Will The Progress Philly Has Made Continue?

By Harris M. Steinberg

HBO’s The Wire

My wife and I are watching HBO’s The Wire for the first time, and it’s shocking how similar the Baltimore that’s depicted in the series is to the Philadelphia that we knew just a few short years ago: the hollowed-out urban core, with acres of vacant land and ribbons of dilapidated brick rowhouses; a broken school system; the changing face of the port economy; and the backroom culture of insiders making decisions and deals about the future of the built environment.

In fact, that’s the Philadelphia I encountered head on when I was asked to lead the public planning process to come up with a new vision for the central Delaware riverfront in 2006-07. It was a Philadelphia with (ironically) raging Inner Harbor envy; a city that built a Walmart on the waterfront (Baltimore has one as well!) under the mantra that any development is good development; and a city with a zoning code so old and so broken that City Council members were de facto planning tsars in their districts.

What a difference an administration makes.

Just eight short years later, we have a vision for the central Delaware based on the input and values of thousands of Philadelphians. This vision, a humanist plan that puts public good ahead of private gain, is guiding the development of the waterfront.

We also have a new, 21st-century zoning code adopted by City Council and a state-enabled land bank that will allow for the swift disposition of vacant properties in the city.

Add to all this the waves of millennials and empty-nesters who have literally reshaped the face of the city – fueling a steady rise in population unprecedented since the 1950s – and we’re talking about a very different Philadelphia in 2015 from the one that resembles Baltimore in The Wire.

In many ways, Philadelphia has been lucky – catching the wave of the “return to the urban” movement, which has suddenly made cities trendy again. Philadelphia is benefiting from having an authentic urbanism that today’s younger generation is craving – and it’s affordable, for now. But the city has also been the beneficiary of an enlightened political administration that has placed a high value on public participation, transparency, data-driven decision-making, best management practices, and, in my world, a very strong emphasis on the role of public space in shaping the future of cities.

Mayor Nutter’s administration can be credited with the following landmark reforms:

  • The creation of Philadelphia’s first Office of Sustainability – now codified as a charter-protected office.
  • The creation of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. as an open and transparent waterfront manager out of the ashes of the disgraced Penn’s Landing Corp.
  • The adoption of the Green2015 plan, which would add 500 acres of park space to the city and serve the more than 200,000 residents who don’t live within a 10-minute walk of a park
  • The adoption of the city’s first comprehensive plan to guide physical development since the halcyon days of the renowned city planner Ed Bacon.

These reforms, coupled with a renewed interest in urban life, have been bolstered by a host of sparkling, place-making projects: the Center City District’s elegant reimagining of Dilworth Park; the Fairmount Park Conservancy’s conjuring of the Oval from a desolate parking lot on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway; the University City District’s transformation of a median strip into the lively and lovely Porch at 30th Street Station; and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s bubbly and urbane pop-up beer gardens. All these projects and more have added verve and vibrancy to mundane and forgotten corners of the city.

And yet intractable challenges remain.

Our school system remains broken and underfunded, and it’s a perennial political football. We are the poorest and least educated of the 10 largest cities in the United States, with generational poverty crippling many neighborhoods as the threat of gentrification looms for others. The good times that have swept through portions of the city, such as the river wards and Center City, are clearly not penetrating the heart of the metropolis. Equity, inclusion, pathways out of poverty, and true diversity remain as elusive now as they have ever been.

With a nascent mayoral race just barely getting the public’s attention, it’s a good time to ask what kind of city we want to live in. Do we risk sliding back into the shadows of the 1990s and early 2000s, when Philadelphia was a doppelganger for the Baltimore of The Wire? Will the next mayor continue the reforms begun under Nutter? Have we finally thrown off Lincoln Steffens’ 1903 characterization of the city as “supine” and “benighted”?

The mayoral primary season is upon us, and so far there has been virtually no discussion or real civic engagement about the future of the city. A certain complacency appears to have settled over Philadelphia, as if the advances of the last eight years are automatically going to guide us seamlessly into the next decade. As important as those advances are, they are not enough. There are dangerous shoals to be avoided and a compelling vision to be created. What that vision is, who benefits from it, and how it is articulated and implemented all lie in the balance.

Time will tell.

Harris Steinberg
Harris Steinberg

This opinion piece was first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Jan. 13. Read the full piece here.

Harris Steinberg is the executive director of the Lindy Center for Urban Innovation and a distinguished teaching professor of architecture and interiors in Drexel’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. News media who are interested in speaking with Steinberg can contact Alex McKechnie at ahm62@drexel.edu or 215-895-2705.