Build the Community Before You Build the Project


Build the Community Before You Build the Project

Renewing Bridesburg Riverfront Park

Bridesburg Riverfront Park. In recent years, the Foundation has stepped up support for efforts to strengthen connections between neighborhoods and the North Delaware Greenway that joins with the northern end of the Central Delaware. In 2017 and 2018 the Foundation awarded $700,000 to support a civic engagement-based planning process for a new 10-acre park on the Delaware River in the Bridesburg neighborhood in lower Northeast Philadelphia.

Bridesburg Riverfront Park is one of eight public parks planned or completed along an 11-mile trail on the North Delaware River waterfront in Northeast Philadelphia. The work is coordinated by the nonprofit Riverfront North Partnership, formed in 1995 to transform post-industrial landscapes into usable community space and reconnect neighborhoods to the river.

Like virtually every other site along the river, Bridesburg Riverfront Park reflects Philadelphia’s history of industrial growth and decline. The park is situated on the property of a former concrete factory, where the industrial activity left what Riverfront North Executive Director Stephanie Phillips describes as “a giant concrete lava mountain” at the water’s edge.

"There's a long history of people accessing this park,” Phillips explains. “People remember using the site as children, fishing and swimming. High school kids still go there all the time.” Phillips says this is perhaps the number-one misconception about the Delaware River waterfront: the properties might lie fallow and be officially inaccessible, but Philadelphians have kept the waterfront in continuous use. “There's not an area of the riverfront that's not actively used,” she says, “even if it’s just by fishermen and anglers” who might snip chain-link fences to get to the water.

The Foundation’s emphasis on inclusive processes for inclusive spaces recognizes this on-the-ground reality. Creative waterfront community spaces do not need to be created so much as nurtured and cultivated. In the case of Bridesburg Riverfront Park, Phillips explains that “it already was a park. But it needs to look and feel like a park, and to be treated as such.” For Bridesburg residents it’s a matter of resources and respect. Decades ago the location hosted what Phillips describes as “an old-fashioned pier and gazebo” and was beloved by the community. Then one day those amenities were abruptly cut off. “That looms large in the memory of Bridesburg. They already wanted a park for a long time. They say, ‘We've been promised this park for decades’.”

To respond to this strong community memory and desire, the Foundation provided two rounds of funding to help with construction of the park, with a significant portion earmarked for a robust community engagement project extended over the course of three years.

Phillips and her colleagues began by focusing on building relationships in Bridesburg to ensure the community felt ownership of the finished product. “The river bends out east of I-95 in this section of the Delaware, and it was never residential there. So the waterfront parks along the North Delaware are all a quarter mile to a half-mile from the nearest houses; they’re destination parks. There’s no built-in caretaker community across the street. So you have to build the community before you build the park.”

An advisory council formed, comprised of area residents, and took field trips to other riverfront parks in the Philadelphia region and the American Midwest. The Council provided $500 micro-grants to neighbors to implement ideas or events that would benefit the community, as a way of establishing trust and good will. Events included a pop-up play area at the Bridesburg Recreation Center with multilingual messaging and pictographs about the river.

As the process matured and residents became familiar with the project, engagement migrated to virtual forms in 2018-19 – a shift that proved to be fortuitous with the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020. Artists were engaged to produce short videos documenting residents’ relationships with the river and Frankford Creek. And a “This Pizza Is a Park” campaign put photos and historical images of the park on custom-designed pizza boxes that made their way into hundreds of homes with delivered pizza.

The design that emerged from this extensive relationship-building between the community and its riverfront is for Phillips “essentially a nature park” that simultaneously honors the ecological importance of the watershed and the deeply ingrained memories of the desire for a park among Bridesburg residents. Half of the park is comprised of an existing above-grade meadow whose invasive plants will be removed, and unhealthy trees culled, to allow indigenous plants to take over naturally. The other half will be a multi-purpose community and play area, with a stage, a boardwalk overlook, and a picnic pavilion. The existing bulkhead and “concrete lava mountain” preclude direct access to the water itself, but the site will afford plentiful, close-up river views.

In 2019, after the planning and public engagement process successfully concluded, the Foundation granted a further $2 million to Riverfront North Partnership for construction, which is ongoing in cooperation with the City of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department. Phase One of the park opened in 2021, with Phase Two expected to be completed in 2023.

Phillips says the Foundation’s funding was central to the realization of Bridesburg Riverfront Park. “In a really practical way, this grant was the catalyst. We had a few smaller grants, but the Foundation’s support was something we were able to leverage to obtain local and state government funding that we'd never had before, and that we’d never have gotten if we hadn’t had the William Penn Foundation commitment in place. This park is designed as a hyper-local park for the neighborhood, but also as a new park for the whole city. It’s the biggest and most complex project that we as an organization have done.”

Phillips also stresses the centrality of the community-building process. “What does the park matter if the community doesn't care about it? Being able to start the [engagement] work before the park is even built is not something most funders would care about or enable. It’s unusual. I'm just grateful for William Penn for being so forward-thinking about this aspect.”

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