The ground for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was first broken 106 years ago in response to the prevailing City Beautiful movement, which sought to introduce character-lifting monumental grandeur into the urban fabric of cities all over the world.
The route from concept to fruition took decades, and it’s only in the last several years that the Parkway reads as it was intended: an uplifting, unbroken ribbon beginning at City Hall, passing Logan Square and the Barnes Foundation, to the Art Museum and beyond to the mouth of Fairmount Park.
But not everyone realizes that the Parkway has an echo; another linear swath cuts diagonally through the urban grid less than a mile away. The Reading Viaduct was constructed in 1893 to move passengers and freight in and out of the city without crossing at street level, at the time a cause of many train-related accidents and deaths. An elevated spur connected several railroad lines from the north to the Reading Terminal, and a subterranean section ran northwest from Broad Street, directly behind the present-day Barnes Foundation and our neighbor the Rodin Museum.
Both sections of the Viaduct were abandoned after the last train passed in 1982, and the passing years have softened the massive steel structure. Underneath the looming catenaries, a shallow layer of soil has accumulated, supporting a surprising amount of native and exotic flora. Recently, I explored both the Parkway and the Reading Viaduct with several landscape designers, including Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudulf and New York-based Patrick Cullina, both of whom worked on the design of the High Line, New York’s inventive and wildly popular public park built on an abandoned railroad viaduct very similar to Philadelphia’s.
As we walked, the only sound aside from our footsteps was the breeze rustling the tall grasses and perennials. The Viaduct seemed to hover serenely a story or two above the busy streets. The discussion floated too, from various plant species to obscure railroad-buff history to whether or not Philadelphia will be able to transform this already thriving spontaneous landscape into an environment that could be a catalyst for healthy urban renewal and a source of pleasure for many more people.
The Barnes Foundation Alumni Association is pleased to host a talk by Patrick Cullina in early 2014 entitled The Emergent City: Transforming the Urban Experience with Dynamic Landscapes. Drawing on his experience designing innovative public landscapes, Patrick will explore strategies for transformative landscape initiatives and how they might apply to Philadelphia.