William Penn at 375: How Philadelphia became a model for American cities


This week Pennsylvania’s founder turns 375 years old. The ghost of William Penn may possibly have celebrated the occasion from his stately resting spot, which is all the way across the ocean in Buckinghamshire, England.

Just after practically 4 centuries, Penn’s efforts nevertheless play a significant function in modern day life — and we’re not just speaking about the way his City Hall statue appears like it has a boner when viewed from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Amongst his greatest accomplishments is, of course, Philadelphia. What, you believed the greatest city in the globe just occurred? The Quaker leader planned our metropolis meticulously.

Philadelphia is broadly identified as the earliest try at “utopian city organizing,” aka a city with a purposely crafted and curated center.

Penn dreamed that Philly, even though urban, would nevertheless appear like “a greene nation towne, which will by no means be burnt and constantly wholesome.” (We’ve accomplished ok living up to that purpose — other than that time a guy ate horse poop off the street immediately after the Eagles won the Super Bowl.)

Some of Penn’s proposals and creations have lasted to this day, and naturally, some did not. Here’s how Penn’s vision has manifested in Philadelphia.

'A portraiture of the city of Philadelphia in the province of Pennsylvania in America' by Thomas Holme, 1683
Haverford College Libraries by means of Hidden City

Like several fantastic stories, Philadelphia’s origin begins with settling a debt.

In March of 1681, King Charles II couldn’t afford to spend back some cash he owed to Penn’s dad. But he had one thing else to give.

There was a bunch of land southwest of Jersey and north of Baltimore that Chuck wasn’t utilizing. To make factors even with Sir Penn the Senior, he gave the territory to Billy and told him to do what ever he pleased.

The 37-year-old Penn was all of a sudden the proud new owner of 45,000 square miles of land. Initial, he decided to set up an urban center at the spot exactly where the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers met, figuring it would be easiest to establish a mecca for trade.

With the assistance of protege Thomas Holme, Penn mapped out a two-mile-wide rectangle of land bordered on each sides by fresh, flowing water. Say hello to Center City.

Philadelphia’s nearly totally typical street grid didn’t occur by accident. Aside from a handful of arterial roadways and rogue neighborhood pathways, the city’s central core boasts streets so aligned that they appear like they went to military college.

Intersected by a handful of wide roadways, the numerous side streets had been made to be the identical width — “uniform down to the water.” The lots had been spaced out completely on a map, with sufficient area to make a house in the middle and gardens on either side.

It is so fantastic that a century later, Washington, D.C. made its grid the identical way. For that, we can thank our pal Billy.

If you are hunting at Philly from above, you will notice there are 4 Center City parks — every single 1 a mirror image reflected across the central streets of Broad and Marketplace. That is not an accident.

Penn believed up the concept of getting “public squares” in his city. Every single park would inject a neighborhood of Philadelphia with a dose of green space:

  • Logan Square (now Logan Circle)
  • Franklin Square
  • Washington Square
  • Rittenhouse Square

There’s also the center square, which immediately after Penn’s death became house to City Hall.

All of this fed into his vision of a “greene nation towne,” which was crucially vital to Penn. His native London was devastated by fire and plague in the 1600s, and he brainstormed that much more green space would avert the speedy spread of such catastrophes in his new house.

The core of Philadelphia in 2019 may possibly not appear all that green, but Penn’s 4 public parks endure — and even much more public spaces have been added.

Maybe in the modern day day, Broad Street does not appear spectacular, considering that cities and towns all more than the nation have highways and 5-lane roads. But in the 1600s, such wide streets had been entirely unheard of.

Initial amongst his urban organizing colleagues, Penn’s blueprints integrated 100-foot-wide avenues, which at the time had been broader than any street in London. Roads fronting the river had been made to be 60 feet wide, with the remaining streets had been 50 feet wide.

Some professionals say Penn was probably influenced by Richard Newcourt, a British cartographer who thought of spacious roadways in his plans for rebuilding the components of London that had burned down in the fire of 1666.

Nevertheless, Penn’s wide open streets had been revolutionary. And to this day, they’re house to some breathtaking behavior.

'A mapp of ye improved part of Pensilvania in America, divided into countyes, townships, and lotts'
Library of Congress

Ever notice a pattern to the names of Center City streets? If not, we’re about to blow your thoughts.

Going north to south, nearly all of our avenues are named immediately after varieties of trees. Even though some have been renamed, they had been made with uniformity. There’s Vine, Sassafras (now Race), Mulberry (now Arch), Higher (now Marketplace), Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Pine and Cedar (now South).

Disclaimer: In 2019, historians are not certain if the street names had been especially directed by William Penn himself. But considering that the dude made the complete grid — and considering that he appears like a significant manage freak — he extremely effectively may possibly have been involved in the naming approach.

Maybe Penn’s greatest legacy is that he left so a lot wiggle area for the modern day day. In mapping out Philly, the city architect intentionally left a entire bunch of space entirely blank — with the purpose of inspiring future improvement.

On the map designed by his protege, Holme, Center City is nearly dominated by lots that are unlabeled. These blank spaces represent area for chance.

Penn also place forth plans to incentivize development to the city’s outdoors neighborhoods.

He established a neighborhood then named the Liberty Lands, which was comprised of vacant farmland that would be provided out to the very first persons to obtain lots in Philly’s central core. That neighborhood is now identified as Northern Liberties.

More than the centuries, Penn’s vision for the Philadelphia influenced several other American metro centers.

“This program was the very first city program in the United States to supply for lengthy-term urban development,” reads a document from the American Society of Civil Engineers. “These functions inspired the planners of several cities to adopt the Philadelphia Program as a model.


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