by Alex Jones
Gardeners all over Philadelphia are eagerly digging and planting in tiny plots and pots.
But greening our larger public spaces takes a lot more time and planning. These three exciting projects will add to Philadelphia’s growing green infrastructure acreage, from green roofs to our own version of New York City’s incredibly popular High Line.
Museum of the American Revolution showcases history while keeping it green
The long-awaited Museum of the American Revolution, opening April 19 at 3rd and Chestnut streets, boasts an impressive list of exhibits.
Immersive theaters featuring life-sized, cast-resin figures in historical garb will place visitors on the front lines of battle and in close quarters where pivotal decisions were made. Galleries include key artworks, books and letters from the Revolutionary era, as well as the first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence. And its collection of several thousand artifacts contains historic pieces like a 1773 poetry volume from Phillis Wheatley, the nation’s first published African-American female author; the coat of a Continental Army soldier from Lower Merion; and the field tent in which Gen. George Washington slept and devised battle strategy throughout the war.
But the museum isn’t just showcasing the past—it’s working to safeguard the future by incorporating cutting-edge innovations in green building technology into its design.
The building’s green roof—covered with soil and plantings of sedums, waxy-leaved and drought-tolerant plants that love full sun and grow close to the soil—will collect stormwater, naturally cool the structure and provide a habitat for plants, birds, insects and small animals in the middle of our urban landscape.
“With a 29,000-square-foot green roof that covers 90 percent of the building, the Museum of the American Revolution features one of the largest meadows in Old City,” said Michael Quinn, the museum’s president and CEO.
The building also qualifies for LEED certification, the standard for sustainable building design—no small feat for a museum, considering the specific climate requirements needed to preserve centuries-old artifacts.
In fact, the building’s stormwater collection system will feed into the museum’s climate control system, the first time in which a system like this has been implemented in Philadelphia.
While the green roof will not be open to the public, visitors can enjoy the museum’s outdoor plaza, paved with brick and Pennsylvania bluestone and shaded by Valley Forge elm trees. The plantings were enriched with soil from Revolutionary sites around the country at the museum’s groundbreaking event in 2014.
The first phase of Philadelphia’s Rail Park is underway
It’s been a long road for the Rail Park.
An overgrown, three-mile section of disused elevated and underground train track known as the Reading Viaduct runs east from 11th and Vine streets to 8th and Fairmount, and west to 13th and Noble, then into a tunnel that continues parallel to the Schuylkill River and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to end at 31st and Girard.
In October 2016, construction crews broke ground on a project that will transform the Reading Viaduct, section by section, into a leafy, green, public space. Phase One, as project partners are calling it, is a segment that extends from Broad Street just south of Spring Garden to Callowhill between 11th and 12th streets. This first step is on track to be finished and open to the public early next year.
“One advantage of global warming is that we’ve gotten through this winter without any weather delays. Usually, when you start a project in the fall, you expect [that],” said Paul Levy, president and CEO of Center City District, which, along with Friends of the Rail Park, the Commerce Department, and Parks and Recreation, serves as a project partner.
“Crews have been working five days a week straight through the winter,” he said. “We’re very much on course to be finished very early in 2018.”
The tracks, which span the length of 50 city blocks and run through 10 neighborhoods, were built by the Reading Railroad in the 1890s to carry passenger and cargo trains into Center City; by 1984, this section of the railroad fell into disuse and was left to the weeds, standing as a symbol of a city abandoned by the industrial activity that once drove its economy and way of life. SEPTA purchased a quarter-mile-long segment of the track it in 1995, but it wasn’t until 2010 that Philadelphians saw the Reading Viaduct as anything other than a sign of urban blight.
Inspired by New York’s successful High Line project, which revitalized a similar section of elevated track as a bustling public park, the community-based advocacy group Friends of the Rail Park drummed up support for something similar to happen here. Joining up with CCD and city departments to raise initial funding for a feasibility study, the group found that the cost to transform an initial section of the track into safe, public green space (just under $10 million) would cost much less than demolishing and remediating the site, then disposing of hazardous waste (around $50 million).
The project partners have been spreading the word about the project and raising funds to complete it, piece by piece; they were awarded a grant of $3.5 million by the state in October 2016 that put them over the top and allowed construction to begin late last year.
Since then, the project has raised an additional $700,000 toward the completion of Phase One. While the partners still need to come up with another $400,000 to $500,000 to finish the project, Levy is optimistic that they’ll reach their goal on schedule.
“There have been multiple fundraising efforts—major donors have stepped forward, but also smaller, grassroots things, like at the Trestle Inn, where they’re doing monthly [happy hour] events and donating the proceeds,” he said. “It’s a major project that everyone believes in. That doesn’t often happen in life.”
While Phase One of the Rail Park comprises only a small portion of the three miles of Reading Viaduct track, to Levy, that taste of what the whole park could one day be will help drive support further.
When they see Phase One complete, “Everyone’s going to say, ‘Is this all?’ And that’s the motivation,” Levy said. “We want everyone to get to the end of the first phase and help start to raise money for Phase Two.”
Bartram’s Mile gets Southwest Philadelphia one step closer to connecting with the Schuylkill River Trail
A newly completed section of the ever-growing Schuylkill River Trail will be unveiled on April 22: Bartram’s Mile, which will run along a stretch of the river’s west bank that hasn’t been publicly accessible for decades.
The mile-long trail is intended for pedestrians and cyclists, with public benches and lawn areas throughout. It will extend from Grays Ferry Avenue to 58th Street along the west bank of the river.
“The trail is an opportunity for Southwest Philadelphians to connect to the river and our city’s amazing park system for the first time in generations and [will] anchor Bartram’s Garden as our community’s outdoor living room,“ said Maitreyi Roy, executive director at Bartram’s Garden.
Bartram’s Mile, a project of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Schuylkill River Development Corp., was funded by a $250,000 grant from the Civic Commons Initiative through the Fairmount Park Conservancy’s Reimagining the Civic Commons project. The trail initiative dovetails well with construction improvements and renovation to the garden’s buildings and visitor areas in recent years, as well as the Bartram’s Community Boathouse, which provides free canoeing and kayaking on Saturdays to community members during the warm seasons.
The 46-acre botanic garden is the oldest in the country and has served as a farm, garden or green space since the acreage was purchased by John Bartram from Swedish colonizers in 1728. Today, it’s surrounded by industrial processing firms and lower-income neighborhoods home to longtime residents and recent African immigrants. While Bartram’s is easily accessible by foot or bike for Southwest Philadelphians and the 36 trolley for others, only for the past few years has the organization focused its outreach on its neighboring communities rather than regional fans of colonial-era gardens.
This project is part of that new focus on its neighbors: When Bartram’s Mile is completed, only one more piece—a refurbished industrial swing bridge—must be in place to connect Bartram’s Garden with the Schuylkill River Trail. The bridge portion of the project is scheduled to be completed in 2018.
That won’t just increase traffic to Bartram’s from other parts of the city—it will enable Southwest Philly residents to walk, run or bike the full length of the trail and access the rest of the city like never before.