Fresh ideas about design
As soon as I arrived in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, I was immediately struck—as an urbanist—by how varied in character the streets of the city are—ranging from the grand, rather pompous monumentality of the Ben Franklin Parkway, to the neighborly intimacy of many of the residential streets, down to the tiny alleys and passages. In many ways, the city is a manual of urban design, not only for Penn’s foresighted master plan, but for the diverse character of the streets that shape and inform city life. The way that the streets have grown, been developed and alas, abused over time has impacted the original master plan, while still reflecting its strength of intention.
The walk from my house in Fairmount to Strada’s office in Center City is a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about. Let me take you on a little tour:
My street—23rd Street. Nothing special, really, brick boxes, stoops, and trees. Amazingly uniform when you think about it—all the houses are basically the same, but the scale and assemblage of elements is critical. The street is only about 50 feet from building face to face, which means it easy to recognize your neighbor’s face from your front door. That, and the patina of time have created an intimate place along the street.
Green Street—aptly named. Large front yards and grand houses establish a more imposing and stately character, even though most of these houses are now apartments. Still, I think it lacks the neighborliness of a more constrained spatial condition.
The Corner Spot—Brandywine Street. It’s the little things that add up—an awning, a bay window and great sushi—all packaged on an intimate street where dining on the sidewalk was a pleasure and the sidewalks are almost as wide as the cartway.
The Ben Franklin Parkway—landscape as street where the trees are as monumental as the buildings and certainly shape space more convincingly. I have heard the Parkway criticized for not engendering more substantial urban development—something that is slowly changing as institutions like the Barnes Foundation are added to it. But, in my opinion, it successfully brings Fairmount Park right into the heart of the city.
Next stop: N. Mole Street. A little gem of a place buried in amongst the institutions of Center City, including our Friends Center project; a one-block community where the street is the place. (Thanks to Josh for turning me on to this one). It proves how false the notion is that you can’t have street trees in every part of the city.
Market Street East, near the office. Although it was—and remains—the heart of the commercial city it has suffered from some unfortunate interventions over time. But there are signs that it is changing as new proposals for mixed-use projects are migrating to the area. Maybe some day it will be the grand commercial high street it ought to be.
Now that I am a permanent resident of Philadelphia I’m looking forward to exploring more of these streets—the good and the not-so-good—and finding ways to incorporate the lessons learned from that exploration into our work at Strada. Frankly, I’m rather surprised that there isn’t more written about this subject—maybe there’s a project in there somewhere?
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