What does it mean to think big about how we build in Philadelphia? To dream of landscapes that are lush, accessible and equitable, that bring out the best in our surroundings and ourselves, that fulfill William Penn’s promise of a rational and beautiful cityscape that was a model for the country? We could be — dare I say, we are? — on the cusp of finding out.
For the first time in decades, Philadelphia is in the midst of a big project development boom that could transform different corners of the city into oases of recreation, culture and community. A proposed redesign of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway returns Logan Circle to of Penn’s original squares, favors green spaces, pedestrians and bikers over cars, links museums and the city; the long-awaited 12-acre Park at Penn’s Landing will finally reconnect the Delaware River to the city by capping I-95, while offering programs, food and open spaces for all Philadelphians; a public-private partnership at the Navy Yard will bring life science research, jobs, homes and retail to the city within a city at the end of Broad Street.
On Tuesday, along with Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and Fitler Club, The Citizen is hosting our next Development…for Good event that will explore what these big projects mean for our city—both physically and culturally. The conversation will feature urban thinker Diana Lind, a Fairmount resident and Citizen board member who formed a Facebook group called People for a Better Parkway; Julie Donofrio, managing director at PennPraxis, which led community outreach for the waterfront project; and Gregory Reaves, founder and co-owner of Mosaic Development Partners, the local partner involved in the Navy Yard development.
Martha Cross, deputy director within Philadelphia’s Department of Planning and Development will moderate, and the evening’s emcee will be architectural historian David Brownlee, an emeritus professor at University of Pennsylvania. The event will be in the Fitler Club ballroom, 24 S. 24th Street, from 6pm-8pm Tuesday.
Tuesday’s conversation will offer a window into not only the three massive development projects getting underway, but also explore what big development means — what it must mean — in a 21st Century American city. As Lind said last year at a public hearing on the Parkway, and then wrote in The Citizen, rethinking public spaces demands that we “ask what makes a city beautiful now. The answer is equity, access, and sustainability.”
Lind wrote again about the Parkway in a forthcoming article in Context, the journal of the American Institute of Architecture, from which Tuesday’s panel was conceived. The points she makes in her piece, called “To Change the Parkway, We Must Change Ourselves” about who we design for, what purpose that must serve, and what the future of our physical spaces could mean is a fitting way to kick off the event:
It is a blessing then that the latest proposed renovation of the Parkway will give us the opportunity not just to reshape the Parkway’s spaces, but overhaul nothing less than the values and priorities of the city. To deliver on this plan, we must prioritize pedestrians and bicyclists over drivers, public space over traffic, sustainability over convenience, Philadelphians over commuting suburbanites, neighbors over tourists, and maybe even community over divisiveness.
Your natural inclination when reading that sentence may be to correct me and say, “Why must it be either/or? Why can’t it be yes/and? A win win!” Why not? Because to satisfy all people and all needs would be to stay where we’re currently stuck: avoiding tough decisions that require us to make choices and change, and shrinking away from the opportunity to be exceptional — something that Philadelphia, sandwiched between New York and Washington, D.C., has been doing for far too long,
We need to formally adopt the new design for the Parkway and also mobilize support for it. We have already completed smaller projects that demonstrate our capacity to make changes. These include the lovely new public spaces of Sister Cities Park and Dilworth Park, which demonstrate the demand for such amenities. We have learned that streateries can enliven streets and that traffic can wend its way around them. We have seen Eakins Oval engage thousands of Philadelphians each summer and beg to be made permanent. But we must widen the circles of people who not only enjoy these improvements, but are willing to make some sacrifices and take some risks for them. The hard work of transformation will not be just engineering and landscaping, but changing the minds of Philadelphians.
We need Philadelphians from across all the city’s neighborhoods to see their own benefit in this project, and to articulate that to their representatives. And we also need elected officials not only to listen to their constituents, but in some cases, lead them. Finally, we need the next mayor not just to endorse this plan, but to believe that it is critical to the future of the city.
A century ago, we believed that building monumental buildings could uplift and ennoble the people. This time around, we need to change people’s expectations and beliefs before we worry about the physical transformation of the Parkway. We need people to see that cars and commuters should not be prioritized above the needs of locals, pedestrians and bikers. We need to normalize the expectation that major American cities can and should dedicate money and effort to provide residents with access to nature, exercise, culture, sustainability, job creation, civic engagement, and all the other activities that the Parkway can accommodate. And we should instill in Philadelphians the belief that we can take on outsize projects and see them through to successful fruition. If we can make those shifts in the minds of Philadelphians, it would be big.
Hope to see you there.
Tuesday April 26, 6pm-8pm, Fitler Club Ballroom, 24 S. 24th Street, free. Register here.
Philly Thinks Big panelists (L-R) Diana Lind, Gregory Reaves and Julie Donofrio, along with moderator Martha Cross and emcee David Brownlee.