(December 2014)

A little perspective is a good thing, even if it takes a good amount of time to develop.

At the end of the 20th century, American cities needed a little hope and some guidance. Decades of urban crises -- and the resulting population and job loss -- left many convinced that cities, themselves, were an anachronism.  To help challenge that notion, I wrote the book Philadelphia: A New Urban Direction (1999, Saint Joseph’s University Press).  With the assistance of my colleagues in the City Controller's Office, I examined the trends and issues affecting the city and laid out a plan to make Philadelphia a preferred place to live, work, and visit.  

Now, more than a decade and a half after its first publication, some recent developments (and a lack thereof) help illustrate an important truth about cities.  The city remains, most fundamentally, a place to live.  When we cultivate the city as a place to live, it thrives.


In concluding the book, I noted plans for a few future building projects that provided hope that some were still bullish on city investment.

Philadelphia’s turnaround from the brink of bankruptcy to record budgetary surpluses has generated national attention.  The City’s positive energy has attracted favorable notice from such diverse organizations as the Republican National Committee, which selected Philadelphia as the site of the 2000 Republican National Convention, and the Walt Disney Company, which selected Philadelphia as the site of the world’s third DisneyQuest interactive theme park.  This positive momentum is slated to continue.  In the near future, eye-popping waterfront development, dramatic airport expansion, and the largest post-World War II private housing development in the City, should add to Philadelphia’s evolution.


We now know the history of these projects.  More than 1,000 Philadelphia residents now live in the homes developed on the site of the former Naval Home in Grays Ferry at the southwestern fringe of Center City.  The vitality from this project has served as a catalyst for additional residential and commercial development in the surrounding area that has reanimated vacant houses and derelict buildings.  A major construction project initiated recently by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia will bring additional activity to the area while public investment from the completed South Street Bridge reconstruction to the planned southern extension of the Schuylkill River Trail enhance the neighborhood's physical infrastructure.

On the less-positive side of the ledger, the land selected for the DisneyQuest location languished as a hole in the ground for years before being abandoned.  After the project failed, the hole was refilled so that the site now exists as a surface parking lot -- a void of development in the heart of Center City.  The waterfront development never materialized and Penn’s Landing remains as in need of eye-popping renewal as ever.

While writing the book in 1999, I heard from many who declared confidently that the city's future was one as a place to play, not a place to live.  Projects like DisneyQuest and the mega-mall planned for Penn’s Landing, they said, were going to move in as residents continued to move out.  

But, I submit that the opposite has turned out to be the truth.  As I argued in the book:

Cities have always prospered by becoming places where people want to live, transact business, recreate, and visit.  Great cities attract residents by fostering vibrant neighborhoods where families can grow, entice employers by establishing a marketplace where fortunes can be made, and lure visitors by supporting attracting that draw travelers. 


Cities are not destined to become mere tourist attractions or entertainment venues.  They are, as they always were, places to live.  Over millennia, cities have endured and proved their relevance and intelligence as an efficient way for people to live and organize social and marketplace interactions.  Once seen as the future, the suburb has failed to capture lasting human imagination in less than a century. 

Cities are most certainly preferred places to live, work, and visit.  If we continue to work to make neighborhoods cleaner and safer and strive to provide people with economic and educational opportunities, Philadelphia can help lead toward a positive urban direction.  If we continue to offer firms and families overly high costs of living and doing business and if our streets are not clean, our neighborhoods not safe, and our schools are not high-quality, we will lose neighbors and employers to the cities that work.