Cooling off in urban blue spaces: Philadelphia & the Schuylkill River

Imagine a bike’s wheels whistling past maple trees, under historic bridges, and alongside antiquated train tracks on a promising summer afternoon. This simple image, now etched in my memory from a recent trip to Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Trail, tells the story of many restored urban waterways around the world.

It’s becoming trendy to turn abandoned, post-industrial lots into blossoming green spaces, especially around rivers. Rather than tearing down the past, urban planners are incorporating its remains into the present; industrial revolution train tracks now serve as flowerpots. Image

Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Trail reconnects residents with the waterway.

Particularly in packed urban areas, this style of planning seems to be a necessity, rather than a passing fashion. In a time of growing city populations but scarce space, establishing verdant oases is pivotal for mental and physical health. We need to meld our understanding of urban with our appreciation of green, so that the two ideas flow into each other seamlessly. (I’m looking at you, Highline!)

Blue spaces, such as the Schuylkill River Trail, must be a key element of that new understanding. During the summer, blue spaces are often gathering spots for people from all over the city. United by sweat, we seek out water parks, gushing fountains, and peaceful riversides, hoping to cool down for just a moment during our daily journeys. This is especially the case in paved, cemented, and deforested cities.

Yet so often these blue spaces are closed-off areas that make it difficult to connect with water. We have to pay to enter water parks, fountains are generally quite formal, and rivers are often polluted. We are frequently disconnected from our public water spaces. It is nice to look at water from the shore or sidewalk, but it is another thing to engage with it, which is essential in our standardized, paved urban landscapes. How best to connect with our water spaces is a question of wellness.

One of the most stylish ideas now is to put pools on top of polluted waterways, so that people can still swim without worrying about coming down with a case of cholera. From the Badeschiff in Berlin on the River Spree, to the proposed plans on Prague’s Vltava River and New York’s Hudson, creating clean swimming spaces is all the rage. But as a colleague said to me recently, these pools are a band-aid, rather than a solution. There are still walls between us and our water, and we need better urban water planning, a topic that I will explore further in future blog posts.

Following our sweaty tour of Philadelphia, we sank into the soil underneath ginkgo biloba and elm trees in Washington Square Park, and noted a temperature drop on a particularly scorching day. The emerald canopy gave us a leafy embrace, and we breathed a sigh of calm. A central fountain gushed forward, in memory of the two creeks that once ran through the area.

Considering that under the grass is a graveyard, it’s a pretty good use of space, as far as environmental and historical urban design goes.


An ant’s view in Washington Square Park.

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