Planning Commission

This is the official blog of the Montgomery County Planning Commission.

Jul 26

Rediscovering the Hidden River

Posted on July 26, 2017 at 12:49 PM by Michael Stokes

As Water Rat paddled Mole down the river in Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows he said “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing--absolutely nothing--half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

Water Rat may have been impressed by the Schuylkill River which offers an interesting 42-mile stretch of water through Montgomery County creating unique settings containing historic properties and natural spaces providing opportunities for active and passive recreation.   It is also a great place to mess around in boats. 

The Schuylkill River’s restoration is a tremendous success story involving a well-organized state run desilting project largely performed from 1947 - 1951.   Read A River Again by Chari Towne to understand this transformative river restoration project.  In the 1970s, residents along the Schuylkill Valley finally realized that their river was no longer the foul, polluted river that had suffered from the excesses of the industrial revolution and the mining of coal in its headwaters.  The Schuylkill River Greenway Association established in 1974 as an organization focused on the preservation of the riverfront in Berks and Schuylkill Counties expanded its mission and geographic scope to cover the entire river corridor.  In 1978, Schuylkill River advocates made sure that the Schuylkill River became Pennsylvania’s first Scenic River. 

Schuylkill River Trail, a concept that grew from the Sierra Club’s proposed Valley Forge Trail that would link the Valley Forge National Historical Park with Independence Hall, was first opened in 1979.   With over half of its proposed 120-mile route from the Delaware River to Pottsville completed, it currently attracts over a million users annually.  It connects Montgomery County with many exciting bicycling, walking, and running trails from Philadelphia to Chester and Berks Counties.

Developers too have rediscovered the attractiveness of the river.  Over the past two decades, new buildings have taken shape along the river in Lower Merion Township across from Manayunk, the Conshohocken area, Pottstown, Royersford Borough and Betzwood.  More projects along the river are on the drawing board.

With the yearly sojourns along the river and efforts to expand opportunities to access the Schuylkill Water trail, everyone is welcome to rediscover the river including those that like to mess about in boats.  On a hot summer day, take Water Rat’s advice by visiting the Schuylkill River to mess about in boats.

Part of the Kings Head Regatta at the Norristown Dam pool

Dragon Boat racing on the Schuylkill in Norristown

Just hanging out by the river in Bridgeport

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Paddling during the Schuylkill River Sojourn

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Sojourn boats locking through to the Schuylkill Canal in Mont Clare

Jul 07

Learning a Thing or Two from the Big Apple

Posted on July 7, 2017 at 4:39 PM by Michael Stokes

Being a planner means that you spend your vacation examining in detail all of the places that you visit to extract new ideas that you can use when you return to work.  On a recent short trip to New York City, I got several new ideas while watching all of the bikers traversing the busy streets and strolling the full length of the High Line. The bike infrastructure and High Line are interesting new dimensions that greatly enliven Manhattan.

The ideas gained from the bike infrastructure were more focused on how the bicycle network was established, since most of the New York City bicycle system involves design elements that are essentially urban and not directly suitable Montgomery County.  What was more interesting was the immediate and subtle way many of the bike facilities and many new public pedestrian and bicycle places were established without additional pavement.  They were built by simple adding some large rocks, planters and fencing to delineate the pedestrian and bicycle spaces from the remainder of the roadways.  These quick solutions seemed to work well.  Where they didn’t work, they could be easily changed.  In creating this bicycle system, New York City employed an innovative; let’s just try this approach, which is unfortunately rare in local government. 

Watching the thousands of people experiencing the High Line was also interesting.  What makes the High Line great is not necessarily the fact that you are elevated above the streets or that it is a re-purposed freight rail line through interesting neighborhoods on the west side of Manhattan. Those are factors.  But the High Line is a great and exciting space because it was carefully designed to be a dynamic and multiple dimension space that reflects the surrounding areas while inviting the curiosity and interests of those who use it.  In the hands of less skilled designers, it would have ended up as simply as an elevated trail system. What has been created instead is an engaging social space, elevated garden, promenade, discovery space for children, historical experience and great viewscape among other dimensions.  I don’t know that we will ever build a High Line here in Montgomery County, but the multi-dimensional and creative approach used on the High Line should remind any good designer to think outside of the box.
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Why not use a row of parked cars to protect bikers?

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Add a few fences and planters to a street to create a bike lane

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People enjoy the green High Line

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The High Line is a great hangout space

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There are things for children to discover on the High Line

May 26

Final Resting Places in the County

Posted on May 26, 2017 at 3:53 PM by Michael Stokes

Perhaps this Memorial Day weekend you will visit one of the cemeteries in Montgomery County that comprise more than 1800 acres in order to pay your respect to one of the many heroes who fought and sacrificed for our freedom.  During your visit, you may realize that cemeteries are interesting landscapes that vary in size and overall design.   Small family plots are located throughout the county as well as cemeteries over 100 acres in size.

Of all of the land uses in the county, cemeteries are one of the most permanent.  Yet in rare cases for very compelling needs, even cemeteries can be displaced with the careful disinterment of those buried there.   

The permanence of cemeteries requires "perpetual care.”  To ensure that, Pennsylvania law requires that a permanent lot care fund be established for all new cemeteries.  However, this provision does not apply to cemeteries owned by churches or religious congregations.  Since the law wasn’t established until 1972, some older cemeteries may not be subject to it or may have an insufficiently sized permanent care fund. 

As a result there are some cemeteries throughout the county which are not well maintained or appear to have no owner.  In these cases, other organizations such as historic societies, municipalities, community associations and other religious organizations have taken over maintenance responsibilities.    

At one time planners were concerned about having adequate cemetery space in their communities.  Now that doesn’t appear to such a great concern.  In fact no new cemeteries have been proposed in the county in the last several decades.  With the growth of cremation (experts predict that as many as 70% of the deceased in 2030 will be cremated) and the interest in alternatives to traditional ground burial, cemetery space is being consumed at much slower rates.  These trends are changing the function of existing cemeteries.  Some cemeteries are now hosting funeral homes with cremation services on site and offering memorial gardens for ash dispersal.  Cemeteries are also building large multi-level mausoleums containing several crypts.

As communities grow up around cemeteries, residents value them for their history, open space and even recreation potential.  This is very evident in some of the county’s larger cemeteries such as the Hillside Cemetery in Abington Township or West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Lower Merion Township which are both popular destinations for walkers and bikers.  Memorial garden style cemeteries with flush-to-the-ground bronze memorials typically feature gardens, fountains and ponds making them very scenic landscapes.

A typical cemetery on Memorial Day

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The diversity of our county is now evident in local cemeteries

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Cemeteries are important in preserving local history

Some cemeteries contain crypts so large they almost need a building permit

Other cemeteries are in more natural settings

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Even Halloween has a special place in some cemeteries