It’s our time, let’s seize it

May 15

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

 “Philadelphia Works.”

That was the suggested take-away – with a capital W – for the media from Mayor Michael Nutter Thursday evening. He was joined by Deputy Mayor for Planning and Commerce Andrew Altman and City Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger as they sketched out “the city’s bold new vision for sustainable planning and infrastructure investment.”

The three architects of the city’s short- and medium-term economic prospects spoke at the Academy of Natural Sciences for an event staged by the Penn Institute for Urban Research as part of its “Philadelphia 360˚” public interest series. They were joined by Ricky Burdett, director of the Urban Age program at the London School of Economics, and Bruce Katz, vice president and founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

The program was introduced by Susan Wachter, professor of real estate and finance at Penn’s Wharton School and co-director of Penn IUR. The panel wrapping up the event was moderated by Eugenie Birch, chair and professor of Penn’s Department of City and Regional Planning.

Greenberger went over many of the remarks he gave in February at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a national coalition of government officials, academics and business leaders that was held in Philadelphia for the first time. Again he stressed the value of the vast industrial lands on the city’s edges by each river and large swaths through the middle of the city, including the infamous “Amtrak corridor” in North Philadelphia.

He also pointed to the big chunk of gray that lay between the “aerotropolis” (which evidently is Deputy Mayor of Transportation Rina Cutler’s new buzzword for Philadelphia International Airport, when it is combined with a new research center) and the major West Philadelphia “node” that encompasses Penn, Drexel and the major hospitals adjacent to the universities.

“We started to realize that the opportunity in front of us is both a reinforcement of the industry that works, but also a kind of recovery, redevelopment and an opportunity to grow,” Greenberger said.

Major plans taking shape include how to put the city’s 19,000 acres of industrial land to re-use (amounting to 20 percent of the city’s area, and twice the size of Fairmount Park, not even including the airport). Though short on specifics, he did give an outline of how to begin, with pentagram-like charts that showed a “DaVinci code” of connections within a rough circle of opportunity.

To the north of the enjoined compass is the North Philadelphia rail corridor; to the south the “aerotropolis” and the redeveloping Navy Yard. To the east is the city’s working port and the Delaware River waterfront; to the west the Schuylkill River Trail, the Penn Connects projects and Fairmount Park.

“We thought, ‘This probably represents the opportunity that is out there for us over the next several decades,” Greenberger said. “We also have to think about what we’re going to do about it. We don’t have answers to that yet.”

In the meantime, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., working with Interface Studio LLC, is concluding a parcel-by-parcel study of the city’s industrial lands – used or unused – scheduled to be submitted by July.

Growth for industry, shrinking government
“Just two weeks ago, we announced Greenworks Philadelphia. What it’s really about,” said Nutter, pausing toward the end of his remarks, “is work. What it is that we do and how do we do it that either puts someone to work, makes the city work better, improves educational opportunity and outcomes … When people are working, our crime rate will go down. When people are working we’ll have the resources financially we need to make other investments in the city.”

Nutter seemed almost punch-drunk after a bruising couple of weeks dealing with City Council and the 2010 city budget, and various city agencies that took a beating from a recent series of articles in the Inquirer. But he bore down in his final remarks.

“Government is not the employer of last resort,” Nutter said. “Governments facilitate opportunity. We help create and support and encourage an entrepreneurial spirit. We have to unleash that so that other people can create jobs.

“We’re actually shrinking the size of the government. … From the time we came in (16 months ago) until this budget hopefully gets enacted, we will have shrunk the budget by some 3,000 positions. And it’s going to continue to shrink.”

Nutter mentioned several times how encouraged he has been of late to work with surrounding counties on a vision to emerge together as a metropolitan region, competing with other areas of the country and the world.

“That’s our job,” he said. “To coordinate in ways that we have not done in the past and make this city … work.”

Global, national context
The theme of the evening was “The Future of Cities: The World, The Nation, Philadelphia,” and the first speaker was Burdett, who spoke well of Philadelphia’s “citiness,” which is a good position to be in as the world becomes more urban in a startlingly short period of time. In 1900, only 10 percent of the world’s population lived in cities, the United Nations reports. By 2007 it was 50 percent. By 2050, it is estimated to be 75 percent.

Burdett said the United States is not yet as urbanized as the rest of the world and the suburban sprawl and wanton development schemes here are long-term problems. But he gave a short but startling slide show of cities around the world with much more appalling physical bifurcations between rich and poor. One was an enormous barrio of two million people without running water in Caracas, Venezuela, separated by a large highway from the rest of the city. Another depicted slums in Sao Paulo, Brazil, cheek-by-jowl with a luxury development with tennis courts and towers occupied by residents so wealthy that each balcony has its own swimming pool. As Burdett mentioned, that particular photo looked as though it had been PhotoShopped, so sharp was the contrast.

In Mexico City, 22 million people and counting are eating up the natural resources of the land around it. One person per minute, of each day, is moving into the city of Lagos, Nigeria. The population in Mumbai, India, is expected to be larger than that of Tokyo by 2050, Burdett said, with many living in conditions just as bad, or worse, than those filmed for the early scenes of “Slumdog Millionaire.”

“We can get romantic about poverty, but we shouldn’t,” Burdett said. In Shanghai, he said, there are some 9 million bicycles for a population of more than 11 million. But bikes are starting to be banned from some streets in that flat city to make way for cars.

“Density is at the heart of a political agenda, not just a transportation agenda,” he said, adding that 75 percent of global CO2 is produced by cities. To his point, though, he gave this juxtaposition of priorities: in Los Angeles, 81 percent of the population takes a car to work, while in Tokyo – with 35 million people – 78 percent take public transit.

The Obama effect: TBD
Katz, of the Brookings Institution, has been on loan to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and said he is often asked if he thinks President Obama will govern as a “metropolitan president.”

“It’s amazing that we even have to ask that question in the United States,” he said, since fully 30 percent of Americans live in traditional central cities and about 83 percent live in metropolitan areas – where 90 percent of the gross domestic product is generated. “I’m not sure the United States knows who it is.”

For those much-discussed first 100 days in office, though, Katz said, “We have a president who talks about the country as a metro nation.”

The White House now has an urban czar, a climate czar and the stimulus package invests in innovation and connections between schools, homes and transportation, among other things, he said.

“But here’s the kicker. President Obama inherits a government that is a legacy government,” is addicted to bad habits, promotes sprawl and decentralization in lieu of redevelopment and density, and has “really never governed in a metropolitan way.” The federal government governs by silos and by distribution to individual states “they spread the money around like peanut butter.” It is governed by function rather than geography, by political motives rather than by market and sustainable means.

“I think he’s going to need your help,” Katz said of Obama. Despite how much the president might get it, “The federal government is not going to figure this out by itself. [Obama] fundamentally needs a new class of leaders bubbling up their innovation from below, to recapture our federal government so this nation can move forward.”

Nutter said he hears that, but that “I would also suggest that the federal government has finally found cities. Because the only way the president was ever going to create or save three to four million jobs was in cities and metropolitan areas.”

‘Recovery war room’
“Our strategy for growing our city has to be realistic and practical,” Nutter said. In addition to Philadelphia’s serious challenges such as the disinvestment of the last 50 years, “we should think about our incredible portfolio of assets. And then what do we want to do with those assets – how do we make the best use of what we have to get what we want.”

Perhaps owing to countless days staring at balance sheets, Nutter made an interesting point about all of the attention paid to the short-term federal stimulus, or “recovery act,” money headed our way.

“I don’t want us to lose sight of the fact that, while there’s so much excitement around the recovery act, we still do have a federal government that has budgets,” he said. “Every one of those departments and agencies in the federal government cannot allow the cloud, or the great mask, of the economic recovery act dollars to obscure the fact that HUD has a budget. The Transportation Department has a budget.”

Likewise with the Energy and Education departments. “And they will spend those dollars,” Nutter continued. “We keep getting the question, ‘What are you going to do when your stimulus money runs out?’ Well, we’re going to keep spending our federal resources that come anyway.”

Philly is “quite distinct from other cities – there’s a fairly clear sense here of what your assets are,” commented Katz. “You’ve got to basically have a vision at the local level. Washington just rains down dollars, really, in all these compartmentalized silos. It doesn’t really have a vision for Philadelphia. It never will have a vision for Philadelphia. You have to a vision, and then you have to go to Washington, and convince in the current system, each of these separate silos, that your vision is compelling,” and requires additional investment and reforms.

That “we are an old city” is both a strength and a challenge, Nutter said, and referred at least twice to “some exciting possibilities” for the re-use of the abandoned industrial lands that Greenberger spoke of, along with new job programs such as weatherization plans for the city’s 400,000 row homes, for starters. That will start putting people to work in the “green economy” (the administration was to hold a ceremony Friday for the first crop of 20 graduates in a city-sponsored weatherization program).

Nutter said that Altman has been put in charge of a new realignment of all city agencies “that have anything to do with building anything, growing anything, or developing anything in our city government” and breaking down the existing silos that have stood for decades – making use of a “recovery war room” with all maps, all plans and all budgets in one place to maximize their use across the city.

“We can lead again as a thought leader in city planning and development,” said Altman. “And it starts by having discussions and dialogues like this.”

As a native Philadelphian with the unique eye of someone who has lived and worked elsewhere for 20 years, Altman said he and Nutter agree that “we are often our worst enemies. We have to raise our aspirations. … We have to put ourselves in a different context, in a different constellation, than we often think of ourselves.

“We are part of the urban age,” he said. “We need to be more a part of the urban age in terms of the way we connect to the global economy and to the global network of cities. … Philadelphia’s urban form is one of its greatest assets. The sustainable foundation of this city is one of its greatest selling points.”

“This is the moment, not only for change, but for collaboration,” Nutter said, noting the newfound serious partnership with leaders of neighboring counties on programs involving SEPTA and energy efficiency.

“There’s an incredible opportunity in this downturn for us to turn toward each other, not away from each other, and utilize opportunities not only with funding, but with a federal government that has found cities once again.”

ON THE WEB:

Penn Institute for Urban Research

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.

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