Philadelphia story: the regeneration of Fairmount Park’s running trails

Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park and running trails, one of the largest open spaces in the United States, has just been partly restored.

Fairmount Park covers 3,700 hectares in Philadelphia, and is popular with cross-country runners, thanks to its variety of trails and competitions. Courtesy Fairmount Parks Conservancy
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Hugging the Schuylkill River on the border of West Philadelphia in the United States, and covering more than 3,700 hectares, ­Fairmount Park is one of the world’s largest city park systems.

The expansive green space boasts beautiful hills, a relaxing waterfront, shaded woodland and a runner’s paradise of well-trodden trails. One of its best-known running areas, the Belmont Plateau Trail – affectionately known as The Plateau – has played host to countless youth, high-school, college and National Championship cross-country meets since the 1960s, and over the years has welcomed Olympic athletes such as Eamonn Coghlan, Don Paige, John Treacy, Sydney Maree and Marty Liquori.

But after decades of heavy use, trail erosion and vegetative growth, The Plateau was crying out for some TLC. So the Fairmount Park Conservancy, supported by Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, embarked on a project to upgrade the trails.

The project focused on the improvement of The Plateau’s landscape and trails, and the installation of new, clearer signage for three of the running courses: the 3-kilometre, 5km and 8km routes. To fund the restoration, The Conservancy raised US$150,000 (Dh550,913), partially by selling charity bibs for the Broad Street Run, the largest 10-mile (16km) road race in America, and collecting contributions from the run’s participants. Funds raised have also been allocated to ensure the long-term sustainability of the trails. The recently completed first phase of the restoration project took three months to complete, but the continuing project will include some improvements later this year.

To celebrate the completion of the first phase of upgrades, The Conservancy and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation joined a group of local track coaches for a day of activities. Also unveiled that day was the Belmont Plateau Cross Country Hall of Fame, founded by Philadelphia University’s head track coach Dave Thomas. The new site pays tribute to the talented runners, coaches, officials and championship teams that have competed at The Plateau. Part of the day’s activities included the first-annual Belmont Plateau Hall of Fame Classic, a 5km race and 1-mile (1.6km) run/walk, which was open to all ages. Several of the region’s past and present track stars took part, including the 2008 Olympics distance runner Erin Donahue and the 1988 Olympics marathoner Gary Fanelli.

Much like the city of ­Philadelphia, Fairmount Park is steeped in history. The original property was created when Robert Morris, a financier of the Revolutionary War, was declared bankrupt and had to sell his country farm and gardens to another local businessman. The buyer reportedly created such lovely gardens at the site that he started charging admission to view them. The estate changed hands twice after that, until 1843, when a shrewd city councilman saw that it might be able to offer an answer to the city’s water-pollution problems. Because the property was situated on top of the city’s municipal water works, designating it as “parkland” would help protect the water supply and create thousands of acres of buffer around the ­Schuylkill River. It also meant that industrial interests wouldn’t be able to set up in these areas or use the river as a dumping site.

During the next century, the city acquired additional land surrounding the park, and recruited landscape architects to develop a plan that would preserve the park’s natural features while maximising public accessibility and emphasising its impressive vistas. The views of the Philadelphia skyline set against mature forests and expansive green spaces are particularly striking.

Today, Fairmount Park offers a quiet escape from the city and enables visitors to partake in a number of outdoor pursuits. There are kilometres of trails used by off-road cyclists, hikers and equine enthusiasts, and facilities for organised sports teams, such as softball and ultimate Frisbee.

In addition, several entertainment and cultural options are available to visitors, including Japanese tea ceremonies and concerts held in the park’s two outdoor concert venues. The Philadelphia Museum of Art sits at the headway of the park, while a Victorian-style trolley offers tours of the colonial-era mansions that dot the park’s landscape. There are also three different environmental centres and a wildlife refuge treatment centre.

In addition to its upgrade of The Plateau, the Conservancy has overseen several other improvement projects over the years. The group was involved in the implementation of a new recreation and play space in Centennial Commons, which lies along the west of the park; it relit the park’s historic Boat House Row, which offers refuge to several boathouses that are home to local social and rowing clubs and their racing shells, with eco-friendly lighting; and helped to restore Boxers’ Trail, so-named because when Muhammad Ali used to want to challenge the long-time Philadelphia resident Joe Frazier, this is where he came, because he knew Frazier would be there. Before the start of the restoration project, the Boxers’ Trail was a narrow, unpaved path running along a wooded hilltop overlooking the Schuylkill River. Now, it connects the historic Smith Memorial Playground and the historic mansions of Fairmount Park to the Strawberry Mansion neighbourhood, as well as to the regional trail system that leads to Valley Forge.

The Conservancy has supported efforts to preserve and improve Fairmount Park and community parks around the city. The group was established in 1998, first as the Fairmount Park Foundation and then renamed to its current moniker in 2001. The group spent more than $20m on increasing public awareness in its first 10 years in existence. More recently, however, the group’s mission has evolved beyond fundraising, and now focuses on planning, project management, programme development and community outreach endeavours.

alane@thenational.ae

Green Spaces is a series that features notable gardens and public spaces from around the world.

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