New minds take on tough times

The map (above) illustrates where people live and work in the region. One yellow dot represents the location of 300 people and one purple dot represents 300 jobs. All maps courtesy of Planning Collective.

Aug. 20, 2009

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

What do you do when you have recently graduated with a master’s degree in city planning and you want to stay in – and improve – Philadelphia, but the job market is in the worst shape it has been in decades?

Seven recent University of Pennsylvania graduates decided to create their own firm: The Planning Collective.

“In the absense of jobs, we’ve created our own,” said Julie Thompson, 28. Thompson and Emily Dowdall, also 28, sat down with PlanPhilly recently to talk about the group’s unique venture.

Meet the Planning Collective

Thanks to good timing, and fans in high planning places (more on that later), the Collective landed a job that gave their work significant exposure. In late July, PennDesign, PennPraxis, and the Penn Institute for Urban Research brought top urban planners into Philadelphia to examine the current conditions, assets and liabilities of the region and city and figure out how limited resources could best be invested to improve things. Praxis hired the Collective to study population and employment trends in the region and create maps that would visually show what was happening.

(Check out the slideshow at upper right for a sample of the work)

Penn Design Dean Marilyn Jordan Taylor was thrilled with the Collective’s work, which she said really showed her that people live and work everywhere here. “By and large, compared to some other places, the jobs and the people are kind of scattered. Even jobs are sprawling here,” Taylor said in a pre-charette interview with PlanPhilly.

The charette was capped with an open-to-the public infrastructure discussion at the Academy of Natural Sciences. It was attended by more than 400 people, and Taylor praised the Collective from the podium.

“This was our first job, and it was sure helpful to have a public debut,” Thompson said.

Dowdall said throughout the three-day charette and at the public event, the more experienced planners took the Collective seriously. And by the end, they received about half-a-dozen inquiries about future work.

But the Collective members are realistic: They are seeking – and some have landed – other jobs. They hope that by using their connections, making the most of some early opportunities that came through those associations, they will eventually be able to support all seven exclusively with the Collective’s work. In the meanwhile, members who have jobs will contribute during nights and weekends while the others spend their days on Collective projects.

Here’s how it all began.

All but one of the Collective members took a studio course at Penn, called Philadelphia 2040, in which they were asked to think about what the city could look like in the middle of this century. This class was unique. Not only did students look at real problems, they came up with potential solutions in the company of top planners from Penn, the private sector and the city.

Three studio teams worked with former deputy mayor for planning and commerce Andy Altman, Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger (who is now also doing Altman’s job on an acting basis), Penn City and Regional Planning Department Chair John Landis, WRT principal Richard Bartholomew, Jim Kise of Kise, Straw and Kolodner and Penn Praxis Executive Director Harris Steinberg. The class was a pet project of School of Design Dean Marilyn Jordan Taylor.

Outside of class, even before the class had started, the seven friends’ social gatherings tended to mostly involve talk about planning, and mostly planning issues in Philadelphia – the native city of about half of them.

“We have a general frustration with Philadelphia’s failure to reach its potential,” Dowdall said. They also shared a keen interest in working together to do something about it.

“There are a lot of ideas and plans in Philadelphia, but few get implemented,” said Thompson. She described a vicious cycle she thinks has been spinning here for years: Citizens get excited about new plans, but then they never become reality. “People have lost faith in the City’s ability to get things done, and that makes it harder for the City to get things done, because they need citizen involvement to do that.”

Dowdall and Thompson said there is a very hopeful sign that Philadelphia could be breaking away from that pattern. The creation of the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware could have wound up just another  hopeful plan gathering dust on somebody’s bookshelf, Dowdall said.

But the city is taking small, but extremely important steps already by moving forward with the Pier 11 project, which will turn the abandoned structure into green space, as well as starting work on a multi-use trail. Thompson agreed that biting off a small part of the broader plan and making it happen will help restore residents’ faith in planning.

The friends started thinking that they could actively help break the old cycle – in part by dusting off plans made, but never executed, for Philadelphia’s various neighborhoods over the years and looking for modest pieces that could be accomplished relatively simply. They are considering applying for a foundation grant to look at all the existing neighborhood plans in this light, and also to see where they overlap or conflict with each other. They also hope that individual neighborhood associations might hire them.

Collective members have worked in a number of different city governments and agencies. Their interests and experience include sustainable development, creative reuse of existing structures, transit and food systems. The varied experiences are one of the factors that prompted the group to join forces, even if seven is a larger-than-normal size for a firm so new that it is still in the process of incorporating.  They believe that planning problems would be better solved in a holistic way, across these areas.

Also, despite the tough economy, this could be the best time for a group of people interested in urban issues to start a firm, Dowdall said. Washington is having a “metro moment,” she said – the Obama administration thinks urban areas are vitally important to the nation’s health.

Once the idea to start their own firm gelled, the Collective started talking to the professional planners involved in the Philadelphia 2040 seminar to find out, essentially, if they were nuts.

They got encouragement from Greenberger, who said in a recent interview they did “professional caliber work” during the studio. “I think they’re fabulous. I do not want them scattering to the wind,” he said. “This is my personal initiative at keeping people who graduate from local  universities in the city of Philadelphia.” Greenberger said he plans to continue to meet with Collective members and “encourage them in their endeavors.”

More commonly, said Praxis’ Steinberg, fresh grads concentrate their efforts on landing jobs at established firms – wherever they may be.

“This is unusual, but I think it’s a creature of the economic downturn,” he said. “They are taking the initiative to keep themselves fed, and working a variety of different jobs while pulling together to maintain engagement with the planning community. They are trying to position themselves to be players in the years to come.”

Based on the work they’ve done for him, Steinberg predicts they will succeed. “The maps created in advance of the charette were powerful images that helped shape the converstaion in a really positive way,” he said. “I think they will be a force to be reckoned with in the future of the Philadelphia planning world.”

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