Transect Talk: Trails and Parkland

Philadelphia has a beautiful history and network of parks and trails.  After a long hike a little while ago, it dawned on me that parks and trails, just like buildings and streets, range from urban to rural, and that "getting it right" in those various contexts makes a huge difference.  In other words, beaux-arts fountains in the woods make about as little sense as building a raised ranch with a picket fence next to City Hall.  I'm going to use this post to show how a great long hike through Philadelphia parkland exposes you to a nearly perfect transition through the trail transect.

But first - quick primer on New Urbanism and transect theory.  The idea arose by following the lead of biologists and ecologists who recognized that life thrives in a variety of environments because of different symbiotic relationships within those environments.  The diagram of the natural transect looks something like this:
(Center for Applied Transect Studies)

Translating the Language of Natural Ecosystems to the Built Environment

(James Wassell)
When it comes to the human environment, we've realized that traditional settlement patterns come with great variety, but just like the natural environment transitions from coastline to woodlands, they range from rural to urban. Not only is it difficult to transfer elements between zones (i.e., shrimp would die on mountaintops), but the various zones also symbiotically reinforce each other (wetlands or grassy dunes protect inland ecosystems from erosion by the ocean).  So... a skyscraper on the prairie is ridiculous (and probably not worth the construction cost), in the same way that a farm (as opposed to a community garden) in a rowhouse neighborhood can do more harm than good.  The theory goes that the limiting factor of organically powered movement (walking, bicycling, occasional horse-riding) facilitated this recognizable pattern of organization, and that the advent and promulgation of the automobile allowed for all sorts of seemingly liberating, but previously utterly unrecognizable forms (100s of acres of homogeneous housing pods, spaceship office parks, and parking lagoon shopping centers).  Zoning codes and real estate financing soon followed these new forms.

Twenty years ago or so, looking for an alternative to the unending sprawl, planners realized they could create development codes that reflect those traditional walkable patterns, ranging from rural to urban, depending on what markets would allow and what communities saw for themselves.  The firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk developed the Smartcode and a diagram demonstrating the rural to urban transition of human settlement.  Development needn't also sequentially follow this transition (there's plenty a lovely tight-knit Italian hillside town that butts right up against farmland), but knowing whether you're trying to create a rural place, an urban place, or something in between is really important for avoiding dissonance.

The Transect of Philadelphia's Fairmount Park

Just as with other elements of the human environment, parkland and trails can also follow a transect.  Coming back to where I began this post... after recently taking the train out to Chestnut Hill, it struck me that the route we took nearly perfectly embodied that rural to urban transition.  Let me now take you on that tour.

Approaching Forbidden Drive
SEPTA's regional rail drops you twelve miles from Center City, still a stone's throw from the edge of the Fairmount Park System.
Chestnut Hill is a town straight out of a Harry Potter novel, complete with a Belgian block main street, Germantown Avenue, with trolley tracks and retail buildings made of stone and wood.

Thickly wooded residential streets link Germantown Avenue to the edge of the woods.

Trails leading to Forbidden Drive feature limited paving, no landscaping or fencing, and are really just a cut through the woods meant for hikers, mountain bicyclists, and the occasional equestrian.

Forbidden Drive (named for the forbidding of automobiles in the 1920s)
Gravel trail in the woods, running along the Wissahickon Creek, rustic wood rail fencing, no landscaping to speak of at the edge of the trail. Generally, only Parks and Recreation or Police vehicles are permitted.

An 18th Century Inn still draws a crowd, without much modern infrastructure
Lincoln Drive
Still running alonng the Wissahickon, now across the creek from traffic on Lincoln Drive. Asphalt paving introduced, mowed lawn, but little other landscaping... roadways pass far overhead

Kelly Drive
As the Wissahickon joins the Schuylkill River the trail runs alongside a roadway (Kelly Drive) for the first time. Evenly spaced sycamores and a low wall of irregularly shaped stones.

Introduction of trail lamps, a parallel gravel path, pastoral settings to view Center City for the first time

Monumental plazas, fountains, and public art.

At Boathouse Row, curbs are introduced, benches are increased, and the trail is widened with brick edge treatments

The Art Museum
After moving away from the Schuylkill after Boathouse Row at the Water Works, Beaux Arts buildings begin to appear over the manicured lawn, regularly spaced lamps, and an allée of trees

Approaching the Art Museum steps, crowds increase

The trail opens up to a full public plaza at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the city's greatest public monuments

Benjamin Franklin Parkway
From the top of the Art Museum Steps the same place where a reservoir once provided water for the city below, its plaza, Eakins Oval, and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway visually link Fairmount Park and the Art Museum to the heart of Center City. 


Halloween: another reason row houses are totally awesome

Halloween might be the holiday made best by walkable urban places.  Christmas and its caroling has its charms and may give All Hallows Eve a run for its money, but who can argue the awesomeness of trick-or-treating with a new door to knock on every 15-to-100 feet? I can't imagine being a kid in the exurbs.  Being driven around to each and every daily activity is bad enough, but imagine needing to be driven house to house for trick-or-treating? Fortunately, the town I grew up in was an inner ring suburb well built for halloween.  Even so, I've been blown away by the spooky atmosphere created in my Philadelphia neighborhood. People really go all out, and the proximity to the sidewalk of each Halloween-costumed house really heightens the experience.


SEPTA Expansion: First, How Did We Get Here?

Back in last September, SEPTA was facing the very real prospect of drastic cuts in service because of decades of deferred maintenance resulting from a funding structure that gives it far less juice than other comparable systems.  I called it the unnecessary doomsday scenario, but boy, what a doomsday scenario it would have been.


When a Bike Lane is More than a Bike Lane

This post originally appeared as a Helen Ubinas column in the Philadelphia Daily News.  Supplemental italicized text and graphics in this post are intended to lend some color commentary and further clarity to the issues presented in Helen's original text. 


Think tank’s urban jobs agenda misguided: cities must be empowered, not wards of the state

This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Hartford Business Journal by your correspondent and David Panagore.

The Connecticut Policy Institute (CPI), founded by Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, issued a series of white papers earlier this year about economic development.
With the election for the state's top spot heating up and Foley running neck and neck with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, it's a good time to assess some of the economic development initiatives and thinking from the contender's camp.


Make Transit a Downtown Priority and Get the Details Right

This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Hartford Courant.  Supplemental italicized text and graphics in this post are intended to lend further clarity to the issues presented in the original text. Your correspondent previously served as the City's Complete Streets Coordinator and has been involved in several of the projects discussed.


Acres of parking in the shadow of tens of
thousands of jobs and the State Capitol
As recent research at the University of Connecticut indicates, too much surface parking is bad for downtowns. Citing Hartford as an example, the study finds that large swaths of blacktop drive down the value of surrounding property, making development less likely, which in turn begets more parking. In spite of being the highest concentration of jobs in the entire State, the conclusion of this unfortunate spiral is a place with plenty of parking but not much to do after you park.

A big part of the solution is improved transit, and with fewer than 10 percent of downtown Hartford employees currently using transit, there’s room for improvement.


Economic Development - How Philadelphia Snagged Comcast without Giving Away the Farm

Comcast Innovation and Technology Center - This is the year's big real estate development news in Philadelphia. 

Comcast and Liberty Property Trust announced the plan to construct a $1.2B skyscraper at 19th and Arch in Center City, designed by Lord Norman Foster.  There will be much discussion of the design and the economic impact of such a development, but there's another important story here - Philadelphia has just caught a big - no, gigantic - fish without wading into the sordid waters of corporate relocation/retention incentive one-upsmanship, which so many cities and states seem unable to resist.  But this development is neither an accident, nor to the credit of the will if a single administration or development official; rather, it's the product of at least three decades of strategic choices and turning the tide in the City of Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection).


The Unnecessary SEPTA Doomsday Scenario

As Paul Nussbaum recently reported for the Philadelphia Inquirer, SEPTA, which provides commuter rail, subway, a few versions of light rail, and bus service for Philadelphia and its surrounding counties, has presented a doomsday scenario if the Commonwealth chooses not to provide substantial cash infusions for capital improvements over the next several years.


ThirdPlace WorkSpace: Special Edition - Park(ing) Day Preview and Recommendations

Park(ing) Day comes but once a year, and this year it seems to be bigger and better organized than ever.   You can even post to a website that will map each such intervention around the world.  Pretty cool.     It's a great idea - our cities have been overrun by cars and parking, so let's reclaim some of that space for the humans as ThirdPlace - and has gained real traction.  At the time of this post, here in Philadelphia, there are already over forty participants officially signed up.  That makes for a great visual impact for helping people visualize a different future.  But allow me to present a possible next frontier.


ThirdPlace WorkSpace Thursdays: Ultimo Coffee Bar

Ultimo was ranked best coffee shop in America (take that, Seattle and New York) - though I think that's the 15th and Mifflin original, not the Graduate Hospital edition I'm reviewing here, but who's really keeping score? - so it's no wonder that I'm a fan.  But now that I've been here a few times, I'm realizing the subtle things that also make Ultimo a great place to get some work done, in addition to having a great cup of coffee.