A screen shot of one of the photos of Chestnut Hill used to demonstrate Chestnut Hill as a great urban neighborhood on the website of the American Planning Association. (Photo by the Philadelphia Planning Commission)

by Pete Mazzaccaro

Last week, the American Planing Association named Chestnut Hill as one of its “top-10 urban neighborhoods in America.”

The honor is the result of a nomination by the Philadelphia Planning Commission, which has been nominating great Philadelphia streets, neighborhoods and places to the APA since the awards were developed in 2007. Since then, only one other Philadelphia neighborhood received a great neighborhood award and that was Society Hill in 2008.

David Schaaf, director of urban design at the Philadelphia Planning Commission said the application process was long and involved for the nomination, but that the results were worth it. And Chestnut Hill, he said, was a perfect candidate.

“It’s an extremely prestigious award,” he said. “It’s an excellent thing for the city and Chestnut Hill. Chestnut Hill was perfect for nomination because of its history, the interest of people in preserving that history, its planning. It was an ideal nomination.”

Chestnut Hill is among a group of other fairly famous urban neighborhoods from around the country: the Garden District, Baton Rouge; Fells Point, Baltimore, and Beacon Hill, Seattle.

“It is competitive,” Schaaf said,“in the sense that any neighborhood in any city of any size can be nominated.”

Schaaf said the benefit f the award is that it helps publicize great things about urban areas that people around the country don’t know.

“We have a lot of assets and attributes in Philadelphia,” he said. “It’s good to keep pointing.”

Among those assets considered by the APA were Chestnut Hill’s historical place as one of the first rail commuter neighborhoods in the country and its depth of architectural history,with homes built by famous architects from Samuel Sloan and Horace Trumbauer to Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi.

That diversity is reflected in the blurb the APA wrote on its website.

“In his 1975 report to the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, well-respected preservationist Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., of Pittsburgh, wrote, ‘Without question, Chestnut Hill remains one of the most beautiful residential areas in the United States.’ It was not only important to save the neighborhood’s architecture, he said, ‘but the landscaping. Rarely does one see such a fine collection of great trees and shrubs.’ The neighborhood’s landscaping, known as ‘The Wissahickon Style,’ has been emulated throughout the country. Following the topography of the land to shape the neighborhood, this style of landscaping relies on the use of native plants, Wissahickon schist and fieldstone, and other materials of the Wissahickon Gorge, which formed the neighborhood’s southwestern boundary and encompasses today’s 1,400-acre Wissahickon Valley Park.”

Next Tuesday, Oct. 16, the City Planning Commission will present awards to three organizations recognized as important to keeping Chestnut Hill a great neighborhood: the Chestnut Hill Community Association, the Chestnut Hill Business Association and the Chestnut Hill Historical Society.

Jennifer Hawke, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society said the award should be seen as a recognition of all the work so many put into maintaining the neighborhood.

“The historical society is thrilled that Chestnut Hill has been chosen for this honor,” she said. “Chestnut Hill is a unique and special place. Special places do not become or stay that way all on their own. This is a true testament to the work that many organizations and their volunteers do in this community.”

To see the APA’s site and for more information, visit its website.