FDR Park is at the south end of South Philly, and if you’ve flown into Philly, you may have seen the park just across the Schuykill River from the airport. Also known as “The Lakes,” it’s adjacent to South Philadelphia Sports Complex, where the city’s professional teams play.
Despite its central location, FDR Park’s 348 acres, designed by Olmsted Brothers over a century ago, are known to locals for their beauty and tranquility. They feature a picturesque gazebo overlooking Meadow Lake, a playground, a golf course, tennis courts, a rugby field, a famous skate park under I-95, and the American Swedish Historical Museum. The park is in the early stages of a long-term renovation plan, so depending on when you visit there may be something new to see.
Long before it became the South Philly staple it is today, the land that is now FDR Park consisted of acres upon acres of wetlands and marshes separated from “mainland” Philadelphia by Hollander Creek, which ran between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. Between the late 1700s and early 1900s, these marshes were slowly drained and filled to support agriculture and eventually residential development. It wasn’t until 1913 that the Olmsted Brothers, the sons of the prominent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s famed Central Park, designed League Island Park.
Shaped by their father’s romantic vision of landscape architecture, the Olmsted Brothers designed a picturesque park with curving roads and paths, curated views of architecture and landscape, and a series of tidal lakes encompassing the remains of Hollander Creek. The park, in fact, would go on to earn the nickname “The Lakes,” and become a popular swimming spot for Philadelphians.
In 1926, League Island Park became a site of the Sesquicentennial Exposition of American Independence. A number of architecturally significant structures were built in the park, including the Municipal Stadium east of Broad and the American Swedish Historical Museum west of Broad Street, which remains to this day.
Following the celebration, the park returned to its original purpose as a public park, although the City continued to develop the area east of Broad Street. Today, this stretch of the park is now known as Stadium District. The Olmsted’s original design was further altered in the 1940s, when a golf course was added to the western side. At the same time, the park itself was renamed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park in honor of the former U.S. president.
Today, FDR Park sits near some of Philadelphia’s most diverse and fast-growing communities. While the historic plan successfully created a beloved destination for multiple generations of Philadelphians, the park has been struggling with underfunding, deferred maintenance of historic assets and infrastructure, and frequent flooding. In spring of 2019, Fairmount Park Conservancy, in partnership with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, architecture firm WRT, and Friends of FDR Park, unveiled a long-term master plan” for the park.
The plan was the result of a year-long planning process, during which the project team spoke to nearly 3,000 community members and stakeholders. They learned that FDR Park is a critical green oasis in one of South Philadelphia’s most densely populated neighborhoods. Philadelphians look to the park when they want to celebrate life through picnics and special events. They value opportunities to connect with nature and to enjoy safe walking and biking trails.
By aligning community priorities with the realities of a changing climate and a low-lying park, the planning process was oriented toward finding the balance of activity, nature and water. The master plan is organized into two distinct zones: an Ecological Core that manages water, connects parks users to nature, and provides critical habitat; and an Urban Edge, where new amenities such as state-of-the-art athletic fields and signature playgrounds attract visitors from across the street and across the country.
First steps include repaving the park roads, repairing the roof on the Guardhouse, and hiring a park manager to work collaboratively with partners to care for and program the park in new, engaging ways. In addition, the Philadelphia International Airport has committed to help implement a 40-acre mitigation wetland that will provide important wildlife habitat and access to nature. Additional improvements will be implemented in phases over several years, so there’s likely to be something new to see here for many years to come.
Adapted from text by Melissa Romero, courtesy of Fairmount Park Conservancy. Cover image courtesy of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.