The Porch (courtesy of University City District)
Courtesy of University City District

Look for more to be installed, step by step, in part due to some financial assistance, says Mancinelli:

And there will be more on the way thanks to a recent $500K grant (they fabricated the park with $275K in capital resources) offered by the William Penn Foundation.  According to UCD’s director of planning and economic development Prema Gupta, the vision for UCD is to create a park in phases . . .

It’s possible a permanent retail space, maybe with a rotating cast of retailers, might manifest in the future, or a landscaped buffer wall between Market Street and The Porch, or a public art installation. UCD is exploring many options at this time.  Before anything is decided, however, they’ll have to determine what land-use is acceptable at the location.

Wi-Fi and a food kiosk have also been among the requested additions.  Gupta told Mancinelli that "the era of being able to create a park ... in one fell swoop is over."

The Porch has already hosted circus performances, yoga and kickboxing classes, and French swing accordion music, according to UCD.  The name of the public space was the result of a contest that saw over 500 entries.

Check out this terrific short video on The Porch at 30th Street Station from Streetfilms:

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

Kaid Benfield is special counsel for urban solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Law, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and author of several books on cities, smart growth and sprawl. All posts »

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