Your Favorite Public Spaces

December 20, 2011 | by Nathaniel Popkin

Editor’s Note: Below are readers’ responses to the question “what’s your favorite public space?” Organizing the responses has been tricky, but I’ve generally tried to group responses by site. That wasn’t always possible, so instead you’ll see some favorite places–Chestnut Park, Reading Terminal, etc.–scattered through the lists and explanations below.

Josh Owen's "Stoop" on the Schuylkill Banks for Corian design contest, 2009 Photo: design/milk

The Front Stoop
Rob Firestone
I thought to list at least one of the parks I frequent, like the Schuylkill River Trail or Rittenhouse Square, but those would be the obvious nomination. Instead, I’d like to draw attention to my absolute favorite public space: the front stoop. In a city of row homes, of close proximity to one’s neighbors, what better place to spend some leisure time? I prefer my stoop to my back yard because it allows me to interact with those walking down my block, be they friend, neighbor, or stranger. Even people driving down the street wave at us most of the time! This simple act of sitting in front of one’s home brings you closer to the city and those around you, and for that, I cherish it and want to enter it for consideration in your piece on public spaces.

Forbidden Drive Around Valley Green Inn
Phil Katz
Reminds me of childhood and feeding ducks, petting horses. Serene, calm, and protected. Especially protected from becoming a highway…so there’s this feeling of appreciation and not taking it for granted. Few spots like this (for me) in the city.

Andy Trackman (#5 on his list)
Here’s a list of my favorites. It was hard to narrow down:
1. Washington Square
2. Rittenhouse Square
3. Mario Lanza Park
4. Palumbo Park–next to Fleischer Art Memorial
5. Forbidden Drive in front of Valley Green Inn
6. Laurel Hill Cemetery–the part that overlooks the Schuylkill
7. St. Peter’s Church cemetery
8. The medicinal herb garden behind Pennsylvania Hospital
9. Kahn Park
10. Pocket park on Chestnut Street just past 17th; not sure if it’s still there, but years ago it was really nice.

Rittenhouse Square | Photo: Peter Woodall

Rittenhouse Square
Howard Haas
Living & working in Center City, my pick is Rittenhouse Square.

Every time I saw a movie at the Sameric (Boyd), I’d return via Rittenhouse Square. And, since the site of the former Eric Rittenhouse cinemas is still not built on, the Boyd is visible from the square.

(for more on Rittenhouse Square, see also JoAnn Greco, under Small Park, Addison and Perth Streets, below)

Dilworth Plaza | Photo: Rob Lybeck

Dilworth Plaza
Howard Haas
As to Dilworth Plaza, its design is in perfect harmony with all the post-WW2 buildings that surround it. I find it odd that the redesign doesn’t continue into City Hall’s courtyard, or the MSB Plaza area, or “Love Park” but instead the redesign pretends to insert a stretch of green & pedestrian friendliness in the midst of a much larger zone of concrete. It will be nice to have Septa’s underground spiffed up. At the 15th Street El stop, the maps still indicate “John Wanamaker” and old bank names, and there’s a large photo showing the Philadelphia Orchestra composed of all white men conducted by Eugene Ormandy, proof that the Septa leadership never take the El.

Hidden park, Addison and Perth Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Small Park, Addison and Perth Streets
Fran Melmed
I have many favorite hidden spaces. One is a small park on the 700 block of Addison. It’s always inviting and mysterious, a perfect place to spend a quiet hour reading or daydreaming.

JoAnn Greco
Public space is the number one planning issue near and dear to my heart, and Philly doesn’t really excel, I’m afraid. That’s why I’m very excited about the forthcoming promised changes at Dilworth Plaza. For now, here are some that quickly come to mind:

The little square tucked away somewhere near 7th and Addison. Great magnolia trees and plantings, fabulous borrowed views, charming little sculpture–and a real secret.

The much bigger square somewhere near 18th and Walnut. Rittenhouse Square is our single best public space because of the amazing diversity of people who rest, pass through, play music, eat and otherwise cavort in it. I never, ever get tired of walking through it — or of watching it from, slightly, afar, such as from an outside table at Parc.


Reading Terminal Market | Photo: Peter Woodall

Reading Terminal Market. The more crowded, the better. Again, great diversity and, er, cosmopolitan canopy-ness.

Some of the parks with Independence National Historic Park are lovely — the rose garden, the magnolia garden– but often they remain under-used and untended. The single entrance/exit of the magnolia garden seems unsafe, especially since the space is so seldom occupied.

Comcast Center lobby. They’ve done a wonderful job of mixing entertainment, fine dining, shopping, food courts, and transit. Very impressive.

Tallulah’s Garden–as both Washington Square Restaurant and in this incarnation, the garden space offered here is a rare treat–entrance is no more than the price of a cup of coffee.

Similarly, everyone should wander through the old Drexel Mansion that is now Anthropologie, and its sister (but very different) mansion across the square, the Curtis Institute. Both cost nothing to experience …

Space in Front of Lloyd Boathouse
Judi Cassel
The space outside of Lloyd Hall on a weekend morning — great gathering spot among the running crowd. It has a great community feeling (at least for runners). People use it is a meeting/mustering spot, there are people going out to run and people coming back. And lots of people talking about how far they are running, what they are training for, etc. There is a way that running transcends whatever you do for a living and whatever your politics are — it is a great equalizer.

And Lloyd Hall is great because it has public bathrooms (that could be a little cleaner!), a place to warm up in cold weather, etc.

Wayne Junction train station | Photo: Peter Woodall

Wayne Junction Station
Yvonne Haskins
I, too, was struck by the message from Kimmelman (and Lienberger who did some interesting things before becoming a professor/consultant). It caused me to think hard about how to apply such elements to Germantown plus consider the “how” in making that connection.

The place that immediately pops up for me as a catalyst for significant impact is the Wayne Junction train station and the impact it could have if the current improvement plan would include transforming the adjacent area, especially the junk yard. There are hidden community gardens dotting the map all over lower Germantown plus Grumblethorp…what if that junkyard could become a park/farmer’s marketplace to which local farmers and community gardeners could bring there produce every weekend for sale? What if we could convert some of the large warehouse buildings aroiund the station into spaces for light manufacturing/training for real jobs in greening industries/IT, etc, with retail-flea market type space/restaurants/artists live/work studios…where “home” industries could create a fantastic, fun, quality market place to attract people to use the train to come see. Tour buses to historic sites from Wayne Junction would make it easy for people from the suburbs and center city to use the train to come spend time touring the historic sites and the fun market at the station.

Wayne Junction could become the new Gateway to Germantown. Because money has been dedicated to rebuild the station, it’s a practical place of focus for evaluating how this public space can become a “diverse urban experience” that brings people to the station. It’s a win-win for SEPTA and the community because of the increase in ridership and the improved environment If some of our visionaries involved with Germantown United CDC (our emerging CDC) were to have a place at the SEPTA table…those dollars might be stretched to include a vision beyond just bricks and mortar…

Chestnut Street Apron, Independence Hall
Leonard Ellis
My favorite public space in Philadelphia has recently become less accessible to the public for security reasons. It is the Chestnut Street apron of Independence Hall. The home of America’s Freedom and the First United States Congress never fails to awe. It is easy to recall the extraordinary experiment that originated from the Hall, the geniuses who birthed our nation and deliberated long and thoughtfully until they reached a strong working union and nation. The building and its grounds are humble compared to the federal campus in Washington, any state seat of government, or even City Hall.

The building is a symbol of what men of different backgrounds planter, soldier, trader, banker, lawyer, publisher can do with purpose and common work. It inspires and should serve as a model of Hope for any contemporary incarnation of Congress.

It is also fun to imagine if any of the tourists who happen by the Mall on a given day could, with effort and diligence, mete out a similar Declaration or Constitution. To me no other place in Philadelphia roots me back to the DNA of our country, or to the potential service and dedication to country that we should each should aspire to.

30th Street Station
Steve Peitzman
Not very original: My favorite public space in Philadelphia is 30th Street Station, which I pass through usually three times each week. I love it admittedly in part because I’m a railroad enthusiast. But it is a wonderful anachonism. Many other rail stations around the country can claim more spectacular architecture, but few are still used mainly as a train station. Union Station in D.C. is largely a shopping mall. Grand Central Terminal is perhaps more beautiful, but for some years now serves only commuter trains. That’s not good enough (see below). Our 30th Street Station is emblematically Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Railroad: not gaudy, not dazzling, but exuding substantiality [is that a word?] and grandeur. There’s more if one looks around: the wacky bas relief tribute to transportation, a plaque honoring the renowned GG1 electric locomotive and the PRR president responsible for it, the beautiful canopies sheltering the commuter platforms.

Though it handles a daily swarm of commuter runs, from 30th Street, one can step on a train and step off the same train (a lot of hours later, of course) in New Orleans, Chicago, St. Albans, Vermont, Winter Park, Florida, and countless other points. You can get your shoes shined, and even have a decent meal. Abundant coffee options exist, and even a book shop which is a notch above the minimal, if only barely. When one adds all this together, no rail station in the United States can match it. It should be praised daily.

Other spaces that bring me back: Market Square in Germantown; the subterranean space at the former Lit Brothers building where there is a sort of atrium, some food places, some tables, and sometime a guy playing the piano at lunchtime; Valley Green in the Wissahickon Park; the auditorium of the Penn Archaeology Museum. Worse (sadly): the Kimmel Center.

Tom Lutz (third item on Tom’s List)
Chestnut Park
The middle of the Ben Franklin Bridge (on the footpath)
30th Street Station
Penn campus
Drexel Park
Race Street Pier
The Obvious–Reading Terminal, Rittenhouse Square, Azalea Garden, Top of the art museum steps, Valley Green, Manayunk

Logan Circle
Peter Siskind
In some sense it’s obvious, but I actually think that Logan Circle on a warm summer evening is an underappreciated public space. As the light grows dim, with buildings set so far back, there’s that big wide open sky and clear sight lines to the now well-lit PMA and City Hall and the sculpture/founatin itself of course, with water and comfortable benches and comfortable lying on recently cut grass. Watch the people spending time there, it’s that rare space where everyone there is truly, mostly self-consciously happy to be in this place at this moment. And what also is truly special about it is that a legitimately diverse set of Philadelphia lovers go there — and to see so many people holding hands and kissing and touching affectionately and looking happily into each other’s eyes is never less than a wonderful experience.

Pennypack Park, at Rhawn Street
Scoats (see third item on Scoats’ list)
I recently enjoyed a Bassets ice cream cone in the newish park behind the Marriott across from Reading Terminal Market on a surprisingly warm autumn afternoon. I hope to do that again soon.

My favorite “public” public spot has to be the South Street Bridge over I-95. On a nice weekend afternoon, the bridge is bursting with life. As one terminus is a surface parking lot, finding that many people there was pleasantly surprising. The planters, the seating areas, and art all combine to make what could be a dreary trek over a highway into a great, lively, urban experience.

My favorite “private” public spot is the newest section of Pennypack Park at the far northern end of the section on the Delaware River at Rhawn Street. Opened a couple of years ago, these amazing reclaimed wetlands are oddly underused. You can go there on a magnificent weekend afternoon and come across less than a half dozen people. Living so close to such a wonderful and almost private resource is really nice. One day, it will be part of miles and miles of riverfront greenway and hopefully it will get the appreciation it deserves. Until then I and very few others will enjoy it privately since no one else seems interested in going there.

Race Street Pier | Photo: Peter Woodall

Race Street Pier
Allitia DiBernardo
New favorite: Race Street Pier. I love being so close to the hulking base of the BFB. The design of the pier and passageway to/from Old City feels very well thought-out and makes me think “Ok, so THIS is what good design feels like…”
Old favorite: Rittenhouse Square, on the balustrade around the fountain.
Hidden favorite: Forbidden Drive in Fairmount Park

Turtle Rock Lighthouse, Boathouse Row
Bradley Maule
I have a lot of favorite public spaces (Fitler Square, the Plateau, Devil’s Pool), but to pick just one, I think it has to be that with my feet dangling over the bulkhead at Turtle Rock Lighthouse on the bend of the Schuylkill at Boathouse Row. Sitting there for 15 minutes and surveying the 270° before you, you’re witness to the city in motion from the most peaceful of spots. Amtrak, Septa, New Jersey Transit and CSX/NS trains, I-76, Kelly Drive, MLK Drive, bikes, bladers, joggers, scullers … everything and everyone in motion.

As for the setting, you’ve got the ancient American arches of the freight railroad lines across the river, with stately Boathouse Row to your left, Drexel Weird (Millennium Hall, et al) on the horizon, the Philly Skyline a quick peek around the corner, and all the wonderful public art along the river, starting with Thorfinn Karlsefni right there.

And of course, the Hidden River is hidden in plain sight, literally right under your feet.

600 Block Kenilworth Street
Jason Lempieri
This is a difficult choice. I often find myself bitterly complaining about public spaces that do not work due to poor planning or lack thereof, more than expressing joy over good ones. I have an ever-growing list of terrible public spaces. But for spaces that I truly enjoy, locally, that is more difficult. I have become attached to some playgrounds, in thanks to my children. Those being Seger Park Playground, Palumbo and Taney. I have always admired Chesnut Park by 17th Street and have enjoyed many lunches there. The seeming secret nature of it along with its unique water feature and shroud of shady trees is always appreciated during hot afternoons. But its northern exit has been defaced by the blast wall screen and redesign of the Engineer’s Building plaza. More like a usurpation of the public space in my opinion.

Having said all that, I have always been drawn to the 600 block of Kenilworth Street. For awhile there, when it was affordable, after a Saturday breakfast at Fitzwater Cafe with my family, we would venture through the street and remark about the trees, the modern housing and the intimacy and charm that the neighbors have given this 2/3 of a block stretch. It is the Birch trees with their highly textured flaky bark and arcing catenary curves juxtaposed with the rectilinear plane of three story facades that make the space. I believe Andropogon did the landscape work. The street is hardly one car wide with narrow sidewalks. These thin sidewalks force you into the street under the natural cathedral-like ceiling. I love to walk through there in all seasons to see the changes of light and shadow. The boys love to pick out the added elements provided by the residents. “Mac and cheese” numbers, an owl candle holder, a rainbow pinwheel staked in the ground, etc.

It’s only drawback is its atrocious gateway from 7th Street. The gateway is an over-sized carport with an asphalt ground within a poorly lit bunker of a volume. Perhaps it is the transition from this pragmatic space that creates the allure. Even so, a designed solution for that approach awaits. There is always a house for sale on that street too. A secret find, really.


About the Author

Nathaniel Popkin Hidden City Daily co-founder Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is To Reach the Spring: From Complicity to Consciousness in the Age of Eco-Crisis.


  1. Rona says:

    I’m thinking of your question as a pretty private individual living in Center City and working in West Philly. So for me, the best public spaces are the ones that allow some sanctuary from the grit and intensity of the city. These are still public spaces, so there is still the chance encounter with others, though likely to be others also looking for a space away.

    One of these is near my work place — the terrace above Bossone on Drexel’s campus. Part of what I love about it is its very hidden-ness — there’s a full size staircase leading up a sliver of space between the triangular glassiness of Bossone Research Center and the red brick of Furness’ Paul Peck Center (formerly the Centennial Bank) at 32nd and Market. Follow those stairs up and you find yourself on a seriously underadorned quasi-public space. Great views of the transportation grit of Market Street to the north and to the south a nice slice of as much elegance as Drexel’s campus can muster, with a view of the back of Main building. All in all not a bad place to enjoy your truck-food lunch on a nice day. Maybe it’ll even be properly outfitted and greened someday.

  2. Len says:

    My contrib: Fairmount Waterworks.

    Minor note: It’s “Rhawn” (not Rawn) St.

  3. Gina says:

    I love the old wooden enclosed (39 ft.) slide built in 1905 at Smith Playground in Fairmount Park/Strawberry Mansion. I have wonderful memories of my kids and I sliding down all together!
    Another favorite is Indian Rock, the statue high up on the hill overlooking the Wissahickon Creek near Valley Green. The old stone Courtesy horse stables in Fairmount Park get my 3rd place vote.

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