💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
Soon you’ll be able to walk on water at the southern edge of the Schuylkill River, thanks to a giant, lime green pathway curving out from land near Bartram’s Garden.
The walkable art installation is a new project from Mural Arts. The circular structure will change in elevation as you walk around it — so at different points you’ll be walking above the water, and at others you’ll be eye level with the river.
Called FloatLab, the project is set to debut in fall 2022.
Funded by the William Penn Foundation and other sponsors, it will complement other forthcoming riverside projects at Bartram’s Garden, like a new watershed education center and freshwater mussel hatchery.
FloatLab aligns with Bartram’s Garden’s mission to serve the community surrounding the historic Southwest Philadelphia horticultural site and to connect people to the water beside it.
“The river doesn’t figure very prominently in the daily lives of contemporary Philadelphians. We sometimes say that the city has turned its back on the river,” said Eric Höweler, whose firm Höweler + Yoon Architecture is designing the new floating dock.
In 2010, Höweler worked with Mural Arts to develop the Light Drift project on the Schuylkill, closer to Center City.. “What we learned was that the waterfront in Philly is beautiful, but somewhat overlooked.”
With opening more than a year out, the details on how people will use FloatLab are still pretty fuzzy. Renderings of the design include people in life jackets, with some even boarding kayaks near the banks.
Höweler said Mural Arts first contacted him for this project four years ago, and they talked about changing residents’ perceptions of the river. “From a new vantage, you might discover that it’s cleaner than you thought, that it’s full of life, that it is an urban ecosystem,” he said.
FloatLab will be installed on a part of the Schuylkill that’s always been pretty inaccessible. Around Bartram’s Garden, the river has tides, so it rises and falls by almost 7 feet every day.
That means, unlike places like Boathouse Row, it’s pretty hard to get out on the water there. “There are certainly technical issues with creating an urban submersible,” Höweler, said. “We worked with a naval architect and a civil engineer to resolve all the technical issues.”
Ultimately, FloatLab will work because it will move up and down with the tide — allowing regular Philadelphians the chance to walk out on the water no matter the river’s level.
The project is designed primarily to serve Southwest Philly neighbors, offering them new access to the river, said Mural Arts spokesperson Cari Bender. But the hope is also that children from all over the region will visit as an educational site.
“They envision residencies and teaching positions for Southwest Philadelphia artists,” Bender said. “And the goal is for every student in the neighborhood’s elementary, middle and high schools to be able to take advantage of FloatLab through field trips, paid youth internships, river recreation like boating and fishing and more.”