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Philly Community Groups Face Significant Barriers to Creating Public Amenities Like Parklets and Pedestrian Plazas

September 18, 2019


Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation today released Catalyzing Community Capacity: How Philadelphia Can Create Equitable Right-of-Way Stewardship, a report on how to improve the city’s current processes for communities to create parklets, pedestrian plazas and bike corrals.

The report identifies significant barriers for the expansion of right-of-way (ROW) stewardship, where communities create and maintain public amenities within city streets. It also proposes steps city and community leaders can take to overcome them, particularly in underserved communities.

The report draws from dozens of interviews with local community development professionals, city staff working on these issues and national leaders in public space and placemaking. It balances practical, local feedback with aspirational best practices from peer cities in an effort to further Philadelphia’s rich tradition of community-driven design and stewardship.

Among its recommendations are:

  • Streamlining ROW processes, including identifying primary points of city staff contact, consolidating responsibility for review and approval, the creation of a “kit of parts” and preapproved open-source designs, among other refinements.
  • Creating ROW stewardship program guidebooks to improve usability, as has been effective in other cities.
  • Increasing education and outreach guided by equity indicators, data-driven prioritization and data transparency, providing a foundation for incremental improvement using data to tailor and target information and services to meet equity goals.
  • Building capacity within the city administration to support the ROW Stewardship Program through a dedicated staff member and working toward increased ROW capacity through additional staffing overseen by a senior-level staff leadership.
  • Exploring the creation of a new ROW stewardship-focused organization dedicated to gathering and distributing resources to manage, promote, and process community requests in collaboration, not competition, with additional city staff.

We are optimistic that with clearer, more efficient processes and increased, strategically deployed capacity, Philadelphians will benefit from this report’s recommendations,” said Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, lead researcher and project manager at the Lindy Institute, “and Philadelphia will serve as a model for others trying to maximize the impact of limited resources.”


The Lindy Institute began this study in 2018 to document the current state of right-of-way improvements in Philadelphia. Researchers found a number of significant barriers to ROW improvement in the city, some unique to Philadelphia, though many are common in urban areas across the country. Notable findings include:

  • City departments within Philadelphia currently lack capacity to foster a nurturing environment for increased ROW stewardship through education and outreach, despite positive intentions and support from municipal staff.
  • Community development leaders are frustrated and looking for quick, cost-effective improvements to the ROW, reporting pain points caused by lack of capacity in the form of time and expertise, access to capital for initial construction, and/or ongoing maintenance and daunting guidelines.
  • ROW stewardship is viewed as “inherently inequitable” and is largely the province of well- resourced business improvement districts or community development corporations with staff or volunteers experienced in construction, urban planning, insurance, or other fields, limiting geographic impact to only the most well-resourced neighborhoods, like University City, where most of these improvements currently exist. 

Philadelphia currently has four pedestrian plazas, 11 parklets and ten bike corrals created and stewarded by community members.

bike corral

“We hope this report advances equitable community creation and stewardship of the city’s streets and have no doubt that, with catalytic resources, Philadelphia’s neighborhood stewards will harness their civic power to lead and innovate in shaping their streetscape for decades to come,” said Lindy Institute associate director Ryan Debold.

This project was conducted with the support of the William Penn Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Poor Richard’s Charitable Trust. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funders.


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