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Eakins Oval, a former parking lot hemmed in on all sides by at least four lanes of traffic, may seem like an unlikely place for a family-friendly public park. But in the five years since it was first constructed, the summer pop-up called “The Oval,” organized by the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, has become one of the most popular of the city’s many seasonal installations.
For the 2017 summer season, FPC and PPR tried to go a little bigger, hiring Philadelphia- and Chicago-based firm PORT to design a space that would once again draw people to the park, but also get them talking about the long-term future of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. The result, called “The Oval+”, included many of the same features as previous years—games, plantings, food trucks, and a bar—along with new features, like 24-foot-tall graphic installations that told stories about prominent Fairmount Park attractions and asked visitors, “What’s your Philly Parkway?”
Still, while the goal was loftier than in previous years, the parameters were firm.
“What we designed and implemented had to be put up and taken down in five weeks,” said Christopher Marcinkoski, a partner at PORT and associate professor of landscape architecture and urban design at PennDesign.
“Our project initially was tasked with thinking about a kind of expanded version of what they had done in years past,” he said. “A version that wasn't so heavily programmed but had a physical intervention that was able to activate and animate the space. And then, as we began to develop that project, it started to become clear that we really want to document that. We really want to draw as much data and information out of that intervention as possible so that we can start to talk about what is desired, what is not desired, and what a more permanent future of the reconfiguration might look like."
One underlying goal was to do something that would begin to match the monumental scale of the Parkway. Other pop-ups can feel like “collections of little bitty things,” said PORT partner Megan Born (MLA/March ‘08), and the firm wanted the Oval+ to feel more substantial.
“For us, it was important to get away from that idea of collecting a bunch of little things in a space and rather do something big and simple and bold to, one, match the scale, and two, help people navigate to the space and through the space,” Born said. “It was important for us to think about framing that big linear space and creating almost a wayfinding strategy with these large pavilions. You could see them a block away and it drew you to that space.”
Because of the nature of the Parkway, any transformation of the Oval has to accommodate the nearby neighborhoods of Fairmount, Logan Square and Spring Garden, as well as other farther afield Philadelphia communities, plus the tourists and visitors that come to the Parkway every single day.
Illuminated at night, the pavilions acted as mini-exhibits, with information about Philly’s natural environment and cultural icons, like the former Spring Garden Water Works and the statue of William Penn on top of City Hall. There were also post cards and drink coasters asking visitors to identify the neighborhoods they lived in, and PORT, in partnership with PennPraxis, also conducted some 500 interviews with visitors to get ideas about the desired future of the space. They’re still sifting through the comments.
“What can we learn from these events?” said Born. “How can we use them to help people really open their minds up to see the possibilities in this public space that they didn’t see before?”
Marc Wilken, director of business and event development for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, said PORT’s track record of large-scale interventions made it attractive for a beefed-up Oval. The firm also shared the city’s ethos about creating a low-cost, temporary park.
The idea of creating a park in Eakins Oval came out of the More Park, Less Way plan developed by PennPraxis in 2013. And while the Oval interventions have so far been temporary, the PennPraxis plan was always aimed at permanently reconfiguring the Parkway to invite more pedestrians and de-emphasize automobile use. Because it’s the City’s park, any such changes will have to be led by the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Parks and Rec. Wilken also said that the installations and programming at the Oval have so far been successful and relatively inexpensive, but more lasting changes are going to require focused fundraising.
Marcinkoski concluded, “What’s fascinating about the Oval for us is that it has more audiences and expectations than your typical public space. Because of the nature of the Parkway, any transformation of the Oval has to accommodate the nearby neighborhoods of Fairmount, Logan Square and Spring Garden, as well as other farther afield Philadelphia communities, plus the tourists and visitors that come to the Parkway every single day. That represents a huge range of priorities, but also a really exciting design opportunity.”
Working with Marcinkoski and Born on the project were PennDesign alumni Nick McClintock (MLA/MArch’16), Sean McKay (MLA’17), Lecturer Joshua Freese (MArch’09), and Master of Landscape Architecture students Nick Jabs and Ao Zhang.