Friday, October 30, 2009

Imagining Philadelphia



By Greg

As I mentioned in my previous post, there is a new book out called "Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City," in which I have a chapter. The premise of the book is this: Ed Bacon, Philadelphia's famous former city planner wrote an article in 1959 called "Philadelphia in the Year 2009," imagining his hometown 50 years hence. Bacon has been referred to as a visionary countless times, still there are few writings where he predicted the conditions of a future date in this way.

Now that it is in fact 2009, the book looks at how effectively Bacon's vision matches the reality. The original article is the first chapter of the book. The rest of the chapters use the article as a jumping off point to look at Philadelphia's historical development, where we have come since 1959, and where we may take Philadelphia over the next 50 years. The book is edited by Drexel University professor Scott Knowles, who also has a chapter in the volume. Other chapters are by Guian McKee (University of Virginia), Eugenie Birch (University of Pennsylvania); Harris Steinberg (Director of Penn Praxis), and me.

Even if my writing were not included in the book, I am sure I would feel this was a pretty cool project. I hope you will order a copy and give it a read. As a teaser, here is the text from my talk the other night at the book launch event during the Design on the Delaware Conference.


Remarks at Design on the Delaware – October 28, 2009
By Greg Heller

I want to thank Scott for putting this book together, and thank you all for the opportunity to be here this evening.

To chart Philadelphia’s future we need a firm grasp on how we got here. Considering the significance of Philadelphia’s post-World-War II era of planning and development, there is shockingly little written about it. Thanks to Scott’s leadership, we are beginning to change that. This book is not a definitive work. It is the tip of a massive iceberg that many Philadelphians did not even know existed.

Ed Bacon’s 1959 article, “Philadelphia in the Year 2009” – the basis of this book – is a snapshot in time. My chapter puts the article in context, telling the story of Bacon’s life experiences leading to the writing of the article and giving a brief description of the 46 years of his life that followed. The chapter contains a synopsis of a long and fascinating life story that I tell in greater depth in a forthcoming biography that I have authored.

Bacon’s early life is characterized by his Quaker family, conflict with his overbearing father, and a childhood split between city and country life. He went to college at Cornell, then embarked on world travels ending up in Shanghai. Returning to Philadelphia, Bacon worked briefly for a local architect before being accepted at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, under the tutelage of the Finnish architect-planner Eliel Saarinen. Bacon’s stay at Cranbrook was brief, however; Saarinen sent Bacon on assignment to the industrial city of Flint, where Bacon worked for several years.

Bacon was highly influenced by some new friends: Oskar Stonorov, Lewis Mumford, and Catherine Bauer – who were important figures in shaping the future federal priority on subsidized housing. Bacon began to believe that neighborhood design and housing could impact social conditions.

In Flint Bacon delved into local politics, mobilized grassroots organizations to lobby for better housing conditions, and was instrumental in gaining a federal earmark for housing funds. It was in Flint that he met and married his wife, Ruth. However, the powerful establishment thought little of the tenacious Bacon and his quasi-socialist ideas. In 1939 Bacon found his position eliminated, and no hope for a future in Flint.

Bacon returned to Philadelphia where he got a job as director of a nonprofit housing advocacy organization. He also became involved with a new young people’s group called the City Policy Committee. Through a long process that established the Committee’s legitimacy, the group successfully influenced City Council to create a modern city planning commission in 1942.

With World War II raging, Bacon quit his job and joined the Navy, where he was part of the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Upon returning home, Oskar Stonorov convinced Bacon to work with him on designing a massive city planning show – the 1947 Better Philadelphia Exhibition.

To work on the exhibition, Bacon was brought onto the City Planning Commission’s payroll, where he remained after the show was over. After one director left and another died in office, Bacon was invited to become planning director in 1949. He accepted. In 1951, largely thanks to the work of the City Policy Committee’s members, Philadelphia gained a new charter and Joseph Clark was elected Mayor, marking the beginning of the reform era in Philadelphia government.

Bacon’s focus early in his tenure as planning director was on building communities with sound planning and better housing to improve the neediest areas of the city. The 1949 federal housing act presented cities with massive resources for urban renewal. However, Bacon rejected the popular notion of wholesale bulldozing of slums – arguing for a more sensitive approach that valued neighborhood preservation. Working with designers like Stonorov and Louis Kahn, Bacon tried to apply a philosophy of urban renewal that Architectural Forum characterized as “Clearing Slums with Penicillin, Not Surgery.”

Through the 1950s, Philadelphia proved successful in attaining substantial funding and attention, attracting the eyes of the nation to projects such as Society Hill, Eastwick, and Penn Center. However, research reveals that Bacon’s role in these projects was surprisingly limited. Bacon is often compared to development czars in other cities, like Robert Moses in New York, and Ed Logue in Boston. However, except for a brief period in the late 1960s when Bacon served in a dual capacity, he was not a development czar; he was the planning director.

Philadelphia had a development coordinator in the 1950s named Bill Rafsky, a man known for his skill in lobbying for federal funds, and his close relationship with the mayors. Rafsky steered the city’s redevelopment program in ways that Bacon disagreed with, but had little ability to change. Why then when Philadelphia gained international acclaim, was it Bacon who became the face of an era? This is a principle question that I seek to answer in my chapter.

When we study Bacon’s actual role we see that functionally Bacon was a department head with limited power and access to funds. However, through his own initiative he was continually putting himself in the spotlight to sell the media on Philadelphia’s progress. He sought out businessmen and high-level government officials, to convince them of certain ideas that he wanted to see realized.

I argue that Bacon’s success was rooted not primarily in his skill as a physical designer, but in his abilities as a salesman of ideas. He learned to market planning ideas effectively to powerful decision-makers, gain buy-in, and make the ideas resonate in the public consciousness. This was a tremendously powerful skill that other planners and designers of the era lacked or never knew was necessary. I state in my chapter:

Renowned Philadelphia-based architect Louis Kahn said, “If your ideas are right, they—the businessmen and the politicians—will come to you.” Bacon, in contrast, believed that an effective planner had to sell his ideas actively in a persuasive way. Kahn called Bacon “A planner who thinks he is a politician.” Kahn was largely right. Bacon spent his career taking new or existing ideas, filling them out into compelling concepts, and marketing them to key decision makers.

Bacon’s ability to work with governmental and private-sector players can be traced back to his days in Flint, where he carried out forays into politics that turned out disastrously. However, he learned from his mistakes, and after his experience with the City Policy Committee, Bacon was thoroughly familiar with how to work with powerful decision makers. The Better Philadelphia Exhibition taught Bacon how a strong visual image, marketed the right way can change people’s perceptions and expectations.
The evolution of Bacon’s skill as a salesman of ideas is a major thread of my chapter.

Penn Center – one of the projects for which Bacon is most famous – presents a strong example of Bacon’s salesmanship strategy. By the early 1950s Philadelphia west of City Hall was divided by the “Chinese Wall,” the Pennsylvania Railroad’s massive viaduct. Ideas for removing the wall and building a new civic space went back decades.

It is important to recognize that the City did not have jurisdiction over this land. It was the private property of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Bacon saw that in order for the Railroad to develop a major civic project – rather than selling off the land piecemeal – someone would have to convince the conservative executives that it was in their best interest to do so. While it was not in Bacon’s job description, he took on this task.

Initially Bacon worked with a committee of the American Institute of Architects chaired by Louis Kahn to conceive a vision to present to the Railroad. However, Kahn left for Rome, and Bacon decided to abandon the committee and find a new partner. He selected a young architect named Vincent Kling, who was experienced in working with corporate clients, was friendly with several members of the Railroad’s board of directors, and had already been hired for separate work with the Railroad. These factors were no accident. Bacon chose a partner who could help him reach the right people and sell his concept.

With Kling’s help, Bacon engaged in negotiation with the Railroad and its real-estate broker, and in 1952 when the Railroad announced that the Chinese Wall was coming down, Bacon followed with a presentation of what should replace it. However, while Kling and Bacon gained a certain amount of leverage through the power of persuasion, their efforts only went so far. As it turned out, the Railroad hired a New York developer and New York architect who created a design that was criticized universally in Philadelphia, including by Bacon. It was a major cohesive project, but few of Bacon’s design ideas made it to the final product.

Penn Center is but one example of how Bacon’s major role was selling ideas, and attempting to reach powerful decision makers. He took a similar tact throughout his career, marketing concepts to the business community that controlled the interests in what became Market East and Society Hill. Bacon ended up becoming associated with these projects, but other players, whose names we rarely hear, were arguably much more instrumental in actually carrying them forward.

I argue in my chapter:

Bacon’s strength, and the key to understanding his successful initiatives, was his ability to comprehend the power structure and work through the right channels to advance his concepts. Bacon promoted his ideas to decision makers and then (if he was successful) stepped away as others carried out his visions. Through this tenuous process, it is apparent how easily development projects evolved differently than Bacon planned.

In the late 1950s, Bacon assembled a Center City Plan for Philadelphia. Using vibrant images and diagrams, the plan connected disparate projects and visually showed them interlocking, forming one complete vision for Center City. This too was Bacon’s salesmanship at work. Society Hill’s Greenways ran into Independence Mall, which flowed seamlessly into a vision for the Market East shopping center, traipsing all the way to Penn Center. Center City was not a collection of projects; rather a single, cohesive vision.

This complete image of Center City was one that Bacon started to sell to the media, to audiences when he gave speeches, and in his own writings, including the “2009” article. Eventually Bacon landed on the idea of a major celebration of America’s 200th birthday as the greatest venue of all for selling Philadelphia on a massive scale. The 2009 article is the first significant instance of Bacon publicly articulating this total concept. Through the 1960s Bacon would hone his pitch and sell it through presentations, articles, and a film to venues across the globe.

In 1964 Bacon was highlighted as the key player of Philadelphia’s renaissance, with his face on the cover of Time magazine. While Philadelphia’s revitalization had a long ways to go, with still unproven results, Bacon had succeeded in selling Philadelphia to the nation, and selling himself as its lead figure. As his recognition grew, so did his local influence.

Ironically, Bacon largely failed at selling himself. Case studies of his work, his writings and speeches show a man obsessed with developing a successful methodology for empowering communities and helping citizens plan for themselves. Yet, Bacon is often recalled as a dictatorial, top-down planner. Perhaps due in-part to Bacon’s high profile and his forceful and argumentative demeanor, he was not able to effectively practice what he preached.

Another goal of my chapter is to tell parts of Bacon’s story that have not been well told. For example, as expressed in the 2009 article, Bacon’s focus on housing and community development never waned. Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s he wrote and spoke prolifically about the need to build mixed-income, mixed-race communities. He despised high-rise public housing projects, and in the 1960s spearheaded a concept for America’s first scattered site public housing program.

Yet another side of Bacon that is not well known was his crusade to rid the world of automobiles, and his vision for a Post Petroleum City. Bacon started but never finished a book on this topic – imagining a world where people travel only by foot, bike, or transit. In 1966 he explained, “there is a ‘revulsion’ against the automobile and the destruction it does to cities and the countryside. The car is losing its luster as something worth sacrificing for.” Later he attempted unsuccessfully to organize an international conference on the post-petroleum city.

Bacon certainly had his faults, and they were substantial. He was intensely focused on physical design, and paid little attention to policy areas like education and workforce development. He could be unapologetically stubborn in his approach. Bacon did not foresee the extent of American urban decline that would occur in the 1970s and 1980s, and failed to prepare for this period.

Still, in the 2009 article, Bacon imagines a future Philadelphia that invests in a world-class downtown, has thriving neighborhoods, and slowly attracts back the middle class. Today, while cities like Detroit seem headed for the grave, Philadelphia appears on track for the kind of rebirth that Bacon envisioned in 1959. Clearly modern individuals and institutions play an important role, but it is hard not to wonder whether the 1950s and 1960s era actually laid a stronger framework for eventual success than we often give it credit.

Bacon’s role in Philadelphia was hugely significant. However, he was not a power broker, enabled to build physical projects at his whim. In many of the projects of the 1950s and 1960s Bacon was a much more minor player than we have come to believe. To appreciate Bacon’s contributions, he should be recognized as a planner who masterfully understood the dynamics of how society makes decisions – the art of getting things done. I will end this talk the way I end my chapter:

Edmund Bacon’s fame and his lasting influence largely stem from his ability to forge the link between planning and implementation, creating a new role for the city planner as both an active civic participant and salesman of ideas. This was just as rare a feature for planners in 1959 as it is today. The challenge for planners in 2009 is to understand and excel at this subtle art of selling ideas, inspiring decision makers to adopt ideas and transform them into a vivid reality.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Philadelphia Street Furniture Survey

By Ariel

By the end of the year the City will issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to provide, maintain and sell advertising for bus shelters in Philadelphia. The RFP will also invite proposals for additional pieces of street furniture. Street furniture is the collective term referring to objects and pieces of equipment installed on streets and sidewalks that are intended for public use. Transit/bus shelters and newspaper boxes are examples of street furniture currently in use in Philadelphia. Let the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities know what you think by completing this survey.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Shop SEPTA

By Ariel

Recently Greg advertised a forum he will be speaking at regarding access to healthy food in cities. Food systems planning is a really important issue, one that is incredibly important to ensuring a healthy city; check out Amanda Wagner’s article in the spring 2009 edition of Context, the journal of the AIA Philadelphia, for a fantastic exploration of food system planning.

While food system planning tends to focus on the development of grocery stores, farmers markets and community gardens, it does not often make the link between transportation, shopping and food systems. In Europe, and across the world, where communities are more walkable and fresh local produce is more accessible, stopping by a Shouk or a Bazar after work to pick up a few vegetables is a way of life. In America our shopping habits are more concentrated and require more support: we shop for groceries once or twice a month, load up our cars and hope we finish our vegetables before we go shopping again. But when 36% percent of Philadelphians' don’t own cars and when car ownership imposes a significant burden on low income families, then you have a growing realization that there is a critical link between food systems and transit planning.

According to the latest American Community Survey, 26% of Philadelphians commute to work via transit. While they may use transit for work, far fewer use it for such things as shopping. According to a 2005 Econsult on commercial corridors, only 10% of trips to commercial corridors were taken via public transit. More over 52% of all trips to commercial corridors in areas where thirty percent of the population is below the poverty line were via car. However, only 37% of people in those areas actually own cars. Philadelphians with lower incomes have significantly less access to fresh and healthy food and everybody from The Reinvestment Fund, to the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition and State Representative Dwight Evans have been fighting to bridge that gap. Over 125,000 people shop at local farmers markets, and 167,695 Philadelphians live near commercial corridors without grocery stores. By partnering with supermarkets and the Food Trust (which oversees Philadelphia’s 27 farmers markets), by out-fitting buses with simple shelves, and targeted routing changes it is possible to “move the needle” and bring the number of people who shop via SEPTA closer to those who commute via SEPTA.

Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City

By Greg

There is a new book coming out this week published by University of Pennsylvania Press called "Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City."

The book starts with an article by Bacon (Philadelphia's famed city planner) written in 1959, envisioning Philadelphia in the year 2009. The following chapters put the Bacon article in context and interpret its themes relating to Philadelphia's post World War II planning history. The final chapter talks about the promise of Philadelphia in the year 2059.

My chapter is the second in the volume, entitled "Salesman of Ideas, The Life Experiences That Shaped Edmund Bacon."

I invite you to come to a reception, panel discussion, and book signing this Wednesday, October 28th at the Design on the Delaware Conference. It costs $15 ($10 for AIA members and $5 for students) and you have to register online at www.designonthedelaware.com.

Here is the blurb from the conference program:

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2009

Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City - 1.25 AIA/CES LUs; CEU Eligible for PA Landscape Architects

In the fall of 2009 an edited book will be published—Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City—that seeks to add context and analysis to Edmund Bacon’s ideas and his works. Though many of the changes Bacon predicted for the city have come to pass, few of them arrived in the way he imagined. In this program, several of the authors in Imagining Philadelphia will give short readings from their respective chapters followed by audience questions and discussion of the book and its arguments.

Presenters: Eugenie L. Birch, FAICP, University of Pennsylvania; Greg Heller, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission; Scott Gabriel Knowles, Drexel University; Harris Steinberg, FAIA, PennPraxis

Cocktail Reception in Exhibit Hall – 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm (complimentary)
PROGRAM AND BOOK SIGNING - 5:30 pm to 6:45 pm in exhibit hall

Friday, October 23, 2009

TOD works

By Ariel

If there is a problem with planning in general (and there are surely more than one) then it is the fact that plans or developments themselves cannot quickly respond to the market feedback. When New Coke debuted and sales plummeted, Coca Cola had very clear feedback, and could tell if its product “worked.” It took decades for planners to realize that Corbusian ‘plinths in a park’ didn’t work. As Professor Michael Larice often notes, there are no “post occupancy studies” of plans.

Recently The Oregonian featured an article titled Residents of transit-oriented Orenco Station still driving cars to work. The author notes:
"About two out of three Orenco residents drive to work in cars, slightly less than some other suburbs but hardly the car-free utopia many idealists expect of the transit-oriented area. Even as the neighborhood has grown closer, block by block, to the MAX light rail station"
At first glance this “post occupancy study” would suggest that transit oriented development does not work.

However, no matter how damning the headline or lead sentence may be generally one can find far more interesting data further along in a report. For one, it would appear that most people who live in Orenco tend to:
"...walk to shopping and use mass transit for nonwork trips – to the zoo or symphony, for example – at rates that beat other suburban communities… Orenco residents are five times as likely as [nearby neighborhood] residents to walk to shops and stores more than five times a week."
As Jennifer Dill director of the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium notes, only 20% of trips are journeys to work trips. The fact that their journey to work (JTW) still exhibit high car mode share is a function of where they are going. After all, every trip is determined by origin and destination, and if the origin is walkable but the destination isn’t, well, you will simply have to drive there. That is clearly evident when people in Orenco prefer to move around their neighborhood via foot and bike but still drive to work.

Ultimately this a reminder that any single TOD is only as effective as the entire region around it. TOD is not about specific projects here or there, but the rules by which we allow our entire region to be built.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Forum on Food Access and Committee Development

Previously I posted on the issues surrounding food access in urban areas and how these policy topics intersect with community development. You can learn more and become part of the discussion at an upcoming forum hosted by the Philadelphia Committee on City Policy. I will be moderating the discussion. Hope to see you there!

Food Access and Community Development
A Panel Discussion Hosted by The Philadelphia Committee on City Policy

Tuesday November 10, 2009
6:00-8:00 PM
The Center for Architecture (1218 Arch Street, Philadelphia)
Free for PCCP members, $5 for non-members
Light food and refreshments will be provided

Panelists:
Yael Lehmann, MSW – Executive Director, The Food Trust
Vanessa Briggs, MBA, RD, LDN – Executive Director, Health Promotion Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania
Donald Hinkle-Brown – President, Lending and Community Investments, The Reinvestment Fund
Elizabeth Miller – Executive Director, Community Design Collaborative

Moderated by:
Gregory Heller – Managing Director for Economic Growth and Community Revitalization, The Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation

Food access is one of the most important public health issues facing inner city communities today. Many low-income, urban communities lack access to grocery stores and produce markets. Yet food access is not a stand-alone issue; instead it is indelibly connected to local community development, economic growth, and urban planning and design. Philadelphia has recently been recognized as a national leader for efforts to bridge the food access divide, while also working to make the nexus to empower communities and provide assets that can increase neighborhood vitality. Please join the Philadelphia Committee on City Policy for a panel discussion featuring some of the leading experts and practitioners shaping Philadelphia’s nationally recognized achievements on addressing these issues.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Historical Memory



By Greg

I finally got up to New York to see the High Line. As expected, it is pretty cool. It was packed with people sunning themselves, walking, eating at a cafĂ© – all experienced at an elevation to which we are not quite accustomed.

The High Line has some interesting features that attempt to retain the site’s historical memory as a an abandoned railroad bed, like overgrown vegetation and railroad tracks emerging out of the ground in some spots. I found these elements particularly important to the experience. No matter how expensive the park’s finishes (it cost $150 million so far) or the luxury buildings that abut the High Line, its designers want us to remember a period when this viaduct was abandoned and overgrown – a ghost of a vibrant industrial past.

Looking out over the edge of the High Line, it was clear that this linear park was the most recent addition to the living urban museum that is Chelsea. The surrounding neighborhood has similar features of industrial infrastructure captured in a semi-blighted state, adorned and modernized with expensive materials, made relevant through modern uses. Former industrial warehouses hold high-end restaurants, couture shops, and art galleries. Places like Chelsea Market relish the trendy aesthetic of crumbling brick contrasted with expensive lighting and modern art.

Later, from the ground looking up at the High Line I realized something; when there are gaps in the people walking upon it, there is no indication from the street that this modern floating park even exists. From below it still looks like an overgrown and blighted railroad viaduct. And that’s the point. Reusing historic infrastructure is trendy, but surely for the High Line’s designers the viaduct’s reuse was about retaining the historical memory of a less vibrant past.

Like many postindustrial urban areas, there was a time not too long ago when Chelsea’s fate was considerably more uncertain. In a story of urban revitalization that has become well known, Chelsea was rediscovered by artists in the 1980s and 1990s, then by main-stream New Yorkers. Today it is hypergentrified as the High Line floats above a Vera Wang boutique, and runs beside a new Frank Gehry building. Modern-day Chelsea has the privilege of recalling its darker days, while celebrating its affluent success. Many urban areas are not so lucky.

Staring up at the High Line, while eating lunch at an outdoor restaurant where beers cost $7, I thought about my hometown of Philadelphia and our own Reading Viaduct that some hope to turn into the next High Line-esque park. However, unlike in Chelsea, there is no Vera Wang or Barneys in Philadelphia’s Callowhill and Chinatown North neighborhoods. Instead Philadelphia still has postindustrial areas suffering from physical blight and urban decay.

No matter how neat a floating park could be in Philadelphia, the Reading Viaduct’s context makes this reuse inappropriate just now. Its surrounding neighborhoods are not in a position to memorialize the history of a blighted past; that blighted past has not yet become history. Those who feel that the Reading Viaduct is ready to become the next High Line are missing the underlying symbolic meaning of the High Line and its context.

I don’t mean to say that the Reading Viaduct should not be preserved and at some point transformed. However, if this happens, it must be part of a larger strategy that focuses on true neighborhood revitalization, rather than a standalone project.

As I mentioned in a previous post, a few years ago a group of community organizations came to the table and cooperated in developing the Chinatown Neighborhood Plan. The plan charts a course for a comprehensive approach to building physical connectivity, attracting new residential and commercial growth, addressing issues of affordable housing and local economic development, as well as adding new recreational sites (including restoring a major portion of the Reading Viaduct as a floating park). It’s a good plan that was developed through a consensus building process. The City and neighborhood groups should agree to put their weight behind it and make the plan a reality.

Urban revitalization is not about picking and choosing physical projects from other cities and sticking them into one’s own. Building a Reading Viaduct park in Philadelphia without the other investments included in the Chinatown Neighborhood Plan simply misses the point. In contrast, a focus on restoring the community around the Reading Viaduct, with a floating park as an eventual goal to celebrate the community’s resurgence, shows a more thoughtful view of how we rebuild cities, preserve the past, and connect our past to our future.

One final note: While Chelsea is gentrified to the point of no return, the areas around the Reading Viaduct maintain the potential for an equitable revitalization. If Philadelphia can figure out the formula for transforming neighborhoods while retaining diverse, livable, and affordable communities, then we have truly landed on something worth celebrating.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Why Community Planning Belongs in School


Image of community planning models designed by Philadelphia
public school students, displayed at the 1947 Better Philadelphia Exhibition.

I was recently invited to participate in a Philadelphia public high school class where students engage in planning a community-based project (in this case a community garden, seating area, and food stand just a few blocks from the school). Each time I go to class, it strikes me how engaging this project is for building commitment to community, while using a physical neighborhood space as the means of teaching academic subjects and life skills. As part of the class, students are learning about planning, urban design, market analysis, business planning, and community involvement.


Teaching planning in schools is not a new concept for Philadelphia. During the fall of 1946, an experimental city planning course was introduced into the curriculum at sixteen public schools across the city. Staff of the City Planning Commission and the independent Citizens’ Council on City Planning spent months in the classroom working directly with the students, helping them learn about planning concepts, and ultimately guiding them to create their own plans, models, and drawings of the future of their communities.

The first round of student models, drawings, and plans were put on display at the Better Philadelphia Exhibition – a massive showcase of Philadelphia’s city planning work that attracted 385,000 visitors in 1947. Reports on the show praised Philadelphia’s foresight in preparing the next generation of citizens to plan a bright future for their communities. The program was a huge success and was subsequently permanently added to the Philadelphia schools curriculum. I don’t know when or why this planning course was dropped. However, the class I’m involved with today is not a standard feature for Philadelphia’s public school students.

If planning is such a great framework for teaching basic skills and building community values, why don’t we bring it back as a permanent element of the public school curriculum? A few years ago, I suggested this idea to some of my colleagues in education policy. The feedback was resoundingly negative. Their argument was that most public school students in Philadelphia lack adequate reading and math skills. Who has time for something superfluous like planning?


In a recent article Michael A. Rodriguez, a Bethesda, Maryland-based transportation planner, argued for the importance of teaching planning in school. In his article, Rodriguez notes, “To the nay-sayers who do not think schools have time to teach planning concepts, or worry more about 'core' curricula in math, science, and reading, I say that teaching planning concepts is fun and complimentary to teaching other subjects. They are not mutually exclusive.” He notes that teaching planning involves math, geography, and writing. I have seen this overlap with core subjects in the class I am involved with. The community planning element is a way to teach core subjects through an interesting and engaging subject that directly affects that place where the students live.

Rodriguez also adds another argument to the mix: “Planners often encounter ineffective public participation because of the fact that citizens often are not taught planning skills in school.” In other words, if kids aren’t taught the need for planning their communities, how can they become active community participants down the line when it really matters?

Going back to my previous post, it is clear that in order to build stable and thriving communities, we need to focus on developing engaged, concerned, and committed citizens. By teaching planning in schools, we are giving children the opportunity to understand that they can become engaged in their community, and that this engagement can be truly rewarding.

Some of my education policy friends may disagree with me. But ultimately I hope that these students – the parents of the future – will stay in their Philadelphia community (for some I hope this means returning after college). I hope they will become strongly involved in their community, and provide a better environment for living and learning than existed for them during their formative school years.

Education cannot be viewed as simply a process to get kids to a certain level of preparation in math and reading. It must be viewed as our major avenue for preparing the next generation of committed citizens. Otherwise we are missing a critical element of what school is intended to do. Without this element we may help a handful of students to escape and move on to better lives, but we do nothing to solve the underlying issues that afflict their under-served schools and communities in the long-term.