Philadelphia's Sister Cities Park: An Urban Oasis On Logan Square


Author: Inga Saffron

05/26/2012 - Logan Square, one of William Penn’s original city parks, hasn’t been a true square since the early 20th century, when the city began plowing the Ben Franklin Parkway through Center City’s northwest quadrant. The heart of the square was turned into one of the world’s most elegant traffic circles, home to Alexander Stirling Calder’s Swann Fountain, while the remaining pieces were cast adrift, an archipelago of mournful traffic islands, uninhabited and bleak.

The Center City District has made a mission out of reclaiming those pieces, starting a few years ago on the west side with the scooped trapezoid called Aviator Park, opposite the Franklin Institute. Now, working its way east, it has just rescued the orphan outside the chocolate-colored Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, a space that goes by the name of Sister Cities Park. The transformation of this tiny shard of land amounts to a small miracle.

Designed by Bryan Hanes Studio and Digsau, two young Philadelphia firms that were practically start-ups when the project began, the bare-bones tribute to Philadelphia’s 10 “sister cities” has been reconfigured into a multifunctional, multigenerational refuge. Sister Cities Park captures the refined whimsy of Paris’ Luxembourg Gardens and packs it into a space a quarter the size of Rittenhouse Square. Yet the new park manages to feel cozy and open all at once.

It’s hard to believe that such a small site — 1.75 acres — can accommodate this many activities. You can now climb a mountain in Hanes’ delightful children’s garden, launch toy sailboats on great adventures in the pond, dodge a gusher of water in the splash fountain, and then repair to Digsau’s crisply elegant pavilion for lunch. (That is, if the cafe operator, Milk & Honey, doesn’t run out of food, as it did the day I visited.) With all these options, there is still plenty of room left for a broad lawn, shaded by mature London Plane trees saved from the park’s previous incarnation.

The $5.2 million overhaul is among several public improvements organized in advance of the Barnes Foundation’s arrival at the northwest corner of Logan Square, and was paid for with grants from private donors and state agencies. Initially, it was seen as a way station for tourists making the desolate, 1.2-mile trek along the Parkway between City Hall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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