Wishing on 2013 [part 2]

With 2012 safely behind us, I’ve been ruminating on what I hope 2013 will hold in store for our city. As I did last year, I have compiled a New Year’s wish list thinking about ways I hope to see Philly capitalize on its recent wins and break a few old habits. Part 1 of my 2013 wish list focused on planning process, development, and transportation. Here’s part 2 of my 2013 wish list, focusing mostly on our public environment, built heritage, and civic engagement:

Forge More Links in the Schuylkill Chain

The Schuylkill River was lavished with planning attention last year. (Maybe it’ll even be PA’s river of the year?) I talked up the Lower Schuylkill’s green and gritty potential as planners focused on rethinking acres of the area’s underused industrial property. But the biggest Schuylkill story of 2012 might have been about Schuylkill Banks reaching farther south: The Gray’s Ferry Crescent trail segment open in July, the long-awaited Schuylkill River Parks Connector Bridge over the CSX tracks finally links Schuylkill River Park to the Center City portion of the Schuylkill River Trail, a new boardwalk is under construction to extend Schuylkill Banks to the South Street Bridge, and the idea for the Bartram’s Mile trail was introduced. This year I hope we’ll hear the Schuylkill River Development Corporation discuss opportunities to extend Schuylkill Banks even further southward, linking more neighborhoods along this long green chain.

I’m interested in seeing plans to build the key trail segment between the South Street Bridge and the Gray’s Ferry Crescent on the river’s east side, one of the big missing trail segments. And at Gray’s Ferry I’m keen on hearing creative concepts for reusing the old rail swing bridge as a new bike/pedestrian crossing that brings the trail to the river’s east side, linking up with Bartram’s Garden. Repurposing the swing bridge would be a tidy metaphor for the changing Lower Schuylkill, its simultaneous industrial past and greener future on display. More than that, the trail extension would also bring a new green amenity alongside neighborhoods where this sort of investment is rare.

Let all of this progress on Schuylkill Banks be a reminder for all of us who wish to see the Delaware waterfront trail system take off. Patience, Grasshopper, these things take years of perseverance.

Historic Preservation Reboot

We are a city rich with historic fabric and a disproportionately poor track record of preserving our built heritage. Our city’s historic preservation apparatus needs to be rebooted and there’s no time like the present. The Historical Commission has too small a staff and budget to adequately address the city’s preservation needs: It remains difficult for Commission staff to pursue new designations, adequately regulate alterations, or conduct surveys of resources worthy of protection. In nearly every way, the Commission needs more resources in order to do its job and do our city’s heritage justice. In the meantime, we preservationists and neighbors have to take up the task of pushing forward nominations for buildings we care about before it is too late. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and Hidden City recently held a nomination workshop and we hope to see more of the same to help folks navigate the local preservation process.

The Preservation Alliance is in a momemnt of transition now that Executive Director John Gallery has stepped down. I hope that when Caroline Boyce takes the helm in March she will bring new energy to the Alliance’s advocacy work, as well as a sense of urgency and strategic focus to the organization during this critical moment.

Philly deserves to have options when it comes to preservation, but all too often it’s too late. Buildings need uses in order to be viable, but for that to happen we can’t let them crumble to the point of no return. Many of the city’s historic resources are not protected through listing in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, so it is shockingly common to see great buildings demolished (Church of the Nativity) or neighborhood icons threatened (Ortlieb). In more average, insidious ways we’re also watching the city’s historic neighborhoods fall in on themselves for lack of resources. We need to stop the bleeding before too much of the city becomes unsalvageable – or worse – unrecognizable. 

Improving Green Infrastructure

I am a fan of the city’s Greenworks and Clean City, Green Waters plans, which are advancing the city’s goal of becoming a greener city. But I have to admit that some of the pieces of green infrastructure built in keeping with these plans are not very attractive. I appreciate the use of native species planted at new rain gardens and retention basins that are popping up on our streets and in our parks. These plants are low-maintenance and support the region’s ecology, but some have a downside: Many of these sites feature reedy grasses that act like barbed wire to plastic bags: They ensare trash from the litter tumbleweeds that endlessly blow down Philadelphia’s streets (see below). Retention basins and trenches designed slow the absorption and infiltration of stormwater also tend to trap trash, making these cool green amenities look like tiny landfills.

I know we’re still working out how to design these pieces of green infrastructure, but our trash-wind patterns need to be considered here too. Can these high-performance landscapes become less like trash magnets? It makes part of our growing system of green infrastructure look less deliberate and a bit sad.

Clean Up Our Act

Like so many Philly problems, trash and litter seem to be perennial, pervasive issues. Blame it on a combination of bad behavior, low expectations, and spotty enforcement. Blocks groups organize to curb litter, commercial corridors pay for street cleaning crews, and of course the Center City District is out on their little green machines making sure the city’s core looks pretty darn good. But they’re up against some pretty big obstacles.

In my neighborhood I’ve witnessed people stuff trash bags into street storm drains, stepped over oozing containers plopped next to BigBellies, wrestled discarded chicken bones from my dog’s mouth, found bottles of urine in the planter in front of our house, and seen bike baskets overflowing with trash simply from having been parked somewhere too long. And those are small problems compared to the illegal dumping epidemic on vacant lots in neighborhoods citywide.

It’s time to call out the slobs who foul up the city, from the casual litterbug to reporting dirtbag dumpers blighting vacant lots. It is our civic duty to report these sorts of problems to 311 and for more serious problems lean on elected officials and city agencies for help. We need a citizen blight squad.

Trash sends a powerful message about the kinds of behaviors that are and are not acceptable in our communities. Call it a broken window theory of trash, but our neighborhoods deserve better.

Mobilize Citizen Power

Philadelphians are working to improve their corners of the city every day, but too often they’re doing it alone. We need to harness the energy of everyday Philadelphians. Residents need better ways to meaningfully connect with government and city services. Block Captains are an untapped action-oriented army that the city does little to capitalize on. These folks need an up-to-date neighborhood improvement toolkit that will help residents tap into city services to address neighborhood quality of life concerns. The city can’t solve every neighborhood problem, but it can help empower residents and foster new ways for neighborhood leaders to connect with one another to share knowledge and experiences.

Recent civic tech projects, like Neighborhow and Change by Us, aim to network this kind of civic energy and know-how. These platforms have great potential, but as we know not enough people are well-wired. Let’s not let the digital divide get in the way of empowering more residents in the neighborhoods that could use the help the most. 

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