Catching a Wave… in a Park

Philadelphia nonprofits are catching a wave. Tidal forces like the Civic Commons project and city-wide efforts to create or revitalize community-based civic assets like parks, monuments, trails and libraries are already encouraging more social and economic integration. Like-minded organizations such as Bartram’s Garden, Smith Memorial Playground, Please Touch Museum and the Philadelphia Zoo are harnessing this newfound energy to re-examine the role Philadelphia’s venerable institutions play in impacting social good. And the results are triggering a sea change.

But how does an institution change course when boards, funders, constituents and staff can be forces of their own, fueling the status quo? In strategic planning, sometimes the best way forward is in reimagining the pieces of what you’ve always done.

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The Woodlands in West Philadelphia. Photo credit: Ryan Collerd

Take, for example, the transformation of The Woodlands, a 54-acre public park surrounded by a high fence, nestled between University City and West Philadelphia, and one of Philadelphia’s most spectacular green spaces. The gated 18th century estate turned 19th century cemetery is quite literally rich with Philadelphia’s history of innovation – over 32,000 are interred here, many of whom were Philadelphia’s notable artists, physicians and entrepreneurs, including nursing pioneer Alice Fisher, artist Thomas Eakins, world-famous surgeon Samuel Gross (also of Eakins’ The Gross Clinic fame) and Anthony J. Drexel, founder of Drexel University.

Initially the estate of William Hamilton, an enthusiastic horticulturalist and avid botanist, the tremendous 600-acre gardens were filled with 10,000 exotic species of plant life, including the first Gingko biloba tree introduced to the United States in the 1780s. Following its 1840 purchase by the founders of the Woodlands Cemetery Company, this tranquil stretch of land along the west bank of the Schuylkill River became an internment hotspot during the latter half of the 19th century – a go-to for Philadelphia’s celebrity burials, rivaling Laurel Hill Cemetery to the north.

But, as time progressed into the 20th century, The Woodlands, like many of Philadelphia’s historically remarkable institutions, found itself struggling financially. Sensing the need to adapt to the demands of the thriving urban neighborhoods which grew to surround its beatific, unchanged grounds, but wanting to retain its historic legacy and respect its presence as an active cemetery, The Woodlands faced a crossroads.

Beginning in 2012, Fairmount Ventures had the pleasure of working in tandem with The Woodlands and its executive director, Jessica Baumert, on a new strategic plan and vision, which allowed the organization to leverage a holistic perspective to spark its own Renaissance.

Related news:  Another Fairmount Ventures client Bartram’s Garden is reimagining its own transformation.  To read more, check out this story on Generocity.

The first step was aiding the organization in viewing itself in a new way: externally. This can be difficult for renowned institutions and rightfully so. They’ve made it this far on their merit. Why change? But, by dissecting current and often portentous obstacles, the iconic can become the iconoclast. The Woodlands’ nascent leadership team could clearly see the site’s unused potential, yet the organization required an impetus to think differently about its context in the midst of an urban rebirth. Fairmount embarked on a discovery phase including in-depth research and data analysis to test the leadership’s hypothesis that a focus on community access would, in fact, positively impact the site’s historical authenticity. The result of this work provided convincing argument as to why The Woodlands should venture down this new path. With approval from the Board, The Woodlands set about deconstructing itself and analyzing its tangible assets to create a useful and necessary resource for West Philadelphia.

A summer festival at The Woodlands. Photo credit: Ryan Collerd

A summer festival at The Woodlands. Photo credit: Ryan Collerd

Taking an outside perspective, The Woodlands’ leadership team ascertained that in addition to an historic, idyllic cemetery, the space is a huge, beautiful open space in a densely populated urban environment. There was an imminent need for an oasis hidden amidst the burdens of day-to-day city life, and a demand for increased space for outdoor recreation and personal reflection. By metaphorically tearing down the high fence surrounding it, The Woodlands positioned itself as a welcoming, public park. Today, The Woodlands is still a Victorian cemetery. But, it is also a space for children to learn how to ride bikes. Runners, birders and dog walkers visit daily. Festivals, craft fairs and performance artists inspire and delight attendees among the well-manicured landscape. The solution was reimagining a relatively obscure, fenced-off landmark as being able to provide the crucial amenities of a neighborhood park and meeting space.

Fairmount Ventures has had a hand in the reconception of many of Philadelphia’s eminent institutions, including The Woodlands; the cemetery’s transformation is one part of a newly dreamt city. A single institution alone cannot make waves. Institutions catch waves by implementing a strategic approach with an external mindset agreeable to decisive, internal change. The city’s nonprofit community should continue this momentum. When organizations of distinction move beyond their traditional points of view and analyze their assets to satisfy a community’s needs, the community at large experiences a sea change of social good.