Friday, February 28, 2014

City Planning

Ross Brightwell -
I recently received a comment from Ross Brightwell on a previous post about Stu Bykovsky's article, A King in the wings.

Instead of being elated that someone so notable actually read my swill, I felt like a kid with my hand caught in the cookie jar.

Perhaps that's the only thing I was right about.

City planning may be the dream job for SIM City nerds, but it's a harsh position facing harsher scrutiny. If you're successful enough to be as revered as Ed Bacon or Ross Brightwell, you become an inadvertent politician, hated for your failures and forgotten for your success. For every Gallery at Market East and Vine Street Expressway, planners are responsible for dozens of public spaces like LOVE Park and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Ross Brightwell was visionary as a city planner and remains a visionary. Saddled with the reality of grim funding, boring sidewalk improvements, and hipsters demanding more trees, it's rare to find city employees so dedicated to their position that they still find time to dream.

Philadelphia's current city planner isn't a household name. In general, our planner is a commission. With so many undereducated activists ranting from their keyboard - myself included - planners wrestle with NIMBYs and approve buildings designed by others. If Brightwell's tenure is unappreciated, that lack of appreciation comes from looking at history through the glasses of 2014.

It's unfortunate that the city's most influential city planners - love them or hate them - were employed in an era when so few, save the planners, actually cared about Philadelphia.

They gave the 1970s I-95, the 90s a complete Vine Street Expressway, and replaced a catastrophic Market East with the Gallery, and we curse them for it. Why? Because we don't remember what happened to Philadelphia when we lost the population of Miami. It's easy to hate so many mid-century developments until you consider the fact that Society Hill was an iffy neighborhood when the Gallery was built.

While we enjoy a Philadelphia so refined we can demand more bike lanes, city planners in the 70s and 80s were faced with competition from King of Prussia and Cherry Hill and a population that was having a love affair with driving. Developers like Ed Bacon and Ross Brightwell saved Philadelphia from a city that could have easily become Cleveland or Detroit, and we have their visions, dreams, and passionate dedication to one city to thank.

It's that optimism that's absent in the bureaucratic nightmare of today's urban planning process. Whether or not planning czars have a place in a 21st Century city that plans itself is a valid question. Comcast, CHoP, and the Mormons are transforming our city on their own dime, relinquishing the need for government dreamers. But it's important to remember - important for me to remember - that the planners that gave us a handful of white elephants also saved one of America's most astounding cities from demise.

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