Rethinking region’s social infrastructure

Sept. 24

By Matt Golas
For PlanPhilly

It wasn’t planned this way but it turned out to be a pretty powerful one-two punch.

Just a few hours after a group of key politicians and planners gathered in Camden to promote a collaborative, billion-dollar, long-range effort for concentrating growth in areas with infrastructure, that is Philly’s inner-ring suburbs, nearly 100 citizens gathered in WHYY’s Civic Space Thursday evening to watch the screening of The New Metropolis, a two-part documentary series about America’s first suburbs and the challenges they are facing: a dwindling tax base, population and business loss, decaying infrastructure, and increased racial tensions.

The evening kicked off with filmmaker Andrea Torrice’s account of the rise and fall and potential rebirth of the nation’s older, first suburbs and was comprised of two episodes: A Crack in the Pavement: Rebuilding America’s First Suburbs; and The New Neighbors: How One Town Created a Vibrant, Integrated Suburb. The muni that starred by showing off some best practice civic engagement in the second episode was our own Pennsauken.

Following the screening, Harris Sokoloff, who directs the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, managed facilitated small group discussions about how the issues raised by the program play out in our region, and what steps could be taken to address them.

Both the politicians and the regular citizens acknowledged that re-concentrating growth in areas with infrastructure (read stopping white flight), would mean limiting growth and tax revenue in areas with limited infrastructure (read sprawl). But the New Metropolis model, when applied to our region, would take advantage of a legitimate demand by many residents and companies to put down stakes in locations near a community of interest that boast walkability, efficient transit, worker density and shopping and entertainment amenities that are diverse and user friendly.

The program was made possible by WHYY and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, along with the William Penn Foundation and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which were joined in this effort by The Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project, 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania and the New Jersey Regional Coalition.  Each of theses organizations is dedicated to stabilizing and revitalizing older developed communities in the region. They are interested in turning what was learned from Thursday’s film viewing and small group discussions into action. 

The evening was wrapped up by Marlon Millner of the Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project, a regional effort by municipal, faith-based and community leaders from our oldest and most developed suburbs. Millner’s message was simple and direct and a bit old time religion (he is a minister). The First Suburbs project cannot fully address these communities biggest challenges: high taxes, crumbling bridges and sewers, declining school, changing demographics, without help. With that in mind, the project has scheduled an upcoming discussion that is open to the public. On Oct. 8, at the Hiway Theatre in Jenkintown, there will be a screening of The New Metroplis followed by a discussion about stabilizing communities. The session, from 7-9 p.m., will take place at 212 Old York Road. For more information, email

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