You’ve likely had this moment. You’re in another city, on business or pleasure. Could be Boston, could be Austin, could be Barcelona.
You notice some amenity, some civic space, some service that city offers its residents. And you say to yourself: “Boy, this is great. I wish we had this back home.”
Of course, it you’re a typical Philadelphian, there’s a good chance you’d express this sentiment in the negative: “Of course, Philly would never do something this smart.”
My wife had this experience a few years back when she visited Millennium Park and Navy Pier in Chicago, with its huge, irresistibly iconic sculpture known popularly as The Bean.
She came back saying, “Now THAT is how you do a waterfront.”
By contrast, Philly has what I call Stonehenge on the Delaware, the forlorn concrete piers that are the residue of a never-finished crossriver tram ride.
I also had such a moment years ago at a bus stop in London. Wow, I said to myself, they actually tell you what buses stop here, where they go and how long until the next one.
I’ll grant SEPTA this. It’s gotten a little better at this type of thing since then, but it still has a ways to go. Smart card, anyone?
Civic improvement depends on the people of a community expanding their sense of the possible. And travel is a key way to do that. When you see what good thing another city has done to make itself pleasant, navigable, helpful, you realize … well, that such things can in fact be done.
Pennsylvanians, and Philadelphians in particular, suffer from a sadly cramped sense of the possible. This is in part due to becoming acclimated to deep-seated, Rust Belt woes. And it’s partly due to getting used to a can’t-do political culture that is energetic and ingenious only in its corruption.
But I’ve always believed another factor is at play: Philadelphians don’t really get around all that much.
The Philly airport, here in the nation’s sixth-biggest market, ranks only 18th nationally in passengers. Multiple factors account for this, but here’s one: When Philadelphians vacation, so many just go to the Jersey Shore (AKA Philly by the sea) or the Poconos (Philly in the pines).
But you … you get around some, right? You’ve had some of those aha! moments standing in another city, where you go: By God, we should do this back home.
If so, Keystone Crossroads would like to hear from you.
Keystone Crossroads is the new statewide public media partnership, led by WHYY, that’s delving into the challenges and potential of Pennsylvania’s cities. We want to look everywhere, from Baltimore to Berlin, for ideas on how the state’s cities can improve.
So … please tell us what great idea you saw in action in another city that you’d like to import to your community.
You can do it by adding a comment below. Or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call 215-351-2386.
From Antwerp to Denver
The other day, I asked around the office for some of my colleagues’ let’s-bring-that-back-home moments.
I got a lot of responses.
Since many of them are young, “green” and transit-oriented, a lot of the responses clustered around SEPTA. Smart cards, sure, or at least ticket machines where you can buy a ride to where you want to go. Transit stations that, like Montreal’s, an architect actually spent some time designing.
Water taxis, our social media strategist Shannon McDonald said – on the Delaware at least, and maybe the Schuylkill, too. (A few years back, when I helped lead the civic engagement process for the public vision for the Central Delaware, a number of people mentioned that idea.)
Cleanliness was much on people’s minds. Chicago got cited as a city that does much better at recycling and keeping its neighborhoods, not just the central business district, clean.
Bike shares! Lots of people mentioned that, whether it was New York, Paris or London where they’d seen that first. That amenity, at least, is coming soon to Philly.
Shai ben-Yaacov, the producer of NewsWorks Tonight, mentioned that Tel Aviv has outdoor public exercise equipment stations. I have a life-sized picture of me actually using one of those, but I bet you might.
A much larger City Council, with volunteer members, that functions more like a town meeting — that was the recommendation from Maiken Scott, host of The Pulse, who’s seen such councils at work in her native Germany. Philly Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell will get right on that, I’m sure, Maiken.
And a half dozen folks cited towns – from Denver to New York to Antwerp – with pedestrian-only corridors downtown that gleam and bustle. (Some of my co-workers are too new to town to remember the Chestnut Street Transitway; the rest are trying to forget.)
See how much fun this is once you start thinking and dreaming?
So, no matter in what city in Pennsylvania you live, no matter where you’ve traveled, think a bit on what ideas from elsewhere you’d love to see your town import, and let the team at Keystone Crossroads know.
They’ll get on the case and report back on just what it would take to make some of your ideas happen.