FDR Park transformation makes sense for the environment and the community

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It’s called Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, but there are times when the department acts more like the city’s sales and demolition office.

This year alone, Parks & Rec contracted out part of Cobbs Creek Park to a golf course operator, who quickly vaporized 88 acres of fragile creek bed for a monoculture of fertilized grass links. The city followed up on this travesty by awarding a banquet company a multi-year contract to use the nationally significant Fairmount Water Works for private parties.

At the height of summer, Eakins Oval and Franklin Square were both allowed to fence off their spaces for nearly two months so they could accommodate expensive, ticketed attractions. It was as if the downtown core had been designated as a full-time event venue.

The department’s growing focus on monetizing its parks helps explain the collective moan that spread across South Philadelphia last month after bulldozers arrived at FDR Park and began digging a route through a section affectionately known as “The Meadows”.

This crescent of land had functioned as a city golf course until it closed in 2019, just months before the pandemic began. Almost immediately, the course’s manicured lawns turned wild, with stands of breast-high milkweed and goldenrod. Once the instant wilderness was discovered by South Philly nature lovers and dog owners, the Meadows became one of those magical, secret places, like Graffiti Pier, that loom large in the city. public imagination.

Given the department’s poor record of managing its natural lands, it’s easy to see the Meadows as a repeat of the Cobbs Creek situation. Aerial photos show the same arid stretches of brown earth, the same uprooted trees.

But what happens in FDR Park is actually more complicated – and more promising. The construction work in the Meadows is the first step in an ambitious plan to reconfigure the 348-acre park in the age of climate change, while creating suburban-quality sports fields and playgrounds. Rather than another cynical transfer to yet another private operator, Parks & Rec is trying to do the right thing for change.

You might not know this if you’ve only read the blogs and social media posts of an assortment of advocacy groups, including PP4FDR, Save the Meadows, and Save the Meadows FDR.

The Meadows champions argue that the former golf course has, in just three years, become an irreplaceable habitat, home to a diverse assortment of birds, trees and insects. They launched an all-out campaign to keep its 146 acres intact and won over several influential officials, including State Representative Elizabeth Fiedler. Essentially, they want the city to scrap the existing climate plan and start over.

I share the adversaries’ sadness at the loss of the Meadows. I also share their concerns about the city’s ability to carry out the climate plan without resorting to the usual and remunerative schemes.

But after studying the 184-page strategy and interviewing more than a dozen people on all sides, it’s clear that the focus on the Meadows has blinded opponents to the draft’s forces. Overall, the FDR plan is a thoughtful effort that balances the city’s urgent need for first-class recreational spaces with the equally urgent imperative to manage climate change.

To understand the virtues of the plan, it helps to know a bit of history. Philadelphia’s parks system has been in crisis for decades. Largely underfunded by successive mayors, Parks & Rec is increasingly turning to private partners. Nearly a third of the money spent on parks in Philadelphia now comes from private sources, a higher percentage than in any other US city.

Yet despite these private agreements, many of the city’s facilities and playgrounds remain barely usable. And now, climate change is putting new pressures on its natural parks.

At FDR Park, these challenges come together in a perfect storm. Located near the Delaware River in South Philadelphia, FDR is part of a tidal estuary, which means its low areas are flooded naturally with changing tides.

It was a soggy marsh in 1913 when the Olmsted brothers, sons of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, were hired to transform the area into a romantic landscape of man-made lakes and graceful walking paths. To fulfill their scenic fantasy, they had to truck in large amounts of earth – most of it excavated during the construction of the Broad Street Underground – to raise the park above sea level. Wetlands were filled in .

But it still wasn’t enough.

Flooding remained such a problem that the park’s former golf course – now the Meadows – was under water an average of 80 days a year. Over time, the park was hemmed in by more and more paved surfaces, including I-95 and the sports complex parking lots, which increased the amount of runoff flowing into the park. When a crucial tidal gate, which was meant to hold back Delaware’s water, failed, there was little the city could do to fix it.

Without intervention, it is clear that FDR Park will cease to exist as a usable park.

As the city debated what to do, Philadelphia International Airport began making plans in 2016 to fill in 33 acres of its own wetlands to build a new cargo facility. Under federal law, the airport was required to mitigate environmental damage by creating an equal amount of wetlands elsewhere.

Since the airport and the FDR both occupy the same tidal estuary, it made sense to locate the new wetlands inside the park. With $30 million from the airport and $50 million more from the Kenney administration, Parks & Rec had just enough money to start the project. The department contacted WRT, a respected landscape architecture firm in Philadelphia known for large-scale landscape remediation work.

After a long process of community engagement, a $255 million reconstruction plan was approved in 2018. Although more money needs to be raised, the plan outlined by WRT will restore the wetlands the Olmsteds filled in, while creating new dry land for playgrounds and playgrounds. According to Parks & Rec, 209 acres – 60% of FDR Park – will be occupied by wetlands, woods, meadows, streams and lakes.

Critics of the project will tell you that these 209 acres are in the wrong place. They argue – rightly – that Meadows already includes wetlands and that some of these marshes will be destroyed to make way for playgrounds. But they don’t understand that not all wetlands are created equal.

What makes the WRT plan so compelling is the logic used to reconfigure the park. Think of the FDR park as a giant bowl with slanted sides. Most of the water flows towards the center and then flows south towards the Delaware River.

Rather than fight this reality, WRT recommends placing all natural areas in the center of the park, in what it calls the “ecological core,” and then surrounding the perimeter with recreational uses. To make this possible, the perimeter of the park must be raised. The road being constructed through the meadows will allow trucks to transfer soil from the center, where the wetlands will be, to the perimeter. The advantage of concentrating all the wetlands in the center is to create a large contiguous wildlife habitat.

Based on this arrangement, all major attractions – sports fields, playgrounds, restrooms – will be laid out along Pattison Avenue and Broad Street, close to residential areas. The “urban periphery”, as WRT calls it, is where the metro station is.

“Access to the subway is huge,” according to Andrea Rodgers, who heads Philadelphia’s Starfinder Foundation, an organization that combines soccer and academic tutoring to help students in underserved communities.

It’s unfortunate that this development involves filling in parts of the Meadows, which curve along the west side of the park. But if FDR’s golf course can turn into wild prairie in just three years, so can the new ecological core. The city, which has hired the Fairmount Park Conservancy to manage the project and raise additional funds, aims to have the park completed in time for the nation’s 250th birthday celebration in 2026.

This is also the year that FIFA plans to hold several World Cup matches at Lincoln Financial Field. But claims that the World Cup is driving the project are false, Kathryn Ott Lovell, the commissioner of parks and recreation, told me. Park grounds can be used for practice games, she said, “but after 30 days they would go back to town.” FIFA should also subsidize the cost of building two pitches, she added.

Parks & Rec has also been criticized for advancing the FDR plan without considering changing conditions. But this is another claim that does not hold. Since the adoption of the plan, the city has continued to modify its details. This gave the Southeast Asian market a permanent place in the park. After the concessionaire of a driving range, Top Golf, withdrew from the project, the city agreed to use the site to expand the wetlands.

“I give them credit for listening,” said Suzanne Biemiller, who heads Audubon’s Mid-Atlantic office. First a critic of the plan, she is now a qualified supporter.

Like many people, she would like the City to reconsider the location of three soccer fields in the southwest part of the park. Not only are they disconnected from the main sports area in the north, but their construction would require the felling of many 80-year-old trees. Preserving this area, which is part of the Meadows, would further increase the size of the wetland habitat.

Some opponents went even further, arguing that Parks & Rec should eliminate all football fields and scatter them around South Philadelphia. But having a cluster of fields along FDR’s urban periphery makes more sense. This makes it easier for families with several children to gather in the same place. They can take their preschoolers to the playground while the older ones compete.

There are also operational advantages to having all the fields in one place. The city may assign a staff member to manage the facility, which should increase access for people who play pick-up games.

With four years until FDR takes on his new form, there will be more chances to tweak the plan. Many have criticized the decision to build artificial turf playgrounds. They are also concerned that the fields are locked when not in use. These are details that can be changed.

Funding is the most immediate problem. It will be tempting for the Fairmount Park Conservancy to rent out FDR beauty spots, such as the Boathouse and Gazebo, for a steady stream of weddings and parties.

This monetization itch is not unique to the FDR park. We need to have a city-wide conversation about how we pay for our parks and what level of privatization is acceptable. We also need to talk about making our parks resilient to climate change.

Ideally, there is a mayoral race coming up next year.

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