Updated: Saturday, November 11, 2017, 8:42 AM
It seemed like a simple and very small way to start tackling a big job: making West Philadelphia a better place for older residents.
The Ralston Center, a nonprofit that focuses on the health and quality of life of seniors, decided to put five new benches in Mantua. The idea was that giving older people a place to rest while they waited for a bus or walked to an appointment might make the difference between traveling independently and being at the mercy of friends or relatives for rides. Yes, there were other problems, most notably lots of uneven sidewalks, but this seemed a good way to spark a change in the neighborhood.
“It’s a starting point,” said De’Wayne Drummond, president of the Mantua Civic Association, which has embraced the project. “Sometimes you need a tangible win to bring some kind of excitement.”
Twenty-three months after the project began, Mantua does not yet have its new benches. Ralston and its community partners have learned the hard way how — slowly — Philadelphia bureaucracy works. Oh, and those benches have ended up costing about $10,000 apiece.
“The learning curve was huge for me on this project,” admitted Jennifer Russell, a lawyer who is Ralston’s director of programs.
On a more positive note, Ralston learned that even a fairly small project could foster relationships among designers, artists, aging advocates and residents that could pay dividends in the future. All think future initiatives will move more quickly — and that future benches will cost less.
The West Philadelphia project is part of an international trend promoted by the World Health Organization of making cities more “age-friendly.” That includes making them easier to navigate as well as having affordable housing and support for healthy lifestyles. Philadelphia is in the midst of applying to be part of that program, said Lydia Hernandez-Velez, the city’s deputy managing director for aging.
The West Philadelphia effort is adhering to similar guidelines, but isn’t seeking official approval, Russell said. Ralston has also started Food and Company, a program that has West Philadelphia volunteers coming together to cook healthy soups that they then distribute to seniors. The initiative is meant to foster better health and neighborhood connections.
Advocates argue that making neighborhoods better for seniors benefits everybody, including kids, parents pushing strollers, and younger people with disabilities.
Some of the delay in getting the benches in place was self-inflicted. Ralston Center could have bought benches at a big-box store, but the organization wanted the neighborhood to have a stake in the project. So, last May, it organized a walkability audit with input from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Volunteers, including students and members of the civic association, fanned out to record problems with sidewalks, stoplight timing, street lights, signage and resting places.
Drummond and Hernandez-Velez agree that uneven sidewalks are an obvious problem. Fixing them is tough because it requires the cooperation of property owners, who are often financially stretched.
There were only 12 usable benches in the 208 blocks the audit covered. How hard could adding a few more be?
In August, Ralston brought in Tiny WPA, an organization that specializes in what John Federico, Ralston’s director of development, called “community-guided design.” They set up shop at a rickety bench chained to a light pole outside the Mantua Presbyterian Apartments, a facility for low-income older adults, and asked people from the community to help them design the perfect bench. Eventually, more than 50 people weighed in on how the benches should look.
Tiny WPA worked with the Traction Company, an artist collaborative in West Philadelphia that takes on work such as this to support its studio. They came up with a metal and wood design that incorporates a pole after noticing that older residents tended to grab the old light pole when they stood up. The benches will be a little higher than normal and the seats tilt slightly forward, both of which make it easier for older or heavier people to get up. There is a separate flat section on the end for kids to sit on. Designers hope that the angle of the seats will deter people from sleeping on the benches.
So far, so good, but, toward the end of last year, they were delayed again by bureaucracy.
Ralston learned that the application for city approval was too complicated for anyone on the team. Among many other things, they needed site drawings that would show the benches, existing structures and neighboring property lines. They’d also need the support of their City Council member, Jannie Blackwell, who would eventually have to submit an ordinance on the five benches to Council. Ralston started calling engineering firms for estimates and settled on a company early this year. Engineering work for the five sites would cost $4,500, so Federico needed to raise more money. Russell called property owners near the proposed benches just to make sure no one objected. Ralston would also have to spend $1,500 a year for liability insurance.
Based on input from older adults in the community, the civic association chose the five sites for the benches: in front of Mantua Presbyterian, two churches and two bus stops.
By late spring, the application was ready, but then City Council’s summer slowdown arrived. Blackwell finally introduced the ordinance on Oct. 5, too late for that month’s streets committee meeting. The committee, which is scheduled to meet again this month, has to discuss the benches before Council sees the ordinance. Then the bench bill can go to Council for approval. If it is approved, Mayor Kenney has 10 days to sign it.
In the meantime, the Traction Company has made the frames for the benches out of powder-coated steel, which will give them the same kind of finish as a bicycle or metal car, said Traction founder John Greig, a sculptor. Russell hopes the community will gather to add the wood pieces later this month.
Greig, 44, said the benches are made for the long haul. “I would think I would sit on that bench in 30 years when I need that bench,” he said.
Russell hopes future approvals go more smoothly, but she’s not complaining about the process. Sidewalks are city property, and her group is encroaching on it. “You can’t just have any organization coming and trying to put something down on the sidewalk and call it a day,” she said. “There’s a process that needs to happen, and now we know what it is.”
Russell hopes the benches will be approved by the end of the year. Drummond thinks Mantua needs at least 10 more.