City in a Park_sm 2aCity in a Park: A History of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System
James McClelland and Lynn Miller
Temple University Press
1852 N. Tenth Street, Philadelphia, PA 19122;
2015. 368 pages. Hardcover, $39.50.

Of the hundreds of visitors who climb the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art each day, few are likely aware that they are standing in the midst of a colossal failed experiment in water treatment. With news of lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, continuing to dominate news headlines, now seems as fitting a time as any for the release of City in a Park from Temple University Press.

Authors James McClelland and Lynn Miller harness a compelling but largely unappreciated creation saga of Fairmount Park, the core of Philadelphia’s vast network of urban parks and squares, one of the world’s largest. But the system is unique among many of its Victorian-era peers—not only in size, but also in that it had no principal architect and was initially planned with drinking water, not recreation, in mind.

The Olmsted brothers’ Central Park in Manhattan was laid out to ensure that open space would survive the island’s rampant urbanization in the 19th century, and was scrupulously planned to enhance that land’s natural beauty. Conversely, the initial tracts of Fairmount were hastily cobbled together from the grounds of numerous colonial-era country estates overlooking the Schuylkill River, in order to prevent the land around the city’s main source of drinking water from being snapped up by polluting industries.

Sometimes mythologized in Philadelphia as another Olmsted creation, the brothers’ master plan for Fairmount was actually twice rejected by the parks commission. Instead, its chief administrator, charged mainly with land acquisition, modeled bits of the park after pastoral cemeteries he had designed before entering public service. Later sections were landscaped as the result of other administrators, the efforts by private benefactors, with improvements made for the 1876 Centennial fair.

These origins are described in captivating and exhaustively researched chapters early on in the book, detailing even the individual histories of the manor houses that formed the original park—many of which improbably remain standing despite municipal officials’ frequently regarding the structures as costly encumbrances rather than civic assets. Later chapters delve into the fraught creation of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and accompanying art museum, itself placed atop what was once the city’s main reservoir, hopelessly polluted by the early 20th century as industry finally spread further upriver from Philadelphia’s city limits.

However, as the book progresses toward latter decades, it stumbles. The lengthy tome finds space for trivial information on 19th-century nut-gathering festivals and famous zoo animals, while two consecutive chapters describe public art and another assiduously slogs through recent changes to the park system’s governance structure. Meanwhile, key areas feel either hurried or overlooked.

The authors’ acknowledgment states that the book is intended as a history of the totality of Philadelphia’s many large parks and neighborhood squares. But Pennypack Park, a sprawling tract that comprises nearly a quarter of the city’s total parkland, is scarcely mentioned. Another section condenses the backstories of some storied and centuries-old downtown squares into a few paragraphs. Sections on contemporary developments and planning efforts sometimes read like a pamphlet issued by the parks department.

While uneven, City in a Park—funded with a grant from the William Penn Foundation’s Watershed Protection Program—nevertheless contains details that will make even local park lovers reconsider their city’s public land and is an astounding history for outsiders, who often are oblivious to Philadelphia’s most undersold municipal asset.

The book’s focus on the overlap of public parks and water infrastructure is both a literary strength and a useful allegory for the ongoing battle between human development and ecology. As Philadelphia’s own long-failed experiment and the aforementioned catastrophe in Flint show, it is a tension that remains, sadly, a long way from resolution.

Ryan Briggs has covered politics and development issues for the Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer, as well as news websites Plan Philly and Next City.