City in a Park Explores 200-Year History of the Fairmount Park System

A view of Fairmount Park

The Fairmount Park system may not be the park you think you know.

It is not just the Water Works, where the roots of the park system run deep; or the Philadelphia Zoo, the nation’s first zoo; or the preserved 18th century villas; or Boathouse Row; or the many hiking trails along the Wissahickon Creek; or the Ben Franklin Parkway. It is all of these things and much more.

“The whole Fairmount Park system began as an effort to protect the growing city’s water supply. It started as a small landscaped park surrounding the first pumping station, part of the first public water system in the modern world,” said Lynn Miller, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Temple University and co-author with James McClelland of City in a Park, the first comprehensive exploration of the rich history of the Fairmount Park system that wends its way throughout Philadelphia. “The Fairmount Park of today consists of nearly 11,000 acres. It is one of the greatest urban parks in the world and, while always underfunded, it is enjoying a real rejuvenation today.”

Parks and preserving natural and cultural resources will be taking center stage at the 2016 Philadelphia Flower Show, which will celebrate the 100-year history of the National Park Service. During the week of the show, Saturday, March 5 through Sunday, March 13, Temple will take visitors even further back in the timeline of the region’s essential parkland.

While Temple University’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture will explore the Hopewell Furnace National Historical Site, a 19th century iron plantation, Temple University Press, Temple University Libraries and Temple University Ambler invite visitors to travel through the 200-year history of the Fairmount Park system with the authors of City in a Park.

A book presentation and reception honoring City in a Park and its authors will be held during the Philadelphia Flower Show on Tuesday, March 8, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 118 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, directly across from the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

McClelland and Miller will lead a discussion of the history of the Fairmount Park System and how national and urban parks connect citizens to nature and to healthful places of recreation and retreat.

“Parks serve the same purpose, regardless of whether they’re under the jurisdiction of cities, states, or the Federal government,” said Miller. “National parks, like urban parks, have a wonderfully democratizing function for a republic like ours. They allow people of every class to enjoy the same benefits of access to places in nature, where they can be rejuvenated and reminded of their connections to their fellow citizens.”

McClelland said William Penn — who envisioned a “greene countrie towne” when first planning out Philadelphia’s grid and created four squares of green space that remained largely in their natural state for a century in the city center —  “would be shocked at how large the city has become, but I think also pleased at how green it is.”

“I’m a native Philadelphian; I grew up using and enjoying what Fairmount Park has to offer. There are books about New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s park system, but there wasn’t a comprehensive look at Fairmount Park that I could find,” said McClelland, Executive Director Emeritus of the Philadelphia Art Alliance and author of The Martinos: A Legacy of Art and Fountains of Philadelphia: A Guide. “I knew it would be a big undertaking and probably not something I could do on my own, so I approached Lynn to explore the history of the park with me. What has been wonderful for me working on this book is realizing how many things would simply not exist in Philadelphia without the park system.”

Ben Franklin Parkway, for example, was a means to connect Fairmount Park to the city center, McClelland said. Without the Fairmount Dam, there would be no boating on the Schuylkill, no exciting races to the finish by the Temple, Penn and Drexel rowing teams. The Fairmount Park Art Association, today the Association for Public Art, established in 1872, became a juggernaut for promoting the arts not just in the park but throughout the city.

And while the Schuylkill forms the backbone of the park system, Wissahickon Creek — an early powerhouse for water-powered industry brought into the park system in 1869 and returned to its natural, pre-industrial state — provides hiking and biking trails for tens of thousands of visitors each year. Cars have been banned from its Forbidden Drive since the 1920s.

“One of the fascinating things is just how complex the history of the park is. First there was the water works, then the park, then the zoo and so it goes. It took a century to realize what an asset the villas are; for decades they were used by parks and recreation staff or to provide refreshment for visitors,” said Miller. “Today, under the care of the Fairmount Park Historical Preservation Trust, they are one of the park system’s greatest treasures. They are a time capsule of country living during the colonial and Revolutionary War eras.”

The 120 smaller parks that help comprise the Fairmount Park system’s winding acreage “are a great boon to their neighborhoods,” said McClelland.

“They are places for communities to get together. They hold concerts, festivals and public events,” he said. “Many of the parks have neighborhood organizations that help with their upkeep and fundraise because they realize the importance of parks to the continuing strength of their communities.”

After World War II, when decades of underfunding left aspects of the park system in dire need of repair and restoration, it was community organizations that led the way, said Miller.

Ernesta Ballard, a founder of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, member of the Fairmount Park Commission, longtime president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and a graduate of the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women — the forerunner of Temple University Ambler — was one of the leaders of the movement to preserve and care for the public park system and helped spearhead the restoration of Fairmount Water Works. In recent years, Temple’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture partnered with Fairmount Park and the Philadelphia Zoo in reforestation efforts that planted 600 new trees.

Today, new green spaces are being added to the park system each year.

“I think the Fairmount Park system will always be a work in progress. I don’t think there ever be a time when it’s considered ‘done,’” McClelland said. “The recent city administrations and greening programs throughout the city all help to maintain the park system for future generations.”

Miller said many people truly don’t realize just how large the park system is.

“There is a common misconception that Central Park in New York is much larger, but it is only 1,000 acres,” he said. “At 11,000 acres, the Fairmount Park system is the largest urban landscaped park in the United States.”

The future looks bright for the city and the park system, Miller said, who anticipates that one day parts of the Delaware River as it runs through the city will also be part of the Fairmount Park system.

“When you look at Schuylkill Banks or the Race Street Pier or Dilworth Park, as soon as those projects were completed, people flocked to them in droves,” he said. “People are moving back into cities for the first time in decades and they want the amenities — the green spaces, the opportunities for outdoor activities and exercise — that only the park system offers. Whether you want to hike the Wissahickon or just lie in the grass near the Schuylkill, Fairmount is the city’s treasure.”

For more information about City in a Park visit tupresss.temple.edu For more information about the March 8 presentation or to RSVP for the event, contact byndthpg@temple.edu.