Dear Morris Arboretum,
I have a lot of fun memories at Morris Arboretum. It’s the perfect place for family reunions. (The fernery is always a hit.) And I’ve also been there on a date, a highschool field trip and a birthday celebration, and it never gets old. It’s no wonder that you attract 130,000 visits a year. It is, however, odd that nearly all of these visits will be made by motor vehicle.
Morris Arboretum is an urban preserve, nestled into the corner of Philadelphia, just feet away from transit and pedestrian corridors. This is an asset you clearly appreciate, since according to your website, you offer a fantastic 50% discount for people arriving without a car. With such an amazing offer, it’s a wonder that there’s even a single car in the parking lot. And yet, few take you up on the offer. Why? Because to a pedestrian, the journey to Morris is needlessly unwelcoming.
The nearest active transit stop from the park’s entrance is at Germantown Pike and Northwestern Ave. It’s served by the 97 (running hourly to Conshohoken and Norristown) as well as the popular L (running half-hourly from Olney Transportation Center to Plymouth Meeting). If traveling to the arboretum on one of these routes, visitors must walk along the narrow sidewalk of Northwestern Ave, where cars move quickly due to the road’s high design speed. Then, they must climb up a long, winding driveway with no sidewalk. It’s not impossible, of course. People do it sometimes, including myself. But to the 1/3 of households in Philadelphia without a car (especially families, and the mobility impaired), it sends a very clear message that Morris Arboretum was designed exclusively for automotive entry.
But it wasn’t. The arboretum was created before the motor age, and I think no one would be more disappointed with the current arrangement than John and Lydia Morris themselves. For easy pedestrian entry, they placed a gate at the corner of Germantown and Hillcrest, feet away from a stop on the 23A and 23B trolley routes. Today, this stop is still there and served by the L and 97. And while I’m not a huge fan of Chestnut Hill College’s driveway project, it will soon allow the stop to become wheelchair accessible. For people walking from Chestnut Hill, this gate is 1 mile closer than the arboretum’s gate along Northwestern Ave. Unfortunately, it’s always locked. The vehicle entrance is the one that leads to the parking lot, so that’s the one where tickets are collected.
I assume that Morris Arboretum can not afford to place a staff member or volunteer at two separate entrances. However, there may be a less labor intensive solution. For under $400, Morris Arboretum could purchase a remotely activated latch lock, and install it onto the current gate. One of the gates would be anchored into place with a peg into the walkway (allowing it to be opened for special vehicles) while the other could swing freely. Then, you could attach a standard camera and doorbell home security system, which comes included with an app. With accompanying signage, visitors would be instructed to press the doorbell. Then, any staff member with the app would be alerted and be able to communicate with the visitors through the speaker. You could also place a box underneath the doorbell to drop paper tickets into, in view of the camera. Or for tickets purchased online, people could show their phone. (It would also be great if the walk-in discount was shown on the reservations page.) Then, simply unlock the gate and let them in. To make sure it gets closed, you can connect a spring to the swinging gate.
But will people really begin visiting Morris Arboretum without a car? If the Hillcrest gate is reactivated, I know they will. For inspiration, look no further than the Philadelphia Zoo. On a busy day at the zoo, stand at the stop along SEPTA’s route 15, and you’ll see family after family getting on and off, and walking to the zoo’s entrance, only a couple hundred feet away. Now, imagine if this summer, the zoo locked its front gate and told visitors to instead walk 0.7 miles to the south entrance. Now imagine if, instead of the wide, tree-lined sidewalk along 34th St, it was just a narrow sidewalk, at parts curbless and flush with the roadway. If they did this, they would be publicly condemned.
Right now, Morris Arboretum literally turns its back on the city of Philadelphia. But with only a small effort, you could tap into SEPTA’s vast transportation network, dramatically improving the visitor experience. Instead of making pedestrian patrons feel uncomfortable and forgotten, Morris Arboretum’s pedestrian entrance can feel special, almost magical. The gate opens up, you walk through the trees down the accessible pathway and emerge onto the English Garden. A sanctuary for humanity at the edge of the city, just as the Morrises intended.
Alex is a 5th Square member and an urban planning student at Rutgers University.