Make No Small Plans

Jacques Gréber's Parkway Plan. Wikipedia

We recently reported that one of the Vine Street Expressway’s “cutouts” in Logan Square–the one closest to the Parkway–it going to be covered for an extension of Shakespeare Park. The article was called “stitching squares.”

This will be a start–but that’s all it will be: a start.

The architect and city planner Daniel Burnham is credited with one of the classic lines of city planning: “Make no small plans.” Burnham’s approach to the discipline, combined with the dominant influence of Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts, led to one of America’s first major homegrown urban traditions: the City Beautiful. It was in this City Beautiful spirit that the Frenchman Jacques Gréber designed the Ben Franklin (née Fairmount) Parkway.

It was to be many things. A boulevard linking Fairmount Park into the heart of Center City. Philadelphia’s core cultural center. Even its Main Street. It was heralded–and has always been promised since–in this twofold manner: linking the park to the city and being Philadelphia’s Ave. des Champs-Elysées–that is to say–bringing the city to the park.

Landscape plan for Logan Square. LRSLA Studio

Throughout its history, the Parkway has decidedly swung to the former rather than the latter. Space along it–primarily along its upper half–is largely underutilized, deep lawns and groves, punctuated by ballfields that could be replaced a hundred times over within the confines of the city’s largest park. As the postwar highway mentality settled in, its bucolic setting helped hide a traffic sewer: long six lanes wide south of Logan Circle, and ten north of it.

 

Designed for promenading, it has become no place for a promenade. We mostly avoid it.

Compromise to the automobile has, from the beginning, created the half-baked half-failure that is the Parkway. But the circumstances of its creation and maintenance ensure that only by making no small plans will we fix it. For it to fulfill its intended role, the link between park and city, we need to think big.

A successful freeway cap in Columbus, OH. What if Logan Square was bookended by these? Chicago Tribune

Grand ambitions do not, however, contravene small actions; in fact, if the Delaware Avenue master plan has taught us anything, it’s that small gestures–such as the Race Street Pier–are necessary to achieve grand plans. Small gestures, in aggregate, build up demand for accomplishing the grander gestures.

Small actions, like bringing al fresco dining to Moore’s café and the new park being built in Sister Cities Plaza, begin to build demand for greater, and better, park use–for grand gestures such as pedestrianizing the lower half of the Parkway, or bringing urban uses to what is currently underappreciated and underutilized parkland.

Luckily, Paul Levy, who leads the Center City District, seem acutely aware of the Parkway’s flawed history. “We’ve never finished,” he says, “the Parkway was only half done.” Indeed, when the District started planning for Parkway improvements in 1999, they began with Gréber’s drawings, and found that so much had gone unbuilt. About $1 billion in investment later, the Parkway is much improved. But it still underperforms.

In the coming weeks, we’ll look at both small actions and broad gestures, and think about what the possible Parkway is: the grandest and most urbane boulevard in the city.

About the author

Stephen Stofka is interested in the urban form and the way we change it. A graduate of the Geography and Urban Studies program at Temple University, he enjoys examining the architecture, siting, streetscapes, transportation, access, and other subtle elements that make a city a city.

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9 Comments


  1. Not Daniel Burnham?

    “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…Make big plans, aim high in hope and work.”
    Daniel H. Burnham
    US architect & city planner (1846 – 1912)

  2. The Parkway is fine as it is. Leave it alone. It is a Park – Way and not intended to be urbanized. Leave it alone, please.

  3. Kristin Luebbert

    Many of these planners forget that Von Colln ballfields serve the neighborhoods around them. Everything in the Fairmount neighborhood (mistakenly called the Art Museum Area by newbies and real estate people) cannot be for tourists–we LIVE here, we pay taxes, WE VOTE. I plan on keeping an eye on this and contacting both Bill Greenlee and Darrell Clarke to tell them that the recreation areas for our kids MUST STAY! It is ridiculous to say that the ballfields could “be replaced 100 times over in the park”–NOT WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE FOR OUR KIDS. I support, and am a member of most of the Parkway Museums, but it cannot be all about them. This is a neighborhood where people LIVE. I personally think we give over enough of our neighborhood to tourists and non-residents on a weekly basis, we need to stand firm on some things. Although I like charity walks, does the Parkway have to have one EVERY weekend? Like Center City, we give up enough, and we know that when we choose to live in this great neighborhood, but I am not willing to give up recreation space for our kids so everything can be done for the benefit for the museums and the tourists!

    • I agree. As has been much-publicized, areas of Center City and Fairmount have attracted thriving communities of families in recent years — which are strengthening the economics and fabric of the city. The Von Colln ballfield/payground is a much-used and priceless resource for these families. Of all the “improvements” to target on the Parkway, this one should be left out of the discussion.

      • The ballfields aren’t going anywhere. It would be politically impossible to move them, even if it was a good idea, which it isn’t. Having them along the Parkway is, indeed, a reminder that good urban design should be about a great quality of life. The kids of Fairmount and Spring Garden should be able to walk to them. But it is ridiculous to assert that the Parkway is fine the way it is. As a link from the core of Center City to what is an ever-livelier confluence of culture, leisure, and recreation along Boathouse Row and behind the Art Museum at the Schuylkill Banks, it is boring, hard to traverse by foot, and aggressively disengaging to the pedestrian, who must weather the emptiness to get to her destination. This is enormous waste of potential. The Parkway could be one of the great urban boulevards. That it fails, still, is only a testament to our own lack of imagination. Paul Levy at the Center City District has pointed out that the Parkway’s original vision was never achieved. It was almost immediately overtaken by the automobile (and those who are today apologists for it are those who drive it and find the scenery lovely going by at 30MPH). The CCD’s vision is to use Gerber and Cret’s original plans to reestablish the Parkway as the grand urban boulevard it was meant to be, before political compromise and automobile culture blinded us to the delights of city living.

    • Kristin–Use and location can be two different things. I, for one, would suggest that the van Colln ballfields would be more useful still if closer to the playground (they are currently on opposite sides of the Art Museum, a fair distance apart), for much the same reasons that playgrounds and ballfields are often parked next to one another. You could even name it van Colln Park…and I say this as one who is not infrequently in the middle of the neighborhood.

      As it stands, though, moving van Colln is a political impossibility.

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