Getting It Right: A Parks Project Fueled by Private Dollars, With An Eye on Equity

 Photo: Friends of the Rail Park

Photo: Friends of the Rail Park

Philadelphia is about to unveil the first phase of a highly anticipated public parks project with the potential to transform parts of the city. Hatched by a group of volunteers, a formidable partnership is now working to realize the full vision of a park along defunct sections of rail line, and the development has been funded in large part by donors and foundations. 

If that sounds familiar, Manhattan’s High Line is an unavoidable comparison for a bunch of reasons. There are the obvious physical similarities, with a linear design that’s elevated in sections. But it’s just one of many projects around the country trying to replicate New York’s success at turning an unused city feature into a destination public space, with private fundraising playing a large role. 

At the same time, while economic development is an undeniable goal, cities like Philadelphia are trying to differentiate their own efforts from the High Line and other similar projects, which have become increasingly scrutinized for fueling gentrification in surrounding neighborhoods. So the real challenge is not just fundraising enough to build a crown jewel park for the city, but also one that serves the surrounding community without contributing to inequality.

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The similarities between the Rail Park and the High Line aren’t a coincidence, as the former was partially inspired by the success of the New York project, which itself was inspired by the Promenade Plantée in Paris. The gifts of deep pocketed donors like Bill Ackman and Barry Diller were instrumental in making the High Line a reality, but many local foundations and businesses also chipped in.

The idea for the Rail Park has been kicking around for a long time, but got some traction starting around 2010 after the High Line’s first section opened. Like the High Line, the project was driven forward by similar volunteer evangelists, including donors, who formed a partnership with the City Center District, a business improvement district, and city departments. 

The ultimate vision became a three-mile section of green space, paths and trails—some elevated, some ground level, some underground—along two abandoned rail lines. Phase I is a quarter-mile section that cost a bit over $10 million, set to open in June. 

Foundations and donors have been key players since early on, with the William Penn Foundation and Poor Richard’s Charitable Trust funding the early study and design, and the list of supporters growing to include the Knight Foundation, a handful of local foundations and corporations, and many individuals. Private dollars were combined with city and state funding to get the project where it is now.

The partnership has several million more to raise in coming years if the full park is to be realized, and William Penn support is allowing Friends of Rail Park to transition into a staffed, professional fundraising and stewardship organization that recently hired its first executive director

Fundraising is not the project’s only hurdle, however. Despite the success of the High Line and similar projects that have followed, it’s become clear that they can bring negative consequences for surrounding communities. Often driven by wealthy donors and city leaders angling for economic growth and a big splash, such parks can spike real estate values and accelerate displacement of longtime residents nearby. Surrounding neighborhoods have reported that they feel the new glitzy park isn't for them, while other city parks suffer from neglect. 

The people behind the Philadelphia project are trying to learn from these negative consequences and avoid replicating them in their own city, as detailed in a Philadelphia Citizen article earlier this year. Supporters have hopes to add affordable housing in surrounding neighborhoods, for example, where low-income, immigrant, and senior residents are already being priced out. But doing so will require more money, and such plans can fall by the wayside (as they did during the development of the Atlanta BeltLine) once developers see dollar signs.

These are common tensions in urban planning and philanthropy right now, as city centers undergoing resurgences often fail to benefit their full range of communities, including longtime, low-income residents and people of color. 

It’s a problem Philadelphia itself has been grappling with elsewhere, as the city has made large commitments to improving its public spaces, backed up by an active philanthropic community that includes foundations like William Penn and Knight (Philadelphia is one of the latter’s priority cities). One initiative to note in particular is the city’s Rebuild program—a $500 million commitment to equitably overhaul parks, libraries and recreation centers throughout the city—which William Penn is backing with $100 million. Knight and William Penn also supported a program in Philadelphia called Reimagining the Civic Commons, an effort to support several collaborators to work on shared spaces as a path to equity. That program has since been expanded to four other cities with the addition of three national foundations. 

So the issue of parks and equity is something that is on many funders’ minds these days, and Philadelphia is a hotspot for projects grappling with it. The Rail Park will be a major test for the city and its philanthropic community, one of whether they can build a transformative urban park project that actually benefits low-income and vulnerable communities.

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