The Reading Railroad was once one of the primary industrial lifelines for a constantly growing City of Philadelphia. In 1984, the once common site of seemingly never ending commercial rail cars wending their way through the city came to an end, leaving behind a mostly unused swath of gravel, greenery and tunnels.
For students in Temple University’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture, this “forgotten” railway — a three-mile stretch that spans 55 city blocks and five neighborhoods and includes the elevated Reading Viaduct, vast underground sections with 30-foot high vaulted ceilings and uncapped below ground sections that have become ecosystems unto themselves — presented a rich canvas for innovative ideas designed to revitalize the region and enrich the neighborhoods the railroad once traveled through.
Their efforts, which have contributed to a groundswell of grassroots and governmental interest in the Reading Railroad site, have been nationally recognized by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). On Monday, November 18, Diana Fernandez and Amy Syverson, graduates of Temple’s Landscape Architecture bachelor’s program, and their project partner Susan Kolber of the University of Pennsylvania, will be presented with a national Student Award of Excellence in the “Communications” category for Above, Below, Beyond, an exhibition of student work coupled with community suggestions that envisioned what the railroad site could become in the future. The award presentation will take place at the ASLA Annual Meeting and Expo in Boston — out of a field of 534 entries, just 33 awards are being presented.
“To me, I think the award means that, as a professional community, (the ASLA) is really interested in encouraging catalytic and inspiring work that galvanizes communities. This was a completely grassroots effort. We started with no money but we had an idea to reach as far and be as inclusive as we could,” said Amy Syverson, who, along with Fernandez, is a landscape designer at Wells Appel in Philadelphia. “This is an exciting role for landscape architects to play in the future; you don’t always have to build something to make a difference. By thinking and talking and providing inspiration you can be part of the solution.”
After a whirlwind year that took the students’ work from a classroom senior studio project to a Kickstarter-funded exhibit to potential implementation in the future, Fernandez said learning about receiving the Award of Excellence — the top honor presented to students by the ASLA — “made me almost stop breathing.”
“I think winning in the Communications category was very fitting as this entire project was about communicating with the neighborhoods, with government officials, with the community at large to spur interest in this incredibly amazing space. I think we achieved our goal to show that student work can be a very valuable tool in the planning process,” she said. “When we initially studied this site in our senior studio at Temple, we presented our findings to the Parks and Recreation Department, to city planners and neighborhood constituents — we worked with them as if they were real world clients. It truly validates all of the work that you’re doing and I think we’ve shown that student work can be a used as a catalyst for development.”
Fernandez said that once she and Syverson had completed their work in the classroom, they simply couldn’t let go of the idea that the Reading Railroad space — with its elevated sections, tunnels that run under Pennsylvania Avenue and Fairmount Park and open up to the Rodin Museum and vegetated spaces that bristle with life — could be something more, a space of great value to the communities that surround it and the city as a whole.
“The tunnels are almost cathedral-like and the uncapped areas are some of the coolest locations I’ve ever seen — there is this blend of nature and the sound of birds and people and the streetscape above. It’s almost like a forest that just happens to be in the middle of the city,” she said. “In the classroom, we came up with ideas that ranged from a transit hub to an extension of the Philadelphia Art Museum to a research center for the Franklin Institute. When we graduated, we wanted to take it beyond that — we wanted to get community buy-in.”
Working closely with Kolber, who had also studied the railway in classes at the University of Pennsylvania, Syverson and Fernandez set about developing a public exhibition at Girard and 26th Avenue in cooperation with Next City’s Storefront for Urban Innovation program to present the students’ plans for the Reading Railroad to the community. They turned to crowd sourcing to fund the exhibit, running a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $6,200 — success that took them by surprise.
“It was a very nerve-racking, exciting time — if you don’t meet your funding goals, you don’t actually receive any of the funding,” Fernandez said. “It was very gratifying to see the amount of interest in what we were trying to accomplish. None if this would have been possible without our supporters, our student colleagues, our professors, grassroots groups like VIADUCTGreene and Friends of the Rail Park. There’s truly been this groundswell of support.”
A significant part of the exhibit, Syverson said, was giving community members a voice in the process. Visitors to the exhibit were asked to provide their own ideas for uses of the various Reading Railroad spaces — above ground and below. Hundreds of postcards were submitted with ideas ranging from an underground jazz club to zip line parks and passive gardens.
“For our classroom projects, we were unbound. It was about innovative ideas and exploring possibilities — it was less about practicality and more about asking the question ‘what is possible?’ to create a dialog,” she said. “Visitors brought that same kind of innovation to their ideas — one person suggested creating an art installation piece consisting of a forest of pink foam spikes! It was about inviting people to imagine what the space might be, about looking at the city in a different way. The exhibit and the ideas generated from it created a lot of excitement and buzz.”
It has also created momentum.
“Groups like Friends of the Rail Park, VIADUCTGreene, and the Reading Viaduct Project are taking everything we’ve done so far and continuing the discussion. The Philadelphia Planning Commission has included the Reading Railroad site in the Central District Plan within the 2035 master plan as potential city park and transit space,” Fernandez said. “It’s great to see that while this might be the end of this part of the project, it’s really just the beginning. I can’t wait to see where it all goes from here.”