Access to Philadelphia’s waterfront has been a priority for a wide variety of potential users. Located at the Delaware River Trail’s head, and atop a former industrial site, Pier 68 is a key feature on the waterfront’s park and path system. The design of Pier 68 is resourceful in its approach to limited space and budget. The resultant park is a dynamic access point for riverside recreation - a rare commodity in Philadelphia.


Through extensive site analysis, the design team discovered unique elements that became part of the project’s story.  We crafted a design to overcome environmental and infrastructural challenges, creating opportunity from the pier’s unique challenges. Among many sustainability goals, we utilized recycled materials, physically connected the park to existing walking and cycling trails, and used non-irrigated native vegetation. All of the sites lighting is solar powered.  Areas of transitional vegetation, corresponding to tidal activity, were replanted in designed littoral zones that extend from the high-water mark, which is rarely inundated, to permanently submerged shoreline areas. Portions of the concrete slab were removed to expose fluctuating tidal elevations. Through these reveals, representative habitats are visible: freshwater tidal marsh, upland grasses, freshwater shrub wetlands, and wetland woodlands. The public observes the riparian edge and the semi-diurnal tidal activity. 


The stretch of the Delaware River that skirts Philadelphia has long been channelized, due to its past and on-going industrial functions, resulting in a hard urban edge. Access to the waterfront is largely discouraged by these hard edges and is, in most cases, inaccessible; the few transformed piers that punctuate the river’s edge are rare exceptions. As the post-industrial era sets in along the waterfront, former shipyards, warehouses and port infrastructure are beginning to give way to a commercial and residential corridor stretching along the water’s edge.

Pier 68 is a key feature on the waterfront’s extensive path and planned park system, and Philadelphia’s southern-most Pier along the Delaware River.  Connecting waterfront parks gives national significance to developments like Pier 68, as they contribute to the amenities along a continuous alternative transportation and recreation corridor, connecting numerous trail systems, including The Circuit and East Coast Greenway, among others.  These trails and open spaces provide recreation and relief to the adjacent dense working-class neighborhoods once populated largely by those that made their living on the working waterfront.


At a mere 60-feet in width, the pier can feel insignificant sitting within the mighty Delaware River - more than a half mile wide at this point.  Its 400-foot length, however, is transformative.  Providing deep water access to anglers and a noticeable remove from its urban context for all visitors, the pier provides one of the most immediate and intimate connections to the water to be found in the city at just four feet from the river’s high-water mark.

Pounded by 85 years of flotsam, ice floes, debris-riddled flood waters and docking freight ships, the evaluation of the submerged wooden substructure was paramount.  The pier’s history as a sugar storage facility provided a sturdy structure on which to develop an active communal greenspace following significant replacement of the structure’s hardware and stabilization of its concrete seawalls.


The Pier is a dynamic site, both by way of its visitors and the interactive design’s accommodation for natural movement via tides, wildlife, and maturing flora. At any given time of the day the pier is full of movement. The aquatic cut fills with water at high tide and exposes the delicate river ecosystem when the water recedes; a treat for the local naturalists. The angled lawn is a soft surface for visitors in search of respite by the water. A canopy of trees offers dappled shade in the warm months. Picnickers use tables along the park’s perimeter. Lounge seating inspired by Philadelphia sailor’s mustaches, pay homage to the history of marine navigation and industry, and offer a comfortable place to watch the scenery, maritime activity, and other park visitors. Anglers enjoy the fishing edge, which allows easy access to the water for people of all ages and abilities. A viewing edge provides prospect both up and down river. A water-break and fluvial ecosystem frame creates an interactive laboratory for teachers and students to observe wildlife. Sculptural elements alert cyclists, dog-walkers, and runners on the path to the Pier’s entrance. All of these elements are coordinated through color, material, and texture indicative of the maritime industry that has historically commanded activities in the present recreational area.


The design team included a variety of specialists; horticulture consultants, architects, geospatial analysts, tech programmers, marine engineers, boat builders, contractors, and civil engineers, all working toward the successful execution of this important project. As a team, we prioritized public participation and community involvement at the Pier 68 project’s outset, and developed a design process to support that priority. Public participation fosters a sense of ownership and, ultimately, creates a community vested in their public realm. Community engagement and an iterative design process were both crucial to achieving a design that supported the community’s interests and would continue to be supported by the community over time. The design team developed a community engagement model tailored to the specific site, client, and visitor community at Pier 68. Interactive community meetings, guided design through multiple schemes, and the information and input gleaned from this engaging process resulted in a draft plan that was again presented and reviewed with the community and Advisory Committee. Through constant dialogue and collaboration, a plan was developed that responded to the community’s input and created a framework supporting the community’s priorities for an open, habitable, and sustainable waterfront development. The designed space at Pier 68 balances competing interests and offers diplomatic solutions benefiting a diverse range of stakeholders and interested parties.


Great creative ideas can come from a strict framework of possibilities. The design team was driven by a mission to build a high-impact project within a small budget, identifying budget limitations on a project and resultant design process as actively controlled creativity. Pier 68, though limited to a small budget, did not suffer a limited creative approach, and the resultant design and build process experienced unexpected innovation, evidenced by the tide-fed aquatic cut and sailor mustache benches. 

In the early 1900’s, raw sugar was delivered from Cuba to Pier 68.  Refined sugar and molasses were then dispersed across the region. The stretch of the Delaware River that skirts Philadelphia has long been channelized due to its past and on-going industrial functions.  The tidal activity would normally correspond with a littoral zone, or areas of transitional vegetation, that extend from the high-water mark, which is rarely inundated, to shoreline areas that are permanently submerged. Our initial design scheme seeks to develop and feature these zones within the structure of the pier itself.  Portions of the concrete slab are cut away to correspond with tidal elevations.  These areas will house representative habitats: freshwater tidal marsh, upland grasses, freshwater shrub wetlands, and wetland forests and woodlands.  Through these dynamic reveals, the public will be able to experience a multi-level, riparian edge system, and can begin to register the Delaware’s semi-diurnal tidal activity.

Located at the head of the proposed Delaware River Trail, Pier 68 will stand as a key figure on the waterfront’s extensive path system.   Access to the waterfront has been a major priority for a variety of potential users, including local anglers. The Philadelphia Water Department surveyed and identified 23 species of fish in the area this year.  Pier 68 will become a designated access point for legal, recreational fishing in the city, allowing families to spend an afternoon fishing and enjoying the water.  Teachers will be able to take their classes to Pier 68 where students will experience the design as its wetland zones register changes in water elevation.  Students will have the opportunity to observe and learn about the diverse fish and wildlife populations, and to watch the city’s on-going industrial movement as tug-boats and cargo ships pass by.  All visitors will be able to gather and to recharge.


Location: Philadelphia, PA