When the construction fence recently came down at Headhouse Square, a chorus of sad trombones filled the air, as the latest of the City’s anti-public public spaces was finally revealed. As described by Conrad Benner in a spot-on opinion piece about the space in Billy Penn, “The decades-old asphalt parking lot is now a bricked parking lot with an open area at its end. It’s a slab of nothing with next to no greenery and few basic amenities like benches.”
This is the latest hostile design sold to Philadelphians as new and improved. But what this design really demonstrates is that our government thinks of us residents as delinquents that must be managed rather than constituents who should be served.
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This attitude is incredibly harmful. It not only costs us the opportunity to design public spaces for highest activation instead of easiest maintenance, it prevents us from having honest conversations about the quality of services we should expect from the City and denies us accountability when those expectations aren’t met.
Philadelphians are a forgiving group when it comes to underwhelming city services. During the pandemic, when trash pickup was sporadic at best, residents (mostly) didn’t complain. They rallied behind the sanitation crews who were dealing with increased workloads, lack of personal protective equipment and an unprecedented health risk. But this week, when trash pickup was once again significantly delayed, the City heeded the advice of Milli Vanilli and “blamed it on the rain” and increased trash production over Memorial Day weekend.
Our government thinks of us residents as delinquents that must be managed rather than constituents who should be served.
At a block party this weekend, my neighbors vented their frustration—a scene likely repeated in every neighborhood across the city. “How did they not plan for the holiday? It’s not like this is the first Memorial Day weekend,” observed one neighbor. “I feel gaslit,” said another neighbor. “Like it’s my fault for putting trash out and expecting it to get picked up.” It should be a loud wake up call about your service delivery model when you are losing folks who have some of the lowest expectations for quality of services of any American city.
During the Great Recession, when the city budget was running on fumes, threadbare services and a lack of investment was understandable. But with the federal government sending $1.4 billion to the City as part of the American Recovery Plan and overall spending up $1 billion annually, there are no excuses for not reinvesting and reimagining service deliveries to residents. In order to truly fix these issues, not simply duct tape the bumper back to the car, but actually implement long-term institutional change we need to do the following.
We need to accept that people are going to people
What I mean by this is recognizing that human behavior—good and bad—is built into our city landscape. People are going to litter. Unhoused residents are going to sleep on public benches. People are going to sit on walls in parks not intended for sitting. The SEPTA concourse is going to smell like urine. Rather than try to create a hostile environment to control unwanted and inevitable behavior, let’s commit to addressing the underlying causes of and actual solutions to people acting like people. Providing public trash cans and restrooms that we actually invest in maintaining. Ensuring our parks and homeless services have appropriate levels of funding.
Stop being so defensive and start being willing to admit our shortcomings in order to fix them
As a longtime City Hall insider and observer, I have noticed that a lot of folks are fearful of criticizing service delivery because they do not want to seem unsupportive of our city employees. If the pandemic has proven anything, it is the value and importance of our city workforce. They were heroes that kept the city running during the worst health emergency in a century. But we have to be able to separate the system from the people working in the system. Too often I’ve seen government leaders respond to a criticism of service delivery with an immediate defense of our workforce. If we truly respected and cared about our workforce, we would have an honest conversation about our systemic shortcomings to ensure we provided them with the resources and solutions they need to be successful at their jobs.
Recognize that if the solutions were easy we would have fixed them by now
Our seemingly intractable problems aren’t intractable. It’s just that the solutions to these problems are often complex, time consuming and require a lot of political capital to address. Too often we look to quick and easy solutions that don’t actually address the root cause of the issue.
It should be a loud wake up call about your service delivery model when you are losing folks who have some of the lowest expectations for quality of services of any American city.
For example, our hiring process for city employees is incredibly convoluted and rigid. It has been a longtime complaint for many departmental leaders. But these hiring provisions are baked into the Civil Service rules enshrined in our Home Rule Charter and City Code. So while the perceived easy solution to a problem may be “hire more people,” the reality is far more complex, requiring the reforming of the entirety of the dated Civil Service system. (Much credit goes to City Council Majority Leader Cherelle Parker for introducing legislation to tackle a long-called for Civil Service reform.) Committing to the slog of complicated systemic reform is a key to our long term success.
We can’t hope for long-term systemic reform without regularly scheduled accountability
During the Nutter administration, the bane of existence for many department heads was the program known as PhillyStat. Residents could tune into Channel 64 and see a monthly meeting for each department where the Managing Director’s Office would review that month’s service request numbers and delivery times. PhillyStat meetings gave the public insight into the performance of departments delivering key city services. They also ensured that problems impacting departmental performance were identified early so they could be addressed.
While some departments were frustrated with what was perceived as an “overreliance” on data that didn’t tell the full story, the benefits of regular public meetings on service delivery performance provided much-needed accountability to the public. If we can’t measure it, we can’t manage it. If we don’t track it, we won’t understand what solutions work and what solutions are simply wasting scarce resources.
We need our government to look at residents as partners, not as problems
Philadelphians want nothing more than to see our government succeed. In how many other cities could the mayor have proposed a tax cut for residents and had a significant portion of people oppose it because they wanted to see it spent by the City on improving services?
Neighborhood groups have long filled the service gap. Local residents are given keys to rec center bathrooms to open and close them. Neighborhood groups hold regular cleanups to take care of trash and litter that other cities would have mechanically street-swept away. Local “friends of” groups fundraise to ensure teachers don’t have to dip into their own pockets for school supplies.
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We are all in this together, but we need the City to commit to the hard and honest work of addressing systemic failures in service deliveries. We need the City to look at us as partners, not problems to be designed around. When we can’t get a regular logistical service like trash pickup right, it is hard to be confident in our government’s ability to address more serious issues like poverty and gun violence that have multiple causes rooted in socio-economic injustice.
Let’s all commit to doing the hard work, to embracing uncomfortable changes and finally meeting our full potential as a world-class city, with world-class public spaces and service delivery.
Lauren Vidas is an election law attorney and government relations professional in Philadelphia where she has spent over a decade working in and around city government. Follow her on Twitter or sign-up for her newsletter to stay on top of the workings of City Hall.Header photo by Katherine Rapin