From the Editor: PlanPhilly finds a new home at WHYY

“PlanPhilly had more impact than anything that I can think of in years. They really stepped in and created a whole new group that follows planning closely.” 

Gary Jastrzab, Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission

For the past nine years, PlanPhilly has worked to hold the city accountable through beat reporting about planning, design, preservation and development news, investigative journalism and data analysis on issues such as tax delinquency and vacant land, as well as through the discerning voice of its Eyes on the Street blog.

Our journalism is also about process, making sure Philadelphians are well-informed about the forces and decisions that reshape our city. It’s informational and explanatory, and aims to promote a better-designed city with more transparent planning and development.

Now PlanPhilly is making some news of its own. We are leaving our Duhring Wing haunts at the University of Pennsylvania and moving into a newsroom.

While we will continue our great relationship with PennPraxis, PlanPhilly is now a project of WHYY/Newsworks, expanding our reach to a whole new audience. And we will have the opportunity to spread our wings, taking advantage of WHYY’s multiple news platforms like radio and podcasts. We will also, for the first time, develop a revenue generation strategy that will enable us to raise funds from diverse sources to continue our watchdog coverage.

But as the old saw goes: “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”

Nine years ago, the William Penn Foundation funded a project intended to help its grantees collaborate using technology. The process, led by Michael Greenle, included stakeholders across the built-environment community, and yielded a concept for a news and information platform laser-focused on local design, development and planning and building civic interest in these issues. Greenle worked closely with Harris Steinberg, Executive Director of PennPraxis, to develop the concept, creating PlanPhilly and nesting it at Penn.

WHYY news boss Chris Satullo, who I had worked closely with during my time at The Philadelphia Inquirer, asked me to give Steinberg some advice on how to develop PlanPhilly to keep PennPraxis’ momentous visioning project for seven miles of the Central Delaware Waterfront on the front burner.

Steinberg knew that the mainstream media would swoop in on occasion but he really wanted all of the process, including an enormous amount of civic engagement, recorded. I told him to approach it like a newspaper would manage a “beat”. By the end of the meeting we had agreed that I would do just that.

We hired former Inquirer reporters. We used traditional reporting and videography to chronicle every step of an 18-month action plan that set the table for much needed planning reform in Philadelphia.

In an article in The Architect’s Newspaper, Philadelphia Planning Commission Executive Director Gary Jastrzab said the work on the waterfront kick-started a complete rewrite of the city’s 50-year-old zoning code

“They conducted what is considered an unprecedented civic outreach process,” he said. “With that central Delaware master plan underway, Mayor Nutter then was able to provide the political foundation for a citywide master plan.”

But we didn’t stop there. We grew into a professionally-staffed, non-partisan news watchdog that informed and engaged citizens in the design, planning and development processes in Philadelphia.

With a mandate to create transparency around city government, we covered all commission hearings that concerned planning. We showed up with video cameras, asked questions, reported out stories and served the public good by peeling back layers of back-room dealings and obfuscation. Through our work, commissions have become more open and transparent and, we believe, more professional in decision-making.

Since 2007, we have published over 10,000 articles and produced over 3,000 videos. We have created an editorial and commentary component in a separate section called “Eyes on the Street.” We make every effort to engage with our community both on social media and in real life.

In his study of PlanPhilly’s work, Ken Steif, a Doctoral Candidate in the City & Regional Planning Program at the University of Pennsylvania, sums up our transition over time:

“The evolution of PlanPhilly’s coverage is a reflection of how diverse and lively the planning and public policy discourse is in Philadelphia. Its organizational footprint allows it to be nimble and to cover what some might misconstrue as the day to day doldrums of city government. This notion is false.

“When taken in aggregate and as a developing narrative, these accounts give readers unprecedented insights into the planning process from conception, to public comment, politicization and finally enactment.  

“New ideas in planning are having a transformative effect on our City, its many neighborhoods and the people who live within. PlanPhilly describes these innovations, providing us with both a historical account of where we’ve been and predictive almanac for where we’re going.”

So stay connected with us for the next nine years as the PlanPhilly team of Ashley Hahn, Evan Croen, Jim Saksa, Jon Geeting, Jared Brey, Steve Metzger, Alan Jaffe and yours truly move into new exciting surroundings and develop relationships with colleagues who share our concern for the great city of Philadelphia.

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