Penn Park: A Coherent Public Space Forms Out of a Mess of Infrastructure

Penn Park, a new $46-million 24-acre park designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) on the eastern edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus, manages to create a coherent space out of a mess of transportation infrastructure. The main goal of the park, which used to be a giant parking lot for mail trucks, is to provide a mix of park and sports facilities for the university. In addition to play fields for the public, Penn Park expands UPenn’s athletic facilities, creating two new multi-purpose turf fields, a softball field, a natural grass hockey field, twelve tennis courts, along with a press box, concession stand, restrooms, and spectator stands. There are now two acres of open space and more than 530 newly planted native trees. Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, told us: “The University of Pennsylvania showed great foresight in recognizing the potential of this challenging post-industrial site. The combination of programs—athletic fields and leisure space all mixed together—is a potential model for other urban universities that are running out of space.”

Designed and built in just 18 months, the park features a set of “large sculptural landforms” that organize the site, enable pedestrian circulation, and connect the park to the campus and Philadelphia. Indeed, a lot of connectivity design work was needed: Tom Stoelker at The Architect’s Newspaper writes that the space is “between a fully functioning high-speed rail corridor, a commuter train line, a freeway, freight tracks, and two major downtown arteries.”

In addition to responding to the infrastructural challenges, MVVA also had to address the 30-foot grade change between the park and street. To accomplish the design goals, the land formations, which were engineered by Arup, “swoop up toward two bridges.” The “connections form a giant arc that gently flows down into the park and back up to street level.”

MVVA writes that the landforms serve multiple functions: “Inside the spaces created by their curvilinear form, the landforms articulate the boundaries between the different sports fields. Mediating between the higher elevations of the surrounding context and the low lying topography of the park, the landforms provide the transitions that will make pedestrian access to the site effortless. Along their top ridges, the landforms will provide a pedestrian experience that is completely independent of the athletic program below, affording the visitor a memorable promenade with long views into the park and the city beyond. On their sides, the landforms will accommodate spaces for sitting and planting. Interspersed between the fields and landforms are smaller park spaces, planted loosely with canopy trees, for passive recreation and relaxation.” 

Martin Roura, project manager at MVVA, told The Architect’s Newspaper that because the site sits on a flood plane and is composed of soft material, more than 2,000 25-to-50 foot pilings were put in to support the landforms and bridges running across the site. On top of the pilings are 45,000 cubic yards of soil trucked in to create berms and the four feet layer of planting soil. Also, $12 million in underground work included cisterns with the capacity to store 300,000 gallons of stormwater runoff.  

Amy Gutmann, Penn’s president told Jennifer Lin at The Philadelphia Inquirer: “It’s the first time that, by design, we’ve set aside open space for the use of the Penn community and beyond. It’s an open, accessible, green, people-friendly connection between Center City and West Philadelphia.”

The park was entirely financed by university funds and donations. Penn security will patrol and the park will be open to the public from 6am to midnight.

Learn more about the park and see more images.

Also, to explore other innovative ideas for urban redevelopment, see an interview in Places with Chris Reed, ASLA, Stoss Landscape Urbanism and Adjunct Associate Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design, who discusses his firm’s recent design proposals and projects.

Image credits: (1) MVVA, (2-4) Tom Stoelker / The Architect’s Newspaper

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