Create Public Riverfronts

Guarantee public access for recreation on riverfronts.

Philadelphia has an extraordinary opportunity to create a public waterfront along the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers that will strengthen river neighborhoods; provide miles of trails, parks, boardwalks, and wetlands for residents and visitors to enjoy; and at the same time improve water quality. The city's rivers served for over a century as a leading location for industry, but manufacturing use has declined in past decades. Miles of strategically located land”700 acres on the North Delaware Riverfront alone”sit blighted, vacant, or underused. By taking advantage of this moment of change, the city can create greenways, continuous green bands of land along the water's edge, which would open up portions of the rivers to residents for the first time in more than a century.


To create vibrant, active greenways along its two major rivers, the city should take three immediate, high-impact actions. First, it should enact new zoning regulations for the riverfronts that require developers to locate construction farther back from the water's edge and preserve public access.

Second, it should approach existing owners about donating legal rights of way across riverfront land. Several owners of industrial properties already have offered to do so. Third, the city should monitor the rivers' water quality and quickly raise a red flag and notify the public when water quality could be harmful to users. Minimal costs are associated with each of these steps, and each would help Philadelphia create new waterfront destinations, revitalize surrounding neighborhoods, and provide economic benefits to the city as a whole.

The city should rezone riverfronts to require public access and to reserve waterfront land for public use. The city should rezone the Delaware and Schuylkill waterfronts to require developers to set their buildings at least 100 feet back from the water's edge and preserve that land for public use. While the Philadelphia Planning Commission has created guidelines for land use along the waterfront, the city should adopt a mandatory requirement stating that all developers must reserve a public waterfront.

Approach riverfront owners to request a legal right of way to the waterfront and land for the proposed greenway. The city should contact each owner of riverfront property and request the donation of a legal right of way across his or her land at the waterfront. After reading the Pennsylvania Environmental Council's exciting and detailed plan for creating a connected green corridor along the Delaware, and after seeing the Schuylkill River Park (Schuylkill Banks), a living example of a greenway, owners will see the benefits of having their properties become part of a public waterfront.

Raise awareness and notify river users of unsafe water quality in rivers and streams by raising a red flag. As recreational opportunities along the rivers increase, the city must also continue to improve water quality and create a clear, effective notification system to let river users know when water quality is unsafe. Raising a red flag at popular spots along the rivers has proven to be a cost-effective way to notify river users that raw sewage has entered the water and that users may be exposed to viruses, bacteria, and toxic substances.

Other cities, including Pittsburgh and Boston, have found that putting up well-lit red flags at strategic points along the most used and populated areas of the rivers can stop unsafe river use and raise public awareness about the need to protect river quality.14 This system will build upon the Water Department's current notifications, which are posted on its website.