Source: Broad Street Review
Date: April 14, 2015
Byline: Gregory Heller

I recently posted to the wall of Greater Philadelphia Planners, Urbanists and Designers, an invitation-only Facebook group where 756 people like me geek out on topics such as bike lanes and gentrification. A post about digital billboards quickly racked up 20 comments. Yet when I asked for opinions on the new designs for Love Park, I got nothing. How could it be that the chattiest urban nerds around had nothing to say?

All you need is Love. (Photo by Smallbones via Creative Commons/Wikipedia)

Now that the design concepts are finally out for redoing one of Philadelphia’s most visible public spaces, nobody really seems to care, with the exception of the “flying saucer” visitor center, which may or may not be demolished. For the saucer, there are petitions and passionate pleas for preservation. But for the rest of the Love Park overhaul — crickets. After a nearly five-month public process that, according to PennPraxis, collected input from over 1,000 people.

The designs themselves are very conceptual — the architect’s equivalent of a back-of-the-napkin scribble. Inga Saffron wrote, “Those images are not designs — they’re diagrams.” The diagrams don’t communicate what the space will look and feel like, so it’s hard for most people to formulate an opinion.

Is anyone listening? 

Despite its key location, Love has never really served as an important urban space. It has fortresslike walls and is surrounded by traffic on all sides. Unlike Dilworth Park, which is right in front of City Hall, Love Park is an island, something of a no man’s land. It’s a reason the homeless camp out there and also a major reason that skateboarders found it so appealing in the 1980s.

One would think that Love’s failure to realize its potential for so long would lead to public excitement about its redesign, but it clearly hasn’t. This is the result of a major disconnect between the way that the powers that be solicited citizen input and the designs that emerged.

The public process — four forums, a social media campaign, and an on-site citizen engagement exercise — began in November. I’ve read the hundreds of postcards, tweets, and comments that people submitted, and it’s clear that folks are passionate and opinionated about the park’s future.

People expressed their desire to see all kinds of things, from hammocks to basketball courts, tables for playing chess, beer gardens and ziplines, playgrounds and dog parks, skateboarding, a farmers market, phone charging outlets, and an adult wiffleball league. But the thing that resonated is that aside from a few individuals who sent in detailed sketches, most comments were about uses — what people want to see in the park — rather than form—what it should look like and how it should be laid out.

After a five-month process that was all about uses and functions, though, we were given four sketchy designs, all of which accommodated food trucks, performance spaces, and large areas for things like Christmas Village. These uses are not only the same in all four plans, they’re the same as the park’s current functions. I don’t blame the public for being turned off at this stage — the discussion about the things they care about is already over before it even began.

Love for sale

What will be part of the new Love is a focus on revenue generation for the City. One of the design team’s presentations actually laid out scenarios for increasing Love Park’s revenue for the City from the current level of $124,000 per year to $235,000-$375,000. It is just wrong that moneymaking is such an important part of the City’s strategy for reinventing a central public space. And let’s not forget, this is a public space that exists primarily as the lid for a parking garage (i.e., a revenue-generating use).

Beyond ignoring the public’s wishes for park uses and the focus on moneymaking, the designs ignore another important aspect: how people currently use the existing park. Danya Sherman’s recent Next City post argues that planners and designers of open space should watch how people organically and informally use public spaces, then design or adapt them to accommodate those preexisting uses. She writes, “For those of us in the urban planning profession, it is worth exploring why we too often undervalue these self-made free spaces and the urge to reclaim a space through empowering, undesignated uses. What if instead, we supported them?”

In other words, when we redesign a space like Love Park or Dilworth Park, instead of top-down planners deciding for the public how the space will be used, what if planners observed and designed a new space to accommodate the ways the public was already using the space? Perhaps it is the job of planners and designers to observe how people actually use their spaces and to find creative and innovative design solutions to accommodate those uses and mediate (through design) when conflicts occur.

Skating the issue

The problem with taking this approach is that it inevitably would include skateboarding at Love Park — a use that the City has been bizarrely averse to for quite some time. For full disclosure, while I don’t skateboard, I supported skateboarding in Love Park and protested the city’s skating ban back in 2002 and 2003. It’s obviously still a hot-button issue that was raised in the recent public sessions, eliciting a firm response from the City’s Mark Focht that the administration does not support allowing skating in Love.

But why not? Paine’s Park, the new skateable plaza by the Art Museum, shows that skateboarding can work in an open public plaza. Based on Paine’s success, shouldn’t we be accommodating skating into more downtown plazas rather than saying that one plaza where skating is legal is enough? I would love to see as much vibrancy in our downtown public spaces as there is at Paine’s Park. Compared to Paine’s, for example, Dilworth Park is a sparsely populated wasteland.

I expect designers to come up with creative and innovative solutions to accommodate the ways that people use public spaces, not ban those popular uses. Designers should see accommodating skateboarding and other popular uses together in one space as a challenge worth solving rather than one to avoid. There are some farsighted architects out there talking about how to design ledges that are just a little too high or too low to be desirable for skaters, naturally directing them, through architecture, to another section of a park.

Same as it ever was

Unfortunately, we seem to be in an age where every new and rebuilt public space is starting to look the same and have the same set of bourgeois uses. Many of us look at spaces like Love Park with disdain as dated relics that need redos. Maybe so, but I’m concerned that we’re building our new set of relics today — sterile spaces that avoid bringing a gritty urban reality into our straight-laced downtown.

The remade Dilworth Park is certainly a major upgrade over the old plaza, but it’s a bland, barren, and passive space. We’re removing the organic activity from our downtown and replacing it with a bunch of lookalike plazas with wading pools, sitting areas, and cute cafés. It could be exciting to have a basketball court in the center of town. But that doesn’t fit in with the preference for dull, passive urban plazas that seem to be the new normal.

This may be a generational misunderstanding. An older generation thinks that cool, hip urban spaces have beer gardens and food trucks. But by dictating these uses, and additionally banning active uses in parks, these planners have proven how old school — and perhaps classist — they really are. Those beer gardens and food trucks take the pay-to-stay model of cafés and restaurants and simply put them outdoors. Meanwhile non-supported uses like skateboarding, chess, and basketball are all things the public has said it wants, and importantly, they are free and accessible to all.

In a city where nearly half our residents have a household income of less than $35,000, we need to create spaces that cater to those people’s needs or admit that we’re intentionally creating public spaces for people with disposable income and a proclivity for $7 tacos. I’m afraid we’re on course for remaking a Love Park that will be boring, stodgy, welcoming only for a certain segment of our population, and focused on making money for the city. If we continue down our current track, the new Love Park may look more attractive for a few years, but it would surely fare no better than the current one at becoming a lively and inclusive urban space and withstanding the test of time.