Pennsylvania has two coastlines, did you know that? The tidal portion of the Delaware River connects via Delaware Bay to the Atlantic. Though it’s freshwater, it experiences a daily tidal influence of six feet. The other coastline is Lake Erie, with the jewel of Presque Isle State Park.
Sadly, the tidal Delaware has had minimal public access and no state parks, though it has lots of scenic and recreational value augmented by three centuries of industrial use. Today, it’s a place in transition from its industrial and maritime past.
Recently, I spent a day on the river touring with leaders of the William Penn Foundation (WPF), a Philadelphia-based family foundation, and non-profit grantees to learn about this transformation-in-the-making from the mouths of the partners doing the work. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation and New Jersey Conservation Foundation were also represented on the tour.
The future of the environmental movement depends on these sorts of investments in a changing society, as we re-imagine our relationship to places that had been dumping grounds and cesspools.
The WPF is interested in environmental enhancement and education in urban communities, and has invested heavily in the river’s transformation. PEC has been deeply involved in the work. We helped establish the Riverfront North Partnership that is transforming Northeast Philadelphia’s riverfront with new parks and trails according to a master plan PEC supported and led. To see this work come to fruition is just amazing!
We saw former industrial sites redeveloped as parks and riverfront access, serving as anchors for adjacent neighborhoods. One of these, a former concrete mixing plant, has a hardened river bank formed from the daily dumping of concrete tailings into the river. This curious artifact of waste and pollution from a bygone era will now serve as the platform for a boardwalk and fishing pier.
Another site, a former Reading Railroad coal shipping facility now famously known as “Graffiti Pier,” has been (illegally) visited by thousands of Philadelphians over the years. While not all of these visitors left their mark on its pillars, all must have been impressed by the beauty of the river and the might of the sturdy, if deteriorating, railroad infrastructure. Now, the site has been acquired to create a park that will showcase the industrial ruins and interpret the past for a new generation.
Why is this important? The Tidal Delaware Riverfront represents an opportunity to connect literally millions of Pennsylvanians, including many lower-income and multicultural residents, to a natural resource and to build their connection to the environment. The future of the environmental movement depends on these sorts of investments in a changing society, as we re-imagine our relationship to places that had been dumping grounds and cesspools. It’s a beautiful thing to witness the transformation in real time, knowing that it took years of planning and advocacy by PEC and others to make it happen.