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Why the FDR plan is a chance for Parks & Rec to do right for the environment and the community

"Save the Meadows" groups want to scrap the renovation plan. But without some intervention, FDR Park will cease to exist as a usable park.

After Philadelphia closed the public golf course at FDR Park in 2019,  it was transformed into a wild meadow that became a popular area for walking during the pandemic.
After Philadelphia closed the public golf course at FDR Park in 2019, it was transformed into a wild meadow that became a popular area for walking during the pandemic.Read moreInga Saffron

It’s called Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, but there are times when the department acts more like the city’s Office of Sales & Demolition.

This year alone, Parks & Rec has outsourced a portion of Cobbs Creek Park to a non-profit golf course operator, which promptly vaporized 88 acres of fragile streambed for a monoculture of fertilized grass links. The city followed up that travesty by handing a banquet company a multiyear contract to use the nationally significant Fairmount Water Works for private parties.

During the height of the summer, Eakins Oval and Franklin Square were both allowed to fence off their spaces for nearly two months so they could host pricey, ticketed attractions. It was as if the heart of Center City had been designated a full-time events venue.

The department’s increasing emphasis on monetizing its parks helps explain the collective wail that rippled across South Philadelphia last month after bulldozers arrived in FDR Park and began cutting a road through a section affectionately known as the “Meadows.”

That crescent of land had functioned as a city golf course until it was shut down in 2019, just months before the pandemic started. Almost immediately, the course’s manicured lawns went feral, erupting with chest-high stands of milkweed and goldenrod. Once the instant wilderness was discovered by South Philly nature lovers and dog owners, the Meadows became one of those magical, secret places, like Graffiti Pier, that hold an outsized place in the public imagination.

Given the department’s poor record of stewarding its natural lands, it’s easy to see the Meadows as a repeat of the Cobbs Creek situation. Aerial photos show the same barren expanses of brown earth, the same uprooted trees.

But what’s going on in FDR Park is actually more complicated — and more hopeful. The construction work in the Meadows is the first step in an ambitious plan to reconfigure the 348-acre park for the age of climate change, while also creating suburban-quality sports fields and playgrounds. Rather than another cynical hand-over to yet another private operator, Parks & Rec is trying, for a change, to do the right thing.

You might not know this if you’ve only read the blogs and social media posts from an assortment of advocacy groups, including PP4FDR, Save the Meadows and Save the Meadows FDR.

The Meadows’ champions maintain that the former golf course has become, in just three short years, an irreplaceable habitat, home to a diverse assortment of birds, trees and insects. They have launched an all-out campaign to keep its 146 acres intact and have won over several influential officials, including State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler. Essentially, they want the city to scrap the existing climate plan and start from scratch.

I share the opponents’ sadness at the loss of the Meadows. I also share their concerns about the city’s ability to carry out the climate plan without resorting to the usual, money-making schemes.

But after studying the 184-page strategy and interviewing more than a dozen people on all sides, it’s clear that the single-minded focus on the Meadows has blinded opponents to the project’s strengths. Overall, the FDR plan is a well-considered effort that balances the city’s urgent need for first-class recreational spaces with the equally urgent imperative to manage climate change.

Environmental challenges from the start

To understand the plan’s virtues, it helps to know some history. Philadelphia’s park system has been in crisis for decades. Grossly underfunded by successive mayors, Parks & Rec has increasingly turned to private partners. Nearly a third of the money spent on Philadelphia parks now comes from private sources, a larger percentage than any other American city.

Yet, despite those private deals, many city facilities and playing fields remain barely usable. And now, climate change is putting new pressures on its nature parks.

At FDR Park, those challenges come together in a perfect storm. Located close to the Delaware River in South Philadelphia, FDR is part of a tidal estuary, which means its low-lying areas flood naturally with the changing tides.

It was a soggy marsh back in 1913 when the Olmsted Brothers, sons of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, were hired to transform the area into a romantic landscape of artificial lakes and gracious walking paths. To realize their picturesque fantasy, they had to truck in vast quantities of soil — most of it excavated during the construction of the Broad Street Subway — to raise the park above sea level. Wetlands were filled in.

But it still wasn’t enough.

Flooding remained such a problem that the park’s former golf course — now the Meadows — was under water an average of 80 days a year. Over time, the park was hemmed in by more and more paved surfaces, most notably I-95 and the sports complex parking lots, which increased the amount of runoff flowing into the park. When a crucial tidal gate, which was intended to hold back water from the Delaware, broke down several years ago, the city was able to do little to fix it.

Without some intervention, it’s clear that FDR Park will cease to exist as a usable park.

As the city debated what to do, Philadelphia International Airport started making plans in 2016 to fill in 33 acres of its own wetlands to build a new cargo facility. Under federal law, the airport was required to mitigate the environmental damage by creating an equal amount of wetlands elsewhere.

Since the airport and FDR both occupy the same tidal estuary, it made sense to locate the new wetlands inside the park. With $30 million from the airport and $50 million more from the Kenney administration, Parks & Rec had just enough money to start the project. The department reached out to WRT, a respected Philadelphia landscape architecture firm that is known for its large-scale landscape remediation work.

After a lengthy community engagement process, a $255 million reconstruction plan was approved in 2018. Although more money must be raised, the plan outlined by WRT will restore the wetlands that the Olmsteds filled in, while creating new dry land for playing fields and playgrounds. According to Parks & Rec, 209 acres — 60% of FDR Park — will be occupied by wetlands, woodlands, meadows, streams and lakes.

The project’s critics will tell you that those 209 acres are in the wrong place. They argue — correctly — that Meadows already includes wetlands and that some of those marshes will be destroyed to make room for playing fields. But they fail to understand that not all wetlands are created equal.

What makes the WRT plan so persuasive is the logic used to reconfigure the park. Think of FDR park as a giant bowl with sloped sides. Most of the water drains to the center, then flows south toward the Delaware River.

Rather than fight that reality, WRT recommends putting all the natural areas in the center of the park, in what it calls the “ecological core,” and then ringing the perimeter with recreational uses. To make that possible, the park’s perimeter must be elevated. The road now being built through the Meadows will allow trucks to transfer soil from the center, where the wetlands will be, to the perimeter. The advantage of concentrating all the wetlands in the center is that it creates a large, contiguous wildlife habitat.

An ‘urban edge’ with nature in the middle

Based on this arrangement, all the major attractions — sports fields, playgrounds, restrooms — will be arrayed along Pattison Avenue and Broad Street, close to residential areas. The “urban edge,” as WRT calls it, happens to be where the subway stop is.

“Access to the subway is huge,” according to Andrea Rodgers, who runs Philadelphia’s Starfinder Foundation, an organization that combines soccer and academic tutoring to help students in underserved communities.

It’s unfortunate that this arrangement means filling parts of the Meadows, which curves along the west side of the park. But if the FDR golf course can turn into a wild meadow in just three years, so can the new ecological core. The city, which hired the Fairmount Park Conservancy to manage the project and raise additional funding, aims to have the park finished in time for the nation’s 250th birthday party in 2026.

That also happens to be the year that FIFA plans to stage several World Cup games at Lincoln Financial Field. But claims that the World Cup is driving the project are false, Kathryn Ott Lovell, the commissioner for Parks & Rec, told me. Two of the soccer fields may be used for practice games, she said, “but after 30 days they would go back to the city.”

Parks & Rec has also been criticized for pushing ahead with the FDR plan without taking changing conditions into account. But that’s another claim that doesn’t hold up. Since the plan’s adoption, the city has continued to modify the details. It gave the Southeast Asian Market a permanent spot in the park. After the concessionaire for a driving range, First Tee, pulled out of the project, the city agreed to use the site to expand the wetlands.

“I give them credit for listening,” said Suzanne Biemiller, who runs Audubon’s Mid-Atlantic office. Initially a critic of the plan, she is now a qualified supporter.

Like many people, she would like to see the city reconsider the location of three soccer fields in the southwest portion of the park. Not only are they disconnected from the main sports area in the north, their construction would require cutting down many 80-year-old trees. Preserving that area, which is part of the Meadows, would further increase the size of the wetlands habitat.

Some opponents have gone even further, arguing that Parks & Rec should eliminate all the soccer fields and disperse them throughout South Philadelphia. But having a cluster of fields along FDR’s urban edge makes more sense. It makes it easier for families with multiple children to gather in one location. They will be able to take their pre-schoolers to the playground while the older ones compete.

There are also operational advantages to having all the fields in one place. The city can assign a staffer to manage the facility, and that should increase access for people who play pickup games.

With four years to go before FDR assumes its new form, there will be other chances to tweak the plan. Many have criticized the decision to build artificial turf playing fields. They’re also concerned that the fields will be locked when not in use. Those are details that can be modified.

Funding is the more immediate issue. It will be tempting for the Fairmount Park Conservancy to rent out FDR beauty spots, such as the boathouse and the gazebo, for a constant stream of weddings and parties.

That monetization itch isn’t unique to FDR park. We need to have a citywide conversation about how we pay for our parks and what level of privatization is acceptable. We also need to talk about making our parks resilient to climate change.

Conveniently, there is a mayor’s race coming up next year.