A gazebo and bike trail in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, with the city’s skyline in the background. (Shutterstock)

Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park is the largest urban park system in the United States, sprawling along both sides of the Schuylkill River. From the top of a skyscraper in Center City, it appears as a vast expanse of green stretching as far as the eye can see—a dramatic break from the surrounding sea of red brick and concrete. 

But a recent ULI Advisory Services panel on Fairmount Park highlighted the challenges facing the system, which struggles with a paucity of public support. 

“It’s not a typical park, it’s a one-of-a-kind asset,” said Mike Higbee, the panel chair and an economic development expert from Indianapolis. But “its physical conditions are poor. The programmatic offerings are conspicuously lacking. There is a need for additional resources. . . .There are really too few amenities in the park.” 

Watch a video of the panel presentation on Knowledge Finder.

Higbee made sure to emphasize that the panel isn’t trying to attack Fairmount Park, and that it is replete with attractions like the Please Touch Museum, the Philadelphia Zoo, the Shofuso Japanese House, the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, and a series of beautiful aged mansions and other historic buildings. 

But Higbee said that given the scale of the park—9,200 acres (37.23 sq km)—there simply isn’t the funding for proper maintenance, let alone expanded amenities. He estimated that four to five times the resources needed to be allocated to Fairmount, beyond what it already receives. He also critiqued a lack of community input, noting that the neighborhoods that border the park (which are largely lower-income and predominantly African-American) do not feel heard. 

The ULI panel suggested that Fairmount park be divided into zones, with clear lines of responsibility for who is in charge of maintaining amenities and expanding services. Currently, they argued, there are tangled lines of communication and authority between the Fairmount Park Conservancy, a non-profit, and various elements of the city bureaucracy including the Department of Parks and Recreation. 

“It’s not only [lack of communication] between the city and the communities,” said Wei Huang, of NOVUS real estate in Los Angeles. “It’s also the government agencies with the conservancy or even between the [municipal] departments themselves. That clearly tells us there is something structural missing here.”

The panel focused its recommendations on what they called “West Fairmount Park,” a proposed zone on the west bank of the Schuylkill that would include some of the most heavily utilized corners of the park including major institutions like the zoo and the Mann Center. 

They proposed a West Fairmount Park Funding District designed to supplement municipal funding through a small surcharge on ticket sales and other revenue generators. 

“We think that charitable donations should be augmented with a diverse set of revenue streams that capture revenue from park users for reinvestment in the park,” said Rachel MacCleery, of the Urban Land Institute’s Washington D.C. headquarters. “Those revenue sources can be built upon and grow over time.”

MacCleery said the panel’s target budget range for additional funds was $3-to-$5 million a year. She proposed a fast array of sources that money could be raised from, including permitting fees, mobile concessions, monetized parking, solar-powered electric vehicle funding stations that drivers could pay to use. More large scale events hosted in the park would drive more revenue with ticket sales, permits, and vendor sales. 

But most significant was a proposal of 1-to-3 percent surcharges for tickets to the main institutions based in the park, which MacCleery estimated could raise between a quarter million and $1.5 million dollars per year. 

The ULI panel also recommended amenities that could enhance the park space. They recommended tearing down many of the fences in the park to increase connectivity, and opening the restrooms of the institutions in the park to the wider public. The lack of bathrooms is endemic to American public spaces, and the ULI panel argued that a fleet of portable bathroom trailers would be a good investment as well.

To further increase connectivity, and the park’s identity, the ULI panelists recommended a branded internal shuttle that would allow users to navigate the vast system without a personal car. They also recommended occasionally prioritizing the pedestrian experience over automobiles a few times a month, perhaps closing streets with heavy foot traffic to drivers on weekends and holidays. 

Lastly, they recommended an extensive inventory of the park’s historic buildings, to measure what kinds of repairs are needed and the scale of funding required for such a project. At a later date, they also promise a more thorough examination of the underutilized buildings in Fairmount Park, with uses ranging from a welcome center to a ranger outpost to increase oversight. 

The ideas proposed by the panel were well received, but came in for some thoughtful criticism from Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. 

“I desperately, desperately want a dedicated funding stream for Parks and Recreation,” said Ott Lovell. “But I bristle at the idea of that coming from the institutions that are working so hard in this district already…We don’t want to put a burden on nonprofits who are already doing so much to lift up the space.”

Ott Lovell also noted that Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has done more to invest in parks and other public spaces than many of his recent predecessors. The tax on sugary beverages that he passed in his first term went to fund the Rebuild Initiative, which is directing hundreds of millions of dollars into capital repairs for parks, recreation centers, libraries, and other municipal infrastructure. 

She specifically noted a $22 million investment in the Carousel House, a recreation center in the park specifically targeted to helping children with disabilities. 

“I want more, I will always want more,” said Ott Lovell. “I don’t want it to be said that the city has done nothing. We are the poorest big city in America. I can tell you the decisions that this administration has to make about where those very limited tax dollars go–it’s horrible.”