Every year I look forward to Outside Magazine’s Best Towns edition. It’s been a feature of the magazine for two decades now and I’ve probably read every one — discovering bucket-list destinations or receiving affirmation for places I’ve experienced before they “made the list.”
This year, the editors at Outside modified their criteria, focusing on four major categories in making their selections: diversity, sustainability, affordability, and outdoor equity. Thirteen towns/cities were named.
“We chose 13 of the country’s most diverse places according to the factors that matter today,” states the article’s introduction.
Makes sense to me. Who hasn’t had their diversity-and-equity awareness raised during the past year? And courtesy of COVID, who hasn’t gained a deeper appreciation for the indispensability of outdoor activity?
Which led me to wonder: Based on the new criteria, what would it take for Wilmington to make this list? It would sure be a selling point, for residents and prospective residents alike.
Perhaps not as strong a selling point as quality jobs, education, affordability, safety or even arts equity (See my August column), but we have organizations working on those.
Who is working on cool? And being named a Best Town by Outside would be cool.
I know what you’re thinking: Wilmington is far cry from Bozeman (Mo.). And we’re no Bend (Ore.) or Austin (Texas). Agreed, but neither is Philadelphia. And our northern neighbor made this year’s list.
“Those who see only the grit are missing all the green,” says Outside’s Kate Morgan.
Morgan classifies the 2,050-acre Fairmount Park as a “conservation triumph.” She applauds the fact that more than 40 community organizations are working together to complete the Circuit Trails — a 350-mile-long trail system connecting the city to surrounding counties. And Morgan points out that 95% of Philly residents live within a 10-minute walk of a public park.
Outside’s source for the park access statistic? A 2021 Trust for Public Land report. So, I looked up that report to see where Wilmington rated in park access. Our score: 99%, four points higher than Philly.
In the diversity measure, Outside used a complex Wallet Hub study that listed Philly at No. 95 out of the top 500. Wilmington was 228, which at a minimum puts us in the top half.
Affordability? Well, I don’t know of a person who would say Philly is more affordable than Wilmington. Sustainability? As recently as December 2019, our city released a comprehensive master plan titled “Wilmington 2028.” Sustainability is one of the plan’s five principal goals.
In other words, I don’t see the numbers as our biggest challenge. I believe it’s part reputation and part inventory. Wilmington is not known for being a cool town for outdoor activity. And we need to create more cool and inclusive outdoor public spaces.
In other words, we need more things like the Markell Trail. Anyone who has experienced this trail, which takes you from the Wilmington Riverfront to Historic New Castle (including an elevated boardwalk over marshland), would concede it is cool. However, the magic of the Markell isn’t just the wow factor, it’s the diversity of users. Everyone feels welcome on that trail, so everyone uses it.
And the Markell isn’t our only inclusive outdoor asset. There’s the Riverwalk, the Rock Lot, Northern Delaware Greenway Trail, Brandywine Park, and the Peterson Wildlife Refuge, to name a few.
However, the timing is right to expand our roster. In fact, as a recent Knight Foundation study (Adaptive Public Space: Places for People in the Pandemic and Beyond) suggested, it would be a missed opportunity not to do so.
“With the availability of more federal dollars for infrastructure, the leadership of our communities — advocates, city administrators, public and private sector leaders — have a historic opportunity to put the funding to good use by supporting equitable, accessible and engaging spaces that support more resilient cities,” states the Knight study. “Now is the time to invest in community-led and empowering public spaces…”
I’m in. And may I offer a few suggestions:
• Large public sculpture you can climb — other smaller ones you can sit in or on
• Reimagined city playgrounds with state-of-the-art activities
• Dedicated bike lane (with protective barrier) connecting the Markell Trail and Northern Delaware Greenway Trail
• Dynamic public space as well as bike lanes and walking trail throughout the footprint of the proposed Riverfront East
• Repurposed vacant alleys as basketball, volleyball, or bocce courts
• Expanding the Open Streets Wilmington program and consider making a portion of Market Street car-free
And, for the more adventurous:
• Zip line over the Christina River near the DuPont Environment Education Center
• Adventure/obstacle course or climbing tower on Seventh Street Peninsula tied into the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation
Have a cool outdoor idea of your own? Send to email@example.com and I’ll forward to the Wilmington Office of Cool Idea Development. That office doesn’t currently exist, but launching one would be a cool idea, too.
— Jerry duPhily