Big puffball canopies of trees sweep past. Trains rumble by, keeping time with your step. Cars whoosh along the expressway on the opposite bank. In the evening, as the lee shore fades to black and lights flicker on, the city can feel as distant as outer space. Cars and trains devolve into abstract streaks of color. Only the lapping river is a reminder that the solid earth remains nearby.
It seems incredible that such a modest amenity could cast so powerful a spell. Built for $18 million, with none of the design acrobatics of the High Line - without even the involvement of an architect! - the boardwalk owes its existence entirely to necessity.
When the original Schuylkill Banks trail was completed exactly a decade ago, it was carved out of a narrow ribbon of land on the Schuylkill side of the CSX freight tracks. But the path had to stop at Locust Street because there wasn't a wide-enough strip beyond that point for the next leg, to South Street.
As the trail's popularity surged, the city began looking for ways to extend the amenity into the neighborhoods of South Philadelphia. One option was to suspend a deck from the bank, but that would have put the trail uncomfortably close to the trains.
The Schuylkill River Development Corp., which manages the trail, came up with an innovative solution: Push the trail out into the water on a highway-style causeway.
Over the last two and a half years, that is exactly what the city and its consultant, the engineering firm URS Corp., have built. Like an automobile causeway, the structure tiptoes through the water on caissons, drilled 40 feet down into bedrock, before connecting to a ramp that ascends to the South Street Bridge.
Together with the SRDC, the engineers spent much of their time thinking about how to place the boardwalk in the river. In the end, they located it 50 feet from shore, far enough out that you really feel you're on the water, but not so far that it interferes with boat navigation. The walkway hovers six to 12 feet above the water, depending on the tides, and is designed to withstand the flooding that has become a regular occurrence on this part of the Schuylkill.
To avoid the boring, bowling-alley effect of an unrelentingly straight path, the boardwalk meanders gently as it parallels the bank. At four spots, it widens to 23 feet to provide overlooks where people can sit or fish.
And yet, for all these amenities, it is not hard to imagine the structure somewhere along an interstate. URS, which works almost exclusively on highway projects, has clearly tried to soften the highway ambience. The surface is scored to look like a Jersey Shore boardwalk, and granite entry pillars are etched with images of native birds and fish. But in the end, the firm was unable to break free of its engineering mind-set.
The lack of a creative architectural hand should come as no surprise. The original leg of the Schuylkill Banks trail is a similarly functional, no-nonsense, design-free space, as is the South Street Bridge.
There is no doubt that the trail and the bridge are both terrific amenities that have greatly enhanced life in the city. Yet walking them now, I often have the feeling that they are still in their beta phase, waiting for their design updates. And it's not just a matter of choosing a different railing or light fixture.
Good architectural design anticipates user problems. Because it is so exciting to be out on the boardwalk, we know that it will immediately be packed with joggers, cyclists, and slow-moving pedestrians, all competing for space. The main path is already so crowded, it is nearly impossible to ride a bicycle there most times of the day.
Although the boardwalk is wider than the existing trail - 15 feet instead of 11 - the conflicts will be intense. Unlike the original path, there is no grassy shoulder for refuge. A creative design could have made provisions to address the impending crush, perhaps through level changes or strategically placed traffic-calming barriers.
And yet the boardwalk manages to transcend its weaknesses. Because of its dramatic setting, it offers an entirely new way of seeing Philadelphia.
At times, strange optical illusions appear. Midway along the boardwalk, you get a clear view down Spruce Street in West Philadelphia, with Penn's Huntsman Hall at the vanishing point. How can that be when the building is actually on Walnut Street?
That ability to provide a fresh perspective on the city is what made people fall in love with the High Line, and it's the reason that elevated parks have captured the imaginations of people around the world. Philadelphia hopes to start work on its own high line soon, at the Reading Viaduct.
Strolling the Schuylkill boardwalk produces pleasures of a different kind. Philadelphia's boardwalk exhilarates us with its limitless vista. There in front of us is the big sky and the big river, and for the moment, nothing else matters.