An Open Space Boom for Greater Philadelphia?

Economy League project manager John Taylor highlights some of the exciting recent and upcoming investments in parks and open space in Greater Philadelphia.


With summer officially underway, people across Greater Philadelphia are heading outside to take advantage of their favorite neighborhood parks, bike and pedestrian trails, recreation centers, and more. Thanks to innovative public-private collaborations coupled with new sources of public and philanthropic funding, the region can expect a number of new and improved open spaces to enjoy this year and beyond. Some of the most exciting current open space investments include a rapidly expanding trail network, an innovative approach to spur more participation in “civic commons” public spaces, and new resources from the recently passed sweetened beverage tax in Philadelphia.


The Circuit Trails

Many local residents are familiar with bike and pedestrian trails in their neighborhood, but not beyond. Since 2010, more than 65 nonprofits, foundations and agencies have been working to link these trails into a regional network known as the Circuit Trails. Arguably the most ambitious open space project underway at the regional level, the Circuit Trails network already consists of approximately 300 miles of trails, with a long-term plan to fully connect 750 miles of trails by 2040 – a truly one-of-a-kind regional asset.


Last year, two significant and high-profile additions to the network included the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk and the Manayunk Bridge Trail, the latter providing the first connection from the Schuylkill River Trail to the Cynwyd Heritage Trail in Lower Merion. This summer, more than a dozen other connecting trail projects are underway in Philadelphia and across the region. These include the Lawrence Hopewell Trail in Mercer County; the Chester Creek Trail in Chester County; and a number of projects in Northeast Philadelphia, including the K&T Trail along the Delaware River. In Center City, the new South Street to Christian Street connector will extend the Schuylkill River Trail further south from the Boardwalk. In Southwest Philadelphia, Bartram’s Mile – the first segment of the Schuylkill River Trail on the west bank of the river – is nearing completion, with future plans to connect residents to the trail in Center City and beyond.


Reimagining the Civic Commons

Another multi-year initiative is taking a comprehensive look at ways to reinvent and connect a diverse array of public places across the city of Philadelphia. The initiative, called Reimagining the Civic Commons and administered by the Fairmount Park Conservancy, will marshal $11 million in dedicated grants from the Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation to invest in five new civic assets, including parks, libraries, recreation centers, and trails. Like the Circuit Trails, Reimagining the Civic Commons is focused on building a network of assets, instead of simply focusing on individual projects.


The initiative also seeks to bring together nonprofits and agencies that have not always worked together to better share knowledge and resources. The aforementioned Bartram’s Mile is one beneficiary of the program, and is a collaboration between Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Schuylkill River Development Corporation. The Discovery Center in East Fairmount Park, which will reactive an abandoned reservoir and provide environmental education and outdoor programming, will be a joint project of the National Audubon Society and the Philadelphia Outward Bound School; and the Lovett Memorial Library and Park, which will turn a closed library into a community center, will be a collaboration between The Free Library of Philadelphia and Mt. Airy USA. Other projects include the Viaduct Rail Park, creating an elevated linear park along abandoned railroad tracks in Center City, and Centennial Commons, which will activate a strategic section of West Fairmount Park with new lighting, benches, and play spaces.


Show Me the Money

Although funding from foundations provides an important catalyst, sustained public resources are required to realize the vision for new open spaces and trails and maintain existing infrastructure. At the regional level, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission approved the dedication of $5 million in federal transportation funds last year for 11 Circuit Trails segments in Pennsylvania. The most significant new funding source, however, is coming in the City of Philadelphia on the heels of the sweetened beverage tax and the city’s recently passed FY17 budget.


Over the next five years, $48 million of the sweetened beverage tax revenue will be dedicated to a new initiative called Rebuild Philadelphia, an investment in upgrading under-resourced neighborhood parks, recreation centers, libraries and other community infrastructure. The $48 million will be leveraged into a $300 million bond for capital improvements, an unprecedented investment in the city’s parks and civic assets. Specific investments will be informed by a comprehensive assessment of the city’s parks and recreation centers, which was conducted last year and will be released to the public later this summer.


With greater collaboration among organizations, a growing sense of the connections between open space efforts throughout the city and region, and significant new sources of public and private revenue, 2016 may very well be looked back on as a critical milestone for open space investment in Greater Philadelphia.