For some fifty years, the gospel of Jane Jacobs has been playing like a drumbeat in our ears. Create density, mix uses, activate the urban landscape (and make us better humans)! Now, a pastor, Eric Jacobsen, a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, has joined the chorus with his second book on Christianity and urban design, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Baker Academic Press, 2012). “A city is like a pizza, and a neighborhood is like a slice of pizza,” he writes. “Just as a slice of pizza should contain all the ingredients of the pizza, each neighborhood should contain all the things we enjoy and value about the city: homes, coffee shops, ball fields, churches, grocery stores, and so on. The suburban experiment that was so influential in the 20th century involved dividing up the functions of the city into different zones: housing, shopping, office, recreation. This works about as well as eating the elements of your pizza in different courses: you’re still getting the same nutritional value, but you’ve lost the joy of your pizza.”
Jacobsen isn’t presenting anything new, certainly. There are any number of books on my shelf that say the same thing. But his participation in the conversation points up the difficulty in altering patterns of investment and corporate behavior. Institutional investors, real estate developers, insurance companies, and corporate decision makers are enmeshed in a system that penalizes the pizza.
And indeed, those of us who want some pizza have to keep demanding it. Even amidst Philadelphia’s traditional streetscape the Modernist insistence on segregating land uses endures. Given the city’s institutional-based economy–with eds and meds and cultural uses taking up more and more physical space–single-use ghettos prevail. Despite some attempt at ground floor retail around the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, for example, a booming sterile city within a city is emerging.
The separation of uses is easy for us to criticize in this post-industrial era, but it isn’t always wrong (as Alex Vuocolo reported last week, the people who live near the port or I-95 in Port Richmond might attest to that). And moreover, big cities allow for hierarchies of land uses. Imagine if every district of the city had an even mixture of uses. Pizza would get old pretty quick.
Still, the most confounding of Philadelphia’s single-use districts is the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a veritable museum ghetto that often becomes desolate at night. With three new institutional projects in the works–the Mormon cathedral, a proposed Holocaust museum, and the fledgling Envision Peace Museum–the Parkway appears to be condemned to sour monotony.
Or is it? The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation has just issued a request for qualifications to developers for the repurposing of the Family Court Building on Logan Square. A boutique hotel there, as some envision, would create a new dimension to the space. Also, a $100 million Whole Foods supermarket and apartment complex appears to be in the works at 22nd Street. The Granary, with its traditional urban design, will bring residential and retail uses to the edge of the Parkway.
City, Center City District, and Fairmount Park officials, together with the State of Pennsylvania and the Pew Charitable Trusts, have been attempting to augment the single use reality; over the past decade they’ve implemented a number of improvements along the Parkway to animate it and make it more pedestrian friendly. These projects have been extensive, leaving us with better pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, lighting, street trees, parks and fountains, cafes, and programmable spaces such as Sister Cities Park and the future Paine’s Park. And more improvements are coming next year to the 1600 and 1700 blocks.
In addition, officials in the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation have launched an “action plan,” which already went through a community engagement process and will be released in the coming months, to identify projects that can be implemented in the next three years to help better connect the Parkway to surrounding neighborhoods.
These interventions will be “low investment” but are meant to have “high impact,” meaning they’ll make the Parkway’s public realm livelier and more attractive on the cheap. While the details of the plan have yet to emerge, the thinking exploits some of the successes of The Porch at 30th Street Station, so expect even more pop-up cafes in strategic places, increased recreational opportunities, and design features such as gateways and exemplary landscapes.
While these projects old and new make a hostile space more inviting, they won’t fundamentally change the pattern of land use in a way that would satisfy Jane Jacobs, Pastor Jacobsen, or real estate economists. For that to happen, we need to plan for more intense uses at the edges. And to do that–on the southern edge at least–we need to cap the Vine Street Expressway between 20th and 22nd (a partial cap is already in the works in front of the Free Library at 20th Street). The cap between 20th and 22nd–the single most effective and lucrative investment to make–would create immediately valuable land for ambitious development linking Center City to the Parkway.
While officials have given up on fundamentally altering Eakins Oval in front of the Art Museum–it is only open space large enough for major festivals and stages–the triangle to its immediate north (between 23rd and Spring Garden Streets and Kelly Drive) could be developed in a way that draws on the energy of the adjacent Fairmount neighborhood.
The northern edge will also benefit from the development of the City Branch for transit or park uses. But while that’s unlikely to have immediate impact, SEPTA could consider rerouting buses so that they more adequately and intentionally serve the Parkway. At present, no bus routes traverse the Parkway, a policy that must have been made by devilish Modernists in the anti-urban 1950s.
About the author
Greg Meckstroth is an urban planner/designer, freelance writer, and recent Philly transplant. Greg received a Master of Community Planning from the University of Cincinnati in 2009 and has spent the last few years bouncing around the private sector planning world, more recently moving to Philly to work for a nationally renowned design firm in Center City. He also writes for Flying Kite Media and blogs at the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog. Twitter follow: @GMeckstroth.