Alan Greenberger on Rocky, the innovation gene and the virtues of the vertical

    Alan Greenberger is Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for economic development and director of commerce. He also heads the city planning commission and has been part of the Nutter Administration since Day one. An architect, he previously was a principal with one of the city’s top design firms, MGA Partners.

    “Five Questions with …”  is a regular Keystone Crossroads feature where we seek to glean wisdom and ideas from some of Pennsylvania’s top urban thinkers and doers.  Alan Greenberger is Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for economic development and director of commerce.  He also heads the city planning commission and has been part of the Nutter Administration since Day one.   An architect, he previously was a principal with one of the city’s top design firms, MGA Partners.

    Q: Tell us about an amenity or service that you’ve seen in your travels to other places that you wish you could bring back to your city/community?

    A: Many cities in eastern Europe run their transit on the honor system.  You buy a fare card and if you are caught cheating during a random check, the fine is serious.  But most of the time, nobody bothers you. Berlin, which has an extensive transit network, is a good example and one that I have experienced.  The beauty of the system is that there are no barriers, fences, or turnstiles, making the system feel and behave as accessibly as a city street.  This encourages transit usage and unifies how people connect with each other in the city.  It was truly beautiful.  One night, it’s 11 p.m. near our hotel in the former East Berlin.  My wife, Greta, says there was a good dessert place a mile or two away. We walk downstairs to the U Bahn and we are there in 10 minutes, easy and effortless.  I kept wondering why we couldn’t do that here. (Yeah, yeah, I hear the snorts of disbelief.)

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    Q: What’s one urban improvement idea that you could categorize as “nice try but didn’t work”?

    A: Overspending on fussy sidewalk paving.  It usually looks nice, but doesn’t really have the impact on perception that something vertical has, such as a tree, a kiosk, or a sign.  Humans live and perceive the world in the vertical direction.  The horizontal is more of an abstraction.  So if you want bang for the buck, think vertical.  Good example of thinking the right way from our own city:  Somewhat expensive precast concrete pavers up and down South Broad Street don’t have much of an impact.  Flip side: When the Center City District had the opportunity to spend a lot of money on sidewalks throughout Center City, they spent it instead on lighting, trees and new sidewalks only at the cross walks (where we actually pay attention to the horizontal).

    Q: Describe a person in your community who is a “spark” — someone who seems to get things done and inspire people. (This does not need to be an elected official.)

    A: There are a great many fairly obvious candidates to me:  John Fry of Drexel, Amy Gutmann at Penn, Paul Levy of Center City District, Michael Nutter.  Let me give you one that is perhaps not as obvious: Mike DiBerardinis, Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for environmental and community resources.  I admit that Mike and I have become good friends over the last five years.  But friendship aside, Mike has great vision, political acumen, and will power – a nice trifecta of assets.

    Q: What flaw or habit does your city/community have that you would like to see it change?

    A: When I started with the city, I would have said that Philadelphia’s intense parochialism and inability to update its own narrative were in dire need of redirection.  I wouldn’t say that this habit has disappeared, but I do believe that we have come a long way in understanding who we really are, what really drives our economy and way-of-life and how we need to tell this story not only to the rest of the world, but also to ourselves.  This is the transformation that really caused me to join city government and one that I hope I have contributed to making happen. 

    Old Philadelphia is “Nega-delphia.”  New Philadelphia – the one that a lot of the rest of the country and world understand better than we do – is attractive, dynamic and capable of tackling big issues (and there are big issues, let’s not forget).  One time on a panel, at the spur of the moment, I said something like, “It’s time to pitch Rocky in the river.”   I’m proud to report that Rocky is becoming an enduring, loveable, but ultimately quaint relic of the near past.

    Q: Tell us about a movie or book that depicts, in a way that grabbed your attention, how a city can thrive or fail.

    A: Well, yeah, there’s always Rocky, the hard-luck no-good who loses the fight, but wins Adrian and has spawned a generational attitude of civic pride and victimhood on Philadelphians.  Nah…too obvious.  I recently read Start-up Nation, the story of Israel’s technology/entrepreneurial community. 

    Though it is ostensibly about a country, it’s really about Tel Aviv and its metropolitan area.  The story is a remarkable interweaving of circumstances unique to this place and this culture, not easily replicated elsewhere.  But as one understands these circumstances, you do get a good sense for the kind of environment that makes a place more innovative and energized – something that any city needs to do in a globally competitive world.  There are going to be many cities that do alright and maintain a reasonable quality of life.  But if a city wants to grow, it’s going to have to tap its “innovation gene.” 

    We’ve committed ourselves to advancing this cause in Philadelphia.

    On the visual front, I was always mindful how that television show about the good-looking female coroner in Boston (helpful editor’s note: Rizzoli and Isles) always had horrific stories of death and gore, but Boston always looked good as a setting for it.  Their narrative was working beautifully.  I admire that.  And of course, Paris always looks good in pretty much any movie.

    Is there someone you know who thinks hard about cities and knows how to get things done?  Someone whom Keystone Crossroads should spend “Five Questions with …”  Please let us know in the comment sections below or via Facebook or Twitter @Pacrossroads.

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