Urban Arboreta Sites: A Brief Land Use History

As a non-native of Philadelphia, I regret to say that I had largely forgotten about the city’s historical significance until moving here last fall. Sure, I associated Philadelphia with William Penn, Ben Franklin and the Liberty Bell, but much of my eighth grade American History had been lodged in the back of my mind, unstirred for quite some time. So my first few weeks spent exploring the city were filled with renewed appreciation for Philadelphia and the history it houses both within its major institutions, like Independence Hall and the Fairmount Water Works, as well as its small alleys and old relics.

Of course, history is not skin deep. You often have to dig (both in soil and documents) to reveal the true history of a site. As a city planning student, I am only beginning to appreciate the true depth of the city’s history – how each site has its own unique layers (even if that turns out to be fly ash). In a post-industrial city like Philadelphia, this is especially important as previous uses can severely limit current site use.

Map of Urban Arboreta Sites

In order to better understand the ecological conditions of the two future sites of the Urban Arboreta, we decided to look into the history of the place. A library of historic maps is made available through the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network and can easily be placed on top of the current street layout in Google Maps.  As the shared SEPTA regional rail (Bala Cynwyd/Thorndale line) and Amtrak lines separates the two sites today, it is perhaps unsurprising that they are vacant given the proximity to the rail. In fact, this was originally the West Philadelphia Railroad, constructed in the early 1830s by the Columbia and Philadelphia Railroad as part of the Main Line of Public Works, which also incorporated an extensive canal system.

Map of West Philadelphia Railroad

Plan of the West Philadelphia Railroad by H.R. Campbell (1835). Source: Historical Society of Frankford.

In 1850, the line was acquired by the state and incorporated as part of the Pennsylvania Rail Road. At this time, the area surrounding the two sites was largely residential, with grand estates occupying most of the area to the north. Governor John Penn, the grandson of William, had established his 200-acre estate, known as Lansdowne, here in the late 18th century.

Following the Consolidation Act of 1854, the City was given the power to acquire areas as open public space. In the subsequent decades, Fairmount Park grew considerably as the City sought to protect water resources following numerous cholera and typhoid outbreaks. Original plans to extend the grid north of the rail line were scrapped and the land, including the Lansdowne estate, was instead incorporated into the municipal parks system ahead of the Centennial Exhibition in 1876.

Centennial ExhibitionThe Centennial Balloon View of the Grounds (www.antiquesimagearchive.com)

Around the same time, the area directly adjacent to the sites was changing dramatically. The Pennsylvania Rail Road created a rail yard here and the surrounding land housed a variety of industries, including the Pennsylvania Iron Works, Terra Cotta Works, Knickerbocker Ice & Coal Company, and the Standard Roller Bearing Company. The Parkside Avenue site was completely covered with tracks and the Merion Avenue site was home to heavy industry.

Map of Urban Arboreta Sites (1910)Looking through historic maps and aerials from the twentieth century, it becomes clear that the sites primarily retained these uses, although the type of industry did change over a few times. Sometime between 1985 and 1990, the unused rail on the Parkside site and the industrial and storage buildings on the Merion site were cleared. For the last thirty years, these sites have sat vacant and natural overgrowth has been allowed to occur.

While this is an abbreviated history of the land use on the future Urban Arboreta sites, it certainly informs how we will approach the site design and nursery operation. Contaminated soils and concrete foundations might be less than ideal for a typical tree nursery, but they offer the opportunity for R&D. Could part of the project include dendro-remediation techniques like those being employed in Detroit? How does site history impact the ecology of vacant lots? These are just a couple of the questions we hope to explore in future posts, as well as on the ground.