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Columbus Square Park on path to improvements

Civic spaces evolve. Our ideas about their role in cities and communities change over time. Initiatives like NYC Parks’ Parks Without Borders, the Knight Foundation’s Civic Commons, and the City of Philadelphia’s Rebuild  reflect a new focus on civic spaces as places of inclusion, community engagement, and responsiveness to unique local needs.

Columbus Square Park in South Philadelphia is a good example. In 2014, the Columbus Square Park Advisory Council and Passyunk Square Civic Association reached out to the Community Design Collaborative to help them rethink their park. Three-quarters of Columbus Square Park was devoted to playing fields for baseball and soccer associations throughout the city and the surrounding neighborhood wanted more options for day-to-day recreation. “Not every kid wants to play sports,” said one parent.

The Collaborative engaged the community in a series of task force meetings to reconsider the programming and design of the park. Task force members were selected to represent all the park’s constituents—longtime residents, newcomers, sports clubs, dog walkers, gardeners, and public agencies and funders with key roles to play.

Ilene Wilder, president of the Columbus Square Park Advisory, brought years of experience as an environmental lobbyist to the project. At the outset, she told everyone, “We’re not all going to agree. But, hopefully, we can get a good project where everyone gets a win… Let’s start with what we can all agree on: a nice place, a park that responds to people’s interests.”

Leah Rominger, a landscape architectural designer on the Collaborative’s volunteer team, says that resident needs became apparent quickly, “They wanted access to more grassy lawn. They wanted to be able to have a picnic, read a book, or simply sit down.  A significant portion of the park consists of sports fields surrounded by high fencing, and residents saw these fences and locked entrances as barriers to pedestrian flow.” Or, as one resident put it: “I want to walk through, not around the park.”

The preliminary plan envisioned an open lawn along the south side of the park, inviting entrances on all four corners of the park, and pathways that allow people to walk around the entire park. A 25% reduction of the playing fields—not a popular compromise with every stakeholder—was the trade-off.

The park is being redeveloped through a combination of public and private funding. The nonprofits proved their mettle and the widespread support for park improvements in 2013 with a grassroots fundraiser that drew 200 residents and raised $10,000. “Everyone was stunned by the interest,” says Ilene.

Gilmore & Associates is preparing the design and construction documents for Columbus Square Park. The fundamental concepts from the Collaborative’s community-engaged preliminary design process are shaping the final design. The park is slated to begin construction in spring 2018.

Ilene Wilder says, “A great community space enables us to meet, work together… It serves and nourishes the neighborhood’s subcultures. In the case of Columbus Square Park, that includes the gardeners who tend roses and other planting beds in the park, the dog people, and families with children of different ages. The kids have play dates in the park. Even the dogs have play dates! One father told me, ‘Now that I have kids, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.’”

“A great community space enables us to meet, work together… It serves and nourishes the neighborhood’s subcultures."

“Civic space is so critical to this neighborhood. There are so many families with young children in this area that are looking for a place to take their kids or their furry kids, i.e. pets!" Leah Rominger adds. "As a new parent myself in South Philly, I understand the challenges of raising a tiny human in the tight quarters of an urban rowhome without a backyard and the desire to be able to take my child to a grassy area with trees, to a clean and safe playground, to a spray park in the summer to cool off, to be able to walk to a local park and meet up with fellow parents and neighbors to see familiar faces and foster a sense of community.”

“Local civic spaces, particularly well-designed parks, promote neighborhood interactions, foster friendships, instill civic pride, provide spaces for recreation, and provide some much-needed breathing room in a crowded urban environment.”

Wilder concludes, “We watch out for each other because we all know each other.” 

Reprinted from the Summer 2017 issue of Context, published by AIA Philadelphia. 

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