The American Planning Association (APA) announced the designation of Chestnut Hill as one of 10 Great Neighborhoods for 2012 under the organization’s Great Places in America program. APA Great Places exemplify exceptional character and highlight the role planning and planners play in adding value to communities, including fostering economic growth and jobs.
APA singled out Chestnut Hill for its wealth of architectural styles, deference to and preservation of the natural environment, rich heritage of community involvement and mix of residential, commercial and institutional uses. Just nine miles from Philadelphia’s Center City, easily accessible by commuter rail, Chestnut Hill is a vibrant neighborhood that has retained its historic character while adapting to the changing needs of an urban population.
Alan Greenberger, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, and Chair of the City Planning Commission said, “The City of Philadelphia is proud that APA recognizes not only the planning history of Chestnut Hill, but also the ongoing community commitment to planning and stewardship that sustains Chestnut Hill as a thriving neighborhood and regional asset.”
Through Great Places in America, APA recognizes streets, neighborhoods, and public spaces featuring unique and authentic characteristics that have evolved from years of thoughtful and deliberate planning by residents, community leaders and planners. The 2012 Great Places illustrate how the foresight of planning fosters tomorrow’s communities and they have many of the features Americans say are important to their “ideal community” including locally owned businesses, transit, neighborhood parks, and sidewalks.
Since APA began Great Places in America in 2007, 60 neighborhoods, 60 streets and 50 public spaces have been designated in 50 states and the District of Columbia. To date three other Great Places have been designated in Philadelphia: Society Hill as a 2008 Great Neighborhood; South Broad Street as a 2008 Great Street; and Rittenhouse Square as a 2010 Great Public Space.
“The harmonious integration of the natural and built environments distinguishes this Great Neighborhood,” said APA Chief Executive Officer Paul Farmer, FAICP. “Chestnut Hill’s eclectic charm comes from its uncommon assemblage of architectural styles and extensive use of indigenous building materials and native plants that blend seamlessly with the rocks, streams and forests of Wissahickon Valley,” he continued.
It was an 1868 effort to protect the City’s water supply that led to the preservation of the adjacent Wissahickon Gorge as a natural and recreational asset. Following the removal of mills and manufacturing plants, the Fairmount Park Commission established a protected watershed on 1,800 acres it had previously purchased. The introduction of trails and replanting of the native forest allowed residents to enjoy the gorge. During the Great Depression, Works Progress Administration improvements enhanced the recreational experience for those on foot or horseback.
Horses traversed the neighborhood’s 18th century roads, which followed the natural contour of the land. The street grid developed organically, giving rise to a lush yet intimate streetscape, featuring a dense tree canopy, an abundance of small gardens, and stone ornamentation, most often found in retaining walls, gates, and fountains.
Chestnut Hill’s Colonial heritage is present on nearly every block of its historic commercial corridor, Germantown Avenue, along which granite block pavers still exist. The original inns and shops form an enduring street wall. Today, planters and merchants’ displays – everything from boutique clothing to hardware – line the sidewalks of the Avenue.
The commercial district has been served by public transportation since 1854, when the first rail line connected it to Center City Philadelphia. The arrival of trains transformed the village into an elite summer retreat. The development of mansions for Philadelphia’s upper class was accompanied by construction of more modest homes for the tradesmen who helped build the neighborhood. Large or small, the houses in Chestnut Hill share a sense of proportion and quality of design that contribute to the neighborhood’s cohesive appearance. The dwellings represent virtually every architectural style and the work of many renowned Philadelphia architects or architectural firms. Mid- to late-20th century redevelopment of some larger estates, which includes garden apartments, upholds the neighborhood’s rich architectural tradition.
Many buildings and houses are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, and Chestnut Hill became a National Historic District in 1985. The Wissahickon Valley was named a National Natural Landmark in 1964. Efforts to preserve the natural and built environments continue. A 1975 watershed overlay and 2012 steep slopes overlay placed development controls on environmentally sensitive lands. Easements have preserved 70 acres of land and 12 historic façades. Neighborhood land use guidelines and urban guidelines for Germantown Avenue were crafted by the Chestnut Hill Community Association in 1982 and 1991, respectively. A 1995 commercial overlay limits building heights and widths and floor area along Germantown Avenue.
The nine other APA 2012 Great Neighborhoods are: Garden District, Baton Rouge, LA; Lower Highlands and Historic Downtown, Fall River, MA; Fells Point, Baltimore, MD; Heritage Hill, Grand Rapids, MI; Downtown Salisbury, NC; Cooper-Young, Memphis, TN; Fairmont–Sugar House, Salt Lake City, UT; Beacon Hill, Seattle, WA; and Downtown Walla Walla, WA.
For more information about these neighborhoods, as well as APA’s top 10 Great Streets and top 10 Great Public Spaces for 2012 and previous years, visit www.planning.org/greatplaces. This year’s Great Places in America are being celebrated as part of APA’s National Community Planning Month during October; for more about the special month, visit www.planning.org/ncpm.
R. David Schaaf, Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Tel. (215)-683-4658, email@example.com
Denny Johnson, APA, Tel (202)-349-1006, firstname.lastname@example.org