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Balancing Access and Stewardship in Wissahickon Valley Park

Updated: Jul 31, 2022

By Charlie McCabe

I just spent six days in Philadelphia, attending the Greater and Greener Urban Parks Conference. In addition to copious opportunities for networking and a wide variety of speakers and sessions, a key draw for me is always the ability to get out with local experts and explore the host city's parks and open spaces. You learn so much more from walking and talking and listening to questions and answers that come up versus most indoor-session panels, and you often get to interact with people who are doing the work day-in and day-out.

I went on four field trips and two were to Wissahickon Valley Park. I only learned of this park last year, when I was staying overnight in Philadelphia and met up with a friend for an evening walk around her neighborhood. (The Wissahickon connects with the larger Fairmount Park that hugs both sides of the Schuylkill River, connecting to downtown Philadelphia.)

I was blown away: 1,800 acres with tree-covered hills and valleys with a stream running through it, as well as historic buildings, rustic stone bridges, and a variety of people out hiking, running, and biking on the short hike. I knew that I had to return and learn more. Fortunately, the Greater and Greener conference gave me the opportunity. (The next one is in Seattle, June 15-18, 2024.)

The Friends of the Wissahickon, a nonprofit parks organization that works with the City of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, led the tours. While Saturday's longer tour included a hike and lunch through the southern end of the park, the Tuesday afternoon tour focused on the Friends' efforts to maintain the trails and the area of Devil's Pool, a popular destination for many Philadelphia area residents. (On July 4, 2021, their automated counters recorded over 1,400 people walking the one-half mile trail from the trailhead parking lot to the pool.) During an average summer, their seasonal staff and volunteers collect over three tons of trash from that area alone.

Officially, there's no swimming allowed in Philadelphia parks (apart from swimming pools and spraygrounds), but truly banning or closing off Devil's Pool would be nearly impossible. Plus, as Ruffian Tittman, FOW's Executive Director explained, Philadelphia has one of the highest poverty rates in any major U.S. city and keeping the city's green spaces open and accessible is key. So the Friends focus on caring for the park in general and for a safe and accessible Devil's Pool in particular, year-round, using a variety of techniques from educational signage to advising people of the challenging hike to and from the pool, to handing out trash bags and asking visitors to help keep the pool area (and by extension, the entire 1,800-acre park), as clean and safe as they can.

Nonprofit organizations like the Friends of the Wissahickon exist in many cities across the U.S. They are often staffed by true beleivers in parks, open space, and the need for people to get outside and engage with nature, even at a small scale. They, like the public park agencies, have been challenged during the last few years with record visitation, reduced income, and the same pandemic-oriented issues that we all have. And yet, they continue to head back into our parks, trails, and open spaces, armed with friendly advice, tools, gloves, and so many trash bags to help keep our parks open and accessible to all. Its inspiring and I'm grateful to be able to count myself as a parks advocate and volunteer.

© Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

See my other posts in this series on public park partnerships across the US.

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