Climate case study: Flooding in FDR Park

Context: FDR Park is a sprawling park located at the southernmost point of South Philly, not far from where the Schuylkill River joins the Delaware River. I visited it for the first time on my first pandemic birthday, and have since become a member and a volunteer. As I’ve pulled weeds and picked trash, I’ve become closely acquainted with the impacts of climate change on this vital public space. At the same time, I’ve become aware of how much I don’t know about the causes and consequences of the impacts I’ve observed. This post is more about questions than answers, but there may be a follow-up post as I learn more.

At the end of October, I donned heavy hiking boots and went to weed in FDR Park–an experience that will be recapped in the next post. There had been heavy rains the night before, and my blessedly waterproof boots sank into the mud as I pulled up opportunistic vines.

Afterward, I met up with a friend and took a stroll around the large central lake. Water spilled over the banks and lapped at the paved sidewalks. Flocks of misplaced ducks sulked on concrete benches instead of paddling along the underbrush. I kept stopping to snap photos; it was beautiful, and a little apocalyptic.

I knew, from walking alongside and talking to the park staff during volunteer sessions, that most of the park lies in tidal wetlands slightly below sea level. Its shallow lakes are all manmade, scooped out of the marsh and lined with concrete, and its grassy meadows are actually landfill that transformed what was once a river island into an extension of South Philadelphia in the 1920s. But if its natural state is a tidal marsh, I wondered, is it not its nature to flood? How bad could flooding be?

I didn’t have too long to wait for my questions to become part of a heated local conversation.

In 2021, FDR Park received a $500,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and in November the Fairmount Park Conservancy posted to their blog about how they would spend it: These 5 projects will make FDR Park more resilient to climate change (My Philly Park Blog, November 2, 2021). This post addressed some of my questions about why the park floods: not simply because of where and what it is, but also because the infrastructure supporting the park is insufficient to manage stormwater, especially considering climate change impacts like increased precipitation and rising groundwater which we are already starting to see. Case in point: in the lower right of this graphic, there’s one little tide gate, partially inoperable, that is tasked with draining the park. Also, while you can’t miss the elevated expressway and can even hear it from the park’s most isolated clearings, I never thought about how its proximity impacts the park environment. This explains why I sometimes have to fish broken-off bumpers and other car parts out of the lakes.

Over the next few weeks, I started to hear more bits and pieces about the plan. I got an email from the Philadelphia airport describing their contribution to rehabilitating a wetlands areas south of the park–the airport is a mere 5 miles downriver from FDR Park, so it makes sense that they would need to partner on cultivating land and plantlife that can absorb more stormwater and rising river water while minimizing erosion and flooding. I also got an email from the Fairmount Park Conservancy about plans to support FDR Park’s human visitors with concessions, equipment rentals, and new trails and pathways. Every communication emphasized two goals: repairing and rebuilding the park’s natural resources, like the wetlands, and simultaneously making park recreation more accessible. Take a virtual tour of the FDR Park Plan (My Philly Park Blog, December 8, 2021)

At the same time, I started to hear pushback on the plan. Philly’s plan to build soccer fields and a driving range in FDR Park is sparking opposition (Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 2021). Most of the opposition to the new park plan centers around the Meadows, a former golf course that opened to the public during the pandemic. Teams of volunteers–including myself–have been hard at work in the meadows for the last two years, creating play spaces and picnic glades and signage for the trails through the rewilding fields, overtaken by flowers and vines since the golf course closed. The park plan involves re-landscaping this acreage and repurposing it for new recreational aims: different trails and walks, and also sports fields. The sports fields in particular drive concern about losing the park’s natural resources; I even signed one of the petitions against them myself, worried about the environmental impact of large events.

The case of FDR Park speaks to the complexity of climate change mitigation, and the tough decisions city and state leadership will continually need to protect public resources like parks. On January 20, the Fairmount Park Conservancy hosted a Virtual Open House featuring park staff, Conservancy staff, and local representatives who were instrumental in securing the grant. They walked through the plan, emphasizing that natural resources like the lakes, woods, and lowercase-m meadows will be intertwined with the trails and sports fields. When the open house shifted to a Q&A, the frustration and worry was palpable in the questions: where will we go to walk? where will go to play? what will happen to the spaces we have fallen in love with? The staff kept returning to their main points: the park cannot and will not remain as it is now. The rivers will rise, extreme precipitation events will soak the ground. To preserve the park for all its diverse local residents to enjoy, it will have to change.

I love this park, perhaps the Meadows most of all. It has been astonishing and transcendent to watch the former golf course be reclaimed by plant and animal life, a source of joy and pride during this long period of isolation and anxiety. I learned to identify and harvest edible plants in the Meadows. I’ve taken countless curious friends along its trails. I’ve sprawled in the grass to feel the early spring sun on my face, listening to birdsong. I’ve picked garbage out of tangled grasses and frightened brown snakes that had taken up residence in it. Once I helped dig a hole and planted the frame of an enormous kangaroo sculpture made of natural grasses. I feel a sense of ownership of the park that comes of both hard work and discovery.

But as romantic as it is is to see that acreage reclaimed by nature, it isn’t so romantic to see it claimed by groundwater. All its big broad-leaved trees, lovingly labeled by volunteers, struggle to thrive in the water-saturated soil. After a heavy rain you can’t walk the trails at all.

And as sad as I will be to see this landscape transformed, I am coming around to the idea that conservation and preservation aren’t sufficient to protect the natural resources–even landscaped, planned environments like FDR Park. To ride out this age of accelerated climate change impacts, we too have to change.


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