I think that Philadelphia could transform Broad Street, its most significant public boulevard, if we decided to start replacing Broad Street’s concrete and asphalt medians with soil, grass, and trees.
I first started thinking about this in Pittsburgh, when I saw the way that certain Pittsburgh streets have simple but elegant elevated green garden medians, and the thought really took hold during Michael Bloomberg’s time as New York City mayor when he helped inaugurate MillionTreesNYC, the city’s initiative to plant and and care for a million new trees across the five boroughs.
There’s frequent debate about whether Philadelphia should start ticketing/towing cars parked in Broad Street’s median as you get down into South Philadelphia, and those debates go nowhere due to the entrenched interests of city councilpersons. Why not obviate that debate entirely and replace the median over time with grass and shrubs and flowers and trees? We would be transforming Philadelphia’s greatest street into Philadelphia’s grandest street, outstripping even the Ben Franklin Parkway in time for beauty.
I don’t think there’s any one solution, and here are just a few examples of how it could be done. Here’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem:
That looks relatively simple and would probably require the least expense. In other words, keep the existing median dimensions along Broad Street, but punch out the concrete and asphalt. The result is an attractive streetscape for walkers, bikers, and drivers.
Here’s Grant Street in Pittsburgh, which I think is the street that got me thinking about this about a decade ago:
This is maybe even better from a safety standpoint, since it discourages jaywalking and would allow Broad Street to be narrowed a bit to accommodate a wider median and also maybe a permanent bike lane, all of which would naturally reduce speeding and accidents.
And here’s the Champs-Élysées in Paris. I walked along this avenue when I visited there in July 2012, when I was in Europe for the London Olympics:
The boulevard itself has no real median, but these incredibly wide (by American standards) sidewalks accommodate a double-wide planting of trees and functionally park space along the way. This could be another approach, eliminating Broad Street’s median entirely and doubling the capacity of our sidewalks and reimaging their role as public space.
Compare these few options with the present reality. Here’s Broad and Locust:
And here’s Broad and Lombard, a bit farther south:
And here’s Broad and Castle, much farther south when the median turns into overflow parking space and the buildings are set back much farther from the street:
Now imagine these scenes transformed, as part of something like a “Broad Street Greenway” initiative to place a few thousand trees all along Broad Street—left, right, and center.
Imagine the experience of walking Broad Street in the summer, when the trees serve as natural canopies alleviating the heat. Imagine the experience during the autumn when the changing colors and resplendent hues also provides jobs for dozens of seasonal workers to sweep the streets and bring a human presence to stretches of Broad Street that feel remote and desolate during certain hours. Imagine the experience during the spring when those trees serve as homes and stopping points for all sorts of birds and chirping life, bringing nature’s sounds and songs to a part of the city that desperately could benefit from something other than the sounds of horns and engines. And imagine the experience during the winter, when certain neighborhoods or the city itself might string up little white lights to festively illuminate the city’s grand street, bringing some hope and optimism and warm feeling to a time of year when many feel particularly discouraged or alone.
Creating a Broad Street Greenway for Philadelphia wouldn’t just be a parks project, or an environmental initiative, but it would also be a great public service and a great act of revitalizing and enlivening one of best known and imagined parts of the city.