At Penn summit, leading urban thinkers ponder a course correction

In his 2017 book “The New Urban Crisis,” Richard Florida writes about an ongoing tug-of-war between two schools of thought among the urban intelligentsia: the Optimists and the Pessimists. Florida, who famously has been a bell cow on the side of the Optimists — primarily by coining the term “the creative class” and writing about the ways those highly educated individuals contribute to urban turnarounds — plots out a course correction in this book. It turns out the Pessimists are pulling him toward the center.

He makes amends for zooming in too closely on what propels cities forward, and, upon zooming out, urges his audience to look at a picture that’s more complicated. It’s a sobering assessment of the urban renaissance he hailed back in 2002, with “The Rise of the Creative Class.” While there is plenty to remain optimistic about, Florida says, the warts of urban progress — including the growing sense of division inside our cities, stemming from stratified wealth, non-inclusive housing, and racial and economic segregation — are increasingly hard for him to ignore. He now portrays the state of cities in the 21st century as troubling to say the least, although he writes about the need to find middle ground between the two poles of urbanism.

Echoes of this same dialogue sounded inside the Penn Museum during a three-day conference that brought together established names in urbanism from across the country to explore a concept dubbed “civic infrastructure.” The event was hosted by PennPraxis, the nonprofit arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, and coincided with the release last week of a 87-page report (following up on an initial lengthy white paper from last year) that also studies the same themes.

The conference organizers chose to look at urbanism and public space, not unlike Florida in his latest book, through a wide-angle lens. “ ‘Civic infrastructure,’ the central idea in this report, is an ideal meant to repair, reinforce, and realize the value of the complexity and connectedness of cities,” PennPraxis’s Elizabeth Greenspan and Randall Mason write.

Though the phrase civic infrastructure conjures visions of bridges and roadways, it is defined by PennPraxis as something more than just physical spaces. It’s also everything that imbues them with life: All the histories, traditions, cultures, and stories inhabiting our public spaces. It’s a way of thinking about cities — a kind of course correction of pedagogy — that is trying to collapse many of the divisions in urban life that the Pessimists so often point out.

“The alienation of urban renewal and segregation — as well as the professions’ knack for dividing up responsibilities for different urban functions — remains a deeply embedded problem,” Greenspan and Mason write. “Knitting back together the public life of cities, through its civic assets, is one of the major challenges of the current moment in urban history.”

PennPraxis organized the conference around three different ways of looking at civic infrastructure: the site level (a single park, for example); the system level (a well-knit collection of sites, such as a library system or those in a given neighborhood); and the policy level (the citywide, non-place-specific rules that shape its systems). While investments in cities usually focus at the scale of a site — think of a neighborhood ribbon-cutting — the report’s authors argue that “the degree to which a given reinvestment works across and engages all three scales often determines whether or not it will achieve its ambitious goals.”

That type of holistic thinking around public space is increasingly influencing Philadelphia. The most notable example of  “civic infrastructure” ideals being put into practice is arguably Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild initiative, a mega-project that aims to improve neighborhood equity through capital investments in parks, recreation centers, libraries, and playgrounds. Indeed, multiple members of Kenney’s Rebuild administration were present at the conference.

One upshot of the PennPraxis report and the gathering last week was an analysis of projects in other cities whose missions align closely with Rebuild. Those include the Neighborhood Park Plan in Minneapolis and New York City’s Community Parks Initiative, which were studied in the PennPraxis paper. Although no city government is doing equitable development in public space perfectly, there have been some important lessons learned that are particularly apt for Philadelphia as the city embarks on Rebuild. Improving equity through capital projects requires that significant attention be paid to relationship-building  — and mending old wounds — with the neighborhoods receiving the investments. These are often communities that have historically been disadvantaged by reinvestment, whether it was urban-renewal efforts a half-century ago or public-private partnerships more recently. Relationships are important, but so is granting power to communities to decide how reinvestment resources are allocated. Those, in turn, go a long way toward getting buy-in from residents and creating neighborhood stewards for refurbished public spaces over time.

“Without commitments to building trust and mechanisms for communication, these systemic overhauls could replicate historic patterns of disregard,” coauthors Greenspan and Mason note.

Panelist Keir Johnston. cofounder of Philadelphia’s Amber Arts & Design, said benevolent funders and government officials shouldn’t pat themselves on the back too much for adopting more inclusive approaches to public space — after all, they’re not reinventing the wheel.

“As this whole site-based structure and initiative has become popular, we simultaneously reinvigorated this effort but disregard the efforts of those who have done this work for 50 or 100 years … work that we now have these fancy names for,” Johnston said.

Though most of the conversation surrounded the present and recent past of public-space investments in American cities, historical perspectives also were brought in. Shannon Mattern, an associate professor of media studies at the New School in New York, spoke about the ways different generations defined cities as systems, from cybernetics to computer mainframes, all antecedents to the civic-infrastructure concept. After World War II, for example, urban planners began to apply military systems to the deployment of urban resources.

“City managers and urban planners decided that they would take a lot of these war systems [and] war management technologies and apply them to the war happening in our cities in the postwar period,” Mattern said. “These systems metaphors have a lot of ideological baggage.”

It will take new systems thinking to overcome this “new urban crisis” and the intractable divides of cities. The seeds of success might be found in a metaphor drawn from nature, the authors of the Penn Praxis report conclude.

“Civic infrastructure is best understood, by analogy, as an ecosystem — of varied elements, related to one another through a complex set of processes,” Greenspan and Mason write. “The ecosystem analogy yields some highly specific insights about the design of and investment in civic assets and public spaces; it enforces the notion that no single `species’ (building or park) can truly be understood or assessed apart from its relationships to other pieces and processes of the system.“

Disclosure: PlanPhilly originated as a project of Penn Praxis.

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