Blog: Outdoor Essentials by Michael Louison

Mike Louison
Architectural Designer

Outdoor spaces in Philadelphia have been booming with activity. It seems everywhere you look, there’s a new park or beer garden popping up that quickly becomes the new outdoor hotspot to meet friends and spend a weekend afternoon. Of course, spending time with friends outside isn’t a newly popular concept—it’s pretty much a given that people love to enjoy the nice weather when we have it. I’ve noticed lately that the most successful outdoor digs seem to follow a certain criteria of elements. Interestingly, this combination of elements seems to determine the likelihood of people showing up and hanging out for the day. So let’s break it down and look at six of these “Essentials” that have gotten the locals excited about Philly’s most successful outdoor destinations:



If you’re going to have any chance as an outdoor destination in this city, one Essential to activating any space is great atmospheric lighting. Who doesn’t see string lights hanging above a city street at night and say “That looks like a great place!” It’s obvious that people don’t want to sit outside in the dark, but that’s not to say they want floodlights illuminating them like an interrogation. The string light approach is by far the trendiest way to provide a calming warm glow for your visitors to dine, drink, and laugh under. String lights suggest festivities, activity, fun, and comfort! La Peg, the restaurant across from Race Street Pier in historic Old City, is a rehabilitated century-old pump house which used to pressurize water for the city’s network. This 10,000 square foot building showcases salvaged tanks, a 46-ton ceiling crane and its original glazed brick. The 45-foot ceilings are more than accommodating for the 230 seat theater. The 2-story glazing surrounding the restaurant space, combined with the dim interior lighting, allows a strong connection to the outdoor patio and scenic views. The beer garden used the hanging of their string lights as a welcoming way to let people know that they were open for business. Not only is there plenty of ambient light outside the new home of FringeArts, the view is graced by the presence of the impressively illuminated Ben Franklin Bridge. It’s no doubt that this nighttime scene is perfect for family, friends, and of course, romantics.


Do you ever sit down in a chair without moving it first? People love a customizable experience. Most people tend to orient and congregate their furniture based on what they want to look at, who they want to talk to, and what they’re doing. It’s essential to have seating in an outdoor space but, more importantly, it’s important to have seating that you can move around! The PHS Pop-Up Garden is a prime example of a “backyard” type of social scene. The same way you would set up a circle of chairs at your family picnic, you can pick and choose your type or color of chair to pull up next to your friends. The PHS utilizes sustainable practices to transform each site for their pop-ups. They use bicycle parts, old show props and repurposed chairs and tables to create their city getaways. The only obstacle is finding enough chairs, since the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society seems to host some pretty popular beer gardens, bringing through tens of thousands of visitors in a season! Check out both of this year’s PHS Pop-Up Gardens at 15th and South Street and 10th and Hamilton Street!


The transformation of Dilworth Park has been met with some mixed reviews since it was unveiled in 2014, but the softscape elements introduced into the project seem to be the most appreciated elements of the plaza’s face lift. You can tell just by walking through on a warm summer day what everyone’s favorite parts of the park are—the green space and the softscape seating areas. Who wants to lounge solely on stone or concrete? Of course, any large-scale urban park needs some solid infrastructure like curbs, walkways, and barriers, but all that important stuff needs to be balanced with a little grass! So perhaps there is much to appreciate about Kieran Timberlake’s strategic design and placement of hardscape and softscape areas throughout site. The stair head house on the northern end of the plaza serves the site well featuring Rosa Blanca, a café launched by a well-known restaurant company, Garces Group. Most of this architectural structure is comprised of twenty-one custom steel pieces, specially fabricated in Broomall, Pennsylvania. These steel components are carefully welded, grinded, and finished to achieve its high-level ‘exposed’ aesthetic. The structure is softened by the surrounding greenery and accented with colorful bistro seating. The park’s expansive water feature is a lot of fun for the kids, and it’s appealing to parents as a closer and cheaper alternative to a water park!


Whether it’s in the form of planters, gardens or tabletop pots, one element that is an Essential to an outdoor space is the actual “outdoors” part – greenery! The more greenery you have, the more you feel like you’re lounging in the great outdoors, which can be difficult to achieve in an urban environment like Philadelphia. Philadelphia Parks & Recreation partnered with the Fairmount Park Conservancy to find a great location to take advantage of the city’s green space and provide an accessible “Park on the Parkway” called The Oval. Now in terms of greenery, this park is tucked strategically in between tree lines and has more of a large-scale ‘woodsy’ vibe to it. Of course, the park does have an expansive area of asphalt which has been repurposed into a colorful activity zone for all ages, but being surrounded by the tree line and the addition of plantings during the summer season makes this park a great success. Visitors can gather here for programmed events or just simply enjoy their time in a picnic-like setting. This green space brands The Oval as a family-friendly, park-like retreat in the midst of the surrounding parkway vehicle traffic.

FYI: What else does the PPR & FPC have up their sleeve? This year they are mobilizing with Parks on Tap, Philly’s 1st full-fledged, fully-tapped traveling beer garden!

Another great outdoor retreat with generous green space designed by yours truly, L2P, is the City Tap House. This 4,000 square-foot outdoor extension of University City’s own contemporary rustic beer emporium and restaurant features a large green roof with fireside seating surround by lush green plantings. The teak furniture and stone benches provide seating for an additional 200 people on a unique elevated terrace, so gather your friends for the upcoming cool summer nights to Instagram that perfect fireside group selfie. #wedidntstartthefire


If you want color mixed with your warm weather, Spruce Street Harbor Park is the place to soak in the sun! Everything from the furniture to the umbrellas to the shipping containers to the handmade hammocks are bright and colorful enough to excite the crowds of visitors. Sure, sitting at the harbor sounds nice but Spruce Street Harbor Park takes it to the next level. The boardwalk is designed to be ADA-compliant, which provides a fully accessible path for everyone to enjoy the snacks and beverages from satellite locations of Philly’s popular restaurants. The extension off the boardwalk consists of three landscaped barges surrounding beautiful floating gardens constructed from non-toxic post-consumer plastic. During the daytime the park is a colorful world of amusement, and when the sun sets it becomes a whimsical world of magic with color-changing lights illuminating the trees and rainbow tinted waters. This is a prime example of how color can make all the difference anywhere outdoors. It’s a simple idea and when beautifully executed it can enrich the outdoors and enhance the natural world to something much more stimulating and inspiring.


One thing’s for sure, you can have all the parts and pieces that make a great outdoor venue but one indulgence that will make visitors come and stay is BEER! Philly locals love their beer, and Independence Beer Garden wasted no time and opened their doors in mid-April this year. With 40 taps of local and domestic craft beers available and over 20,000 square feet of outdoor seating and game space, this is definitely one of the most popular destinations for locals and visitors. And it’s conveniently located in Philadelphia’s most historic neighborhood near many visitor attractions. The transformed outdoor retreat is located at the DOW chemical building at 6th and Market Street and accents the building with reclaimed timber, distressed steel girders and Tivoli Lighting. Does it have the most impressive beer list in Philly? Some would say not, but looking at the bigger picture shows that they meet the criteria to give other beer gardens a run for their money. They’ve got ‘cozy’ lighting, moveable furniture arrangements, a mix of hard- and soft-scape areas, lush greenery and pops of color. Beer is just the final piece of the puzzle that keeps this place booming through the warm seasons.

So when you venture through Philly this summer season, take note of the outdoor hotspots and how you see people using the space. What’s most important to you in an outdoor space? Do you lounge outside and sunbathe in concrete plazas? Do you drink beer where you can’t sit down and relax in the shade? Do you like to sit outside at night in the dark while you catch up with your friends? Maybe you tend to go against the grain and like to drink beer in the dark on the ground in the city…which is fine, I guess. I think we can all agree, though, that any combination of these “Outdoor Essentials” makes any exterior urban space that much more enjoyable for those sunny summer weekends!