Insider: You Can’t Build a Parklet With a Bulldozer

Ben-Amos: We use streets in dramatically different ways now than in past years. The city needs new tools to manage those new uses.

Public-Space-Montage

Twenty five percent of the city’s land is devoted to transportation uses. We have 18 square miles of roads within Philadelphia – that’s over 8,700 football fields of asphalt, and all of that is very much public space. In the 19th and 20th centuries civic leaders supported public space by building and investing in parks. Today, our notion of public space has expanded to include the street, sidewalk, and the right-of-way (ROW). It’s time to develop the right tools to invest in, manage, and support, public investment in neighborhood streets, alleys, and commercial corridors.

The Streets Department deploys 326 trash compactors and two pot-hole filling machines. This equipment help the Department haul 500,000 tons of trash and helped them fill over 45,000 pot-holes this year. They’re effective tools that help the city meet citizen demands for clean and smooth roads.

However not all tools are made of steel, equipped with hydraulic pumps, and squirt out molten asphalt. And not all problems can be fixed with heavy machinery. What the Streets department needs is a new assortment of tools — financial and organizational tools — that will make it easier for the Department to partner with community groups and meet the growing demands and expectations citizens have of the ROW.

If the Streets Department had the right tools, it could help neighbors fix retaining walls, it could assist more communities bring bike lanes and parklets and other amenities to their corridors. Fortunately such tools already exist, just for a different class of civic investments.

In 1998 the Fairmount Park Conservancy was created to help invest in the park system and increase public awareness of the system’s role in contributing to the region’s health and vibrancy. Since then the Conservancy has raised over $20 million, invested in over 100 parks, built stewardship programs and become a leading advocate for the City’s green spaces.

A “Complete Streets Conservancy” would help the City solve several problems, enabling the Streets Department to work with more groups, increase capacity in neighborhoods across the city, and support community investment. This means expanding the great work of organizations such as Center City District, University City District, into more neighborhoods. It means supporting the work of groups, from New Kensington CDC to Esperanza, in Fishtown and North Philly who have revitalized commercial corridors with artistic bus shelters and parklets.

Take for instance retaining walls. which are most often found in Philadelphia’s hilly neighborhoods. When half of a block is topographically higher than their back yard neighbors, you will often find a retaining wall holding back the dirt and earth. Most retaining walls in the City were built before the 1950s, and whether homeowners like it or not, they are in most circumstances the owners of these walls.

Rebuilding a retaining wall can cost thousands of dollars. But the problem is not just that such repairs are expensive, it’s that the Streets Department is not equipped to work with each individual homeowner whose house abuts a damaged retaining wall. A Complete Streets Conservancy would be responsible for interfacing with the neighborhood, homeowner by homeowner, collecting assessments and packaging funds that would enable a city contractor to rebuild the wall.

A conservancy can also address certain equity issues associated with neighborhood investments in the public right-of-way. All too often these investments are associated with more wealthy neighborhoods. Even though Philadelphia has had parklets in neighborhoods as diverse as Logan, or Hunting Park, and Chinatown, the struggle to ensure access to such amenities as parklets and pedestrian plazas remains. Communities without technically savvy community development organizations face significant challenges trying to improve their own communities, even when local residents are enthusiastic and energized. Parklets, pedestrian plazas, and other private investments all have to be insured and maintained. Some small organizations will walk away from street improvements rather than take on those risks and obligations. Others may not know how to work with the City, or may be so new and inexperienced running a neighborhood organization that the City may be hesitant to allow them to do any work.

A Complete Streets Conservancy could reduce the cost of investing in the right of way by shouldering the insurance risk associated with public investments, and it could be the organizational sponsor for small community groups that don’t yet have the technical capacity to manage City grants, or processes, that would enable them to work in the ROW.