The Schuylkill Survey: Local Transects of Pennsylvania River Towns

Sandy Sorlien, New Urban Network

Today a journey starts. In regular installments to the New Urban Network over the next year, I'll take readers along the length of the Schuylkill River to visit twenty towns and cities. We'll start in my hometown Philadelphia and meander upriver to the source near Pottsville, Pennsylvania - home of Yuengling beer and a grand, if distressed, Main Street.

The journey itself is a transect, small t. Like biologists and ecologists, I'll follow a path through the environment - in this case the river - for the purpose of sampling specific habitats along the way. Yet my local Synoptic Surveys will use the rural-to-urban Transect, capital T, the new urbanist analytical and coding framework that works at the scale of the neighborhood. In traveling from South Philly to Manayunk to Norristown to Reading to Schuylkill Haven, we'll examine the fine grain of the Transect Zones (habitats for humans) in each place, and sample local settlement variations within one 100-mile region. We'll compare elements of the Transect-based SmartCode from an intense major city to a small upcountry village. What elements in these traditional settlements coexist to support local character?  What's the difference between the T-5 character in Pottstown (home of back-in diagonal parking and Tom Hylton's 2500 street trees) and the T-5 along colonial-to-21st-century Walnut Street in Center City Philadelphia? For that matter, what's the difference between two different T-5 Urban Centers within the same municipality?

We'll look at economics, too; it's unavoidable. Has the demise of the coal, steel, and textile industries in this region changed the form of the towns over time, or has it preserved them for adaptive reuse, and for our study? Manayunk turned its fieldstone mills, respectfully, into brewpubs and bike shops and Banana Republic (R.I.P. 2009). What did Phoenixville do with its massive ironworks? Will all these riverfronts recover from the loss of the coal trade coming downriver from the mountains? Will the nearly-completed Schuylkill River Trail  help save them?

I decided the Schuylkill would guide this, my next road trip, because it combines several interests. For thirty years I've photographed the built environment, and for six years have coded it with the SmartCode. Last summer, I began rowing on the Schuylkill from one of its storied "barge clubs" on Boathouse Row, which is a National Historic Landmark. A few times a week I'm sculling between two greenways of Fairmount Park, under a double bridge carrying Amtrak and the restored Girard Avenue trolley, past cormorants, ducks, and herons, past brigades of turtles sunning themselves on logs. The river animals are unperturbed by the squeaking seats of our boats and the splash of our oars. That's my T-1, or at least my Civic Space. Since I began rowing I've learned things about the river, like when the flow is too fast, what combination of wind speed and direction creates whitecaps, where the flood stage is, and what oddities it carries. One day last month apparently there was a religious offering to the river; we rowed past bobbing oranges, apples, roses and lilies. Prettier than the usual jetsam. 

Historically, my riverside neighborhood is two, Manayunk and Roxborough. Manayunk is the more urban part of my pedestrian shed; it's all attached dwellings where the mill workers lived near the river and canal (T4 and T5 zones), while Roxborough atop the hill, where mill managers and owners lived, includes the classic TND allocation of T3-T4-T5. In the center of Roxborough, which is served by a skinny two-lane pedestrian-friendly main street, we find the mix of types and metric ranges of the model SmartCode. Though it's a big-city neighborhood, contiguous and well-connected by transit with other neighborhoods, it retains the form of the small town it once was.

Here are photographs of a Roxborough transect (images d, e, f), the sort that can be included in the Synoptic Survey  when analyzing local DNA to write a code. Photographs help prove that the code's DNA actually came from that place.

Our T-4 is laced with yield streets, narrow two-ways with parking on both sides. They provide multiple travel routes for outstanding connectivity, creating a veritable wetlands for the absorption of traffic. My team's measurements with the surveyor's wheel revealed that they exactly match the 26' assembly found in Table 3B of the v9.2 SmartCode (see the assembly and actual yield street, images g and h). It could be used in a code for this area without additional customization. In future posts for The Schuylkill Survey, we'll see if that's true elsewhere.

Building & frontage
One of the primary tasks of a Synoptic Survey in transect analysis is to catalog the basic local types (species), the symbiotic elements of each environment. Philadelphia is famously a city of rowhouses, and the various subtypes of attached housing create a wide range of habitats, even within one T-4 zone.  The differences in lot widths, setbacks, and frontage types, and the accommodations for steep hills in Manayunk/Roxborough, should be analyzed for any code protecting the character of this area. And parking location is crucial; compare local rowhouse frontages i and j with transect-busting garage frontages k and l.

Although I've lived in this area for 56 years and grew up a mile from the river, I haven't visited all the Schuylkill towns yet, so I don't know whether all these urban rowhouse types persist as we move upstream. I don't know how urban form changes in the towns as the topography, economy, and settlement scale changes in the Schuylkill River Valley.

I don't know what's up there. Let's find out.

PS:  Almost forgot - it's pronounced "Skookul."

Sandy Sorlien is a photographer and urban code writer from Philadelphia.