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See the winning Rail Park Tunnel designs for the Better Philadelphia Challenge

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What if one of these transformations actually came true?

The winning design for the Rail Park Tunnel transformed both the tunnel and Pennsylvania Avenue into a colorful playspace.
Rendering by Vincent Tang

For the past 11 years, the Better Philadelphia Challenge has asked university students around the world to address real-world urban design issues in the city. This year, with the first phase of construction well underway, the competition fittingly focused on the abandoned City Branch rail tunnel under Pennsylvania Avenue, asking students to pitch their ideas to transform the space into a recreational and cultural amenity for Philly.

The four winning designs were presented at last night’s annual Edmund N. Bacon Awards, which honored Theaster Gates, a Chicago-based artist and founder of the Rebuild Foundation. Of the designs and ongoing $100 million Rail Park project, Gates said, “You need to be street shrewd to get your rails-to-trails done. [...] You’ve got to be ready for the naysayers.”

From an outdoor Underground Railroad exhibition to a new plaza along Pennsylvania Avenue, here’s a list of the competition winners.

Rendering by Vincent Tang

First Place: Dual Scape

The competition’s first place, $5,000 prize went to Vincent Tang of the University of Manitoba for his “Dual Scape!” design, which addressed Pennsylvania Avenue and the tunnel as one cohesive element. Tang proposed the creation of Pennsylvania Avenue Plaza above-ground as a way to support the tunnel, which would be transformed into a linear park that doubles as a theater, museum, bicycle-pedestrian hub, and more. A temporary art installation (above) would serve to shift the public’s perception of the tunnel as a dark and foreboding place into an attractive, colorful, and welcoming amenity.

Rendering by Alice Sturm, Federico Lia, Kelly Farrell, Thackston Crandall, and Genki Takahashi

Second Place: Rail Park Roots

This Cornell University design envisioned creating a series of separate bike and pedestrian pathways above and through the tunnel, allowing users to explore the park at their own leisure. That, plus the incorporation of multiple entry points to the tunnel as a whole, is what the jury “immediately liked and respected” about the project, said Rail Park vice president Michael Garden said.

Third Place: [Connect Philly]

This design included a team of local students from Drexel and MedStudio@Jeff, and Philadelphia University. The project proposed transforming the tunnel into an outdoor art exhibit with the help from the surrounding institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation. In addition, the tunnel would be lit up with LED lights tuned to human biorhythms, as a way to promote the tunnel as a place of health and wellness.

Rendering by Abhinav Bhargava, Chris Counihan, Ambica Chadha, Shuo LI, Yuan-Fen Lo, and Diance Tian

Honorable Mention: The Underground Railroad

While the jury thought that this design proposal didn’t address all of the issues of the Rail Park tunnel, Garden said it was a “thoughtful treatment of an untold story.” The project used the tunnel as an outdoor museum that told the story of the Underground Railroad, given Philly’s role as a main stop during the 1800s. The team from the UMass Amherst also proposed the installation quilting patterns, which helped guide slaves on the Underground Railroad, along Pennsylvania Avenue that would then be reflected down into the tunnel.