Off the beaten path

Nine thousand and two hundred acres of publicly accessible land. Sixty-two neighborhood and regional parks. Hundreds of miles of trails. One city – Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park system is one of the largest city parks in

Nine thousand and two hundred acres of publicly accessible land. Sixty-two neighborhood and regional parks. Hundreds of miles of trails. One city – Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park system is one of the largest city parks in the nation.

From trout fishing to mountain biking to monumental historic sites, the park has outdoor treasures for everyone to discover.

According to Barry Bessler, executive director of the Fairmount Park system, that diverse characteristic is exactly what Fairmount Park prides itself in.

“We have 100 or so ball fields, historic houses dating back to colonial times and wilderness areas where [when in the middle of] you’d never believe you’re in the fifth largest city in the country,” Bessler said. “The thing that makes the Fairmount Park system so unique is that diversity.”

The story of Fairmount Park’s mission begins with Philadelphia’s old friend, William Penn. Penn’s original blueprint for a “green town” was based around five squares, each corresponding to different geographic sections within the city (Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest and Central).

Today those squares are better known as Rittenhouse, Washington, Logan and Franklin Squares – all named for Philadelphia’s important historical figures. The fifth and central square is presently City Hall.

Aside from these miniature getaways located in the heart of the city, Fairmount Park also encompasses vast tracks of land such as Wissahickon Valley Park and Pennypack Park. Both of these sections of Fairmount Park include over 1,700 acres of public land within themselves. Visitors of these portions can really find some breathing room.

“It’s fantastic,” said Dave Scheid, a Mt. Airy resident and frequent hiker at the Wissahickon Valley Park. “It’s very unique, like an oasis – a place to get away to experience the calm of wilderness. It’s quiet; you hear the bustling water [and] leaves blowing. I love it here.”

Scheid isn’t alone in his opinion. Jimmy Flail and Amy Buckenmayer, both residents of the Philadelphia area, also appreciate the escape from big buildings, busy streets and uncomfortable suits.

“The benefit, aside from just the calming effect, is that it’s a nice place to get away, just for the day, from the heavy grind, especially in an urban environment,” Flail said. “You forget about everything. It’s quiet, serene, beautiful – perfect.”
In some instances, the city is totally forgotten.

That is, in a good way of course.

“You’re in one of the biggest cities in the United States and you can walk out to some parts [of Fairmount Park] and think you’re in the wilderness of Colorado,” said Bill Sullivan, a Philadelphia resident and frequenter of the Wissahickon Valley.

Another benefit for city residents is that different portions of the park system are virtually within walking distance for everyone that lives in Philadelphia. Therefore, the park experiences its fair share of usage, and this is one issue that Bessler and his staff constantly grapple with.

“That remains our greatest challenge and has been for a long time,” Bessler said. “I mean, we have a park system that is very heavily used. There’s a lot of demand placed on the use of the park, and with that demand comes different things that all have to be dealt with under the umbrella of ‘impact on the park.'”

A lack of funds also adds to the challenge of maintaining the park system.

“There’s always the difficulty of not having enough money to care for the system and all the amenities to the level that we would like to see them cared for,” Bessler said.

“We have 469 individual building structures, and that’s not to include any other manmade structures such as bridges, walls and fences.”

Fortunately, for the park’s sake, there are organizations that care about maintaining that level of quality Bessler and the park commission are so committed to.

“We have nearly 100 different friends and support groups, and a couple hundred of what we call ‘partner organizations’ that in one way or another have something to do with the park,” Bessler said.

Friends of the Wissahickon is one active organization that dedicates itself to the conservation “of the natural beauty and wildness of the Wissahickon Valley.”

Consisting of 1,300 members in all, the non-profit group provides both historical and environmental information
on the Wissahickon Valley specifically. Pennypack Park also has an environmental center, as does the Andorra Natural Area.

According to Bessler, the unique character of Fairmount Park couldn’t be possible without partner organizations and institutions such as these.

“They have been a great asset of ours, and over the last 20 years, the number of these organizations has about tripled,”
Bessler said. “They have taken up the slack in a lot of cases and we are tremendously grateful for that; and quite frankly, we’re in a situation where we couldn’t do it without them.”

In fact, Bessler ended the interview on the final note that Fairmount Park has friends across the globe.

“People – internationally – know of the Fairmount Park System because of what it has to offer,” Bessler said. And that’s something that really gives new meaning to the City of Brotherly Love.

So as the story of Fairmount Park continues, Penn’s vision of a “green town” can still be seen today. Even though those natural spaces may be tangled within the concrete and iron of city life, the quest Penn began to preserve wild space within the city of Philadelphia still drives the current mission of Fairmount Park today.

Looking back at his 26-year career, Bessler can attest to that.

“Our mission and our goal as an organization is to preserve and protect open space in the city of Philadelphia,” Bessler said.

“And we look to do that whenever possible. If that means acquiring a piece of land that is adjacent to an existing park, or preserving a particular piece of park ground that perhaps had been neglected for a long period of time – those are the kinds of initiatives that we carry out routinely as part of meeting the spirit of our mission.”

SEPTA offers transportation routes to and from Fairmount park. For directions to the park and more information, visit its Web site at

T.C. Mazar can be reached at

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