The Plan and the People

Last week PennPraxis sponsored three “value” forums to begin laying the foundation for the Central Delaware Riverfront design plan. The idea was to distill individual views into a set of common values. That so many residents came out to the meetings shows their concern for and commitment to smart city planning.

Underlying the involvement of the citizens and informing the spirit of the process is a value that didn’t necessarily make it onto paper: Good Government. Clean, transparent, doing-the-people’s-work government. Accountable government. Citizen respect for this value wasn’t written down but was clearly articulated in the willingness people showed to participate in an open process, to listen to their neighbor’s concerns, and to search together for honest solutions.

Residents of the river wards along the Delaware also made it clear that they oppose casinos. They’ve been yelling their heads off about it since May and their view was unmistakable at the forums last week. The only way our elected officials could be unaware of the general feeling in those neighborhoods is by willfully ignoring it.

Mayor Street and Councilman DiCicco publicly support the planning process, yet Street has not rallied behind the cry to forestall licensing, as DiCicco has. In fact, the Mayor waited until two days before casinos are scheduled to be licensed, 199 days after the close of the public comment period, to submit his recommendation, which shows not a jot of concern for the residents whose lives will be permanently altered by casinos in their neighborhoods.

For his part, the Councilman has a habit of making exceptions to his own rules. He’s shepherded pet projects through on the waterfront and he’s doing the same thing in South Philly, pushing a subsidized senior housing project smack in the middle of the Italian Market commercial corridor, just as a planning process is getting underway there. All this flies in the face of smart development, which requires good planning. Which means the planning comes first. The most effective planning must be informed by both residents and experts, and then opened up to competitive market forces where appropriate. As a city we must embrace the value of solid design solutions over the hodge-podge approach. We really are all in this together.

Citizen involvement in any large-scale process is messy and takes time, but it is a necessary ingredient. It’s necessary to the PennPraxis planning process, just as it’s necessary to the larger process of deciding how Philadelphia evolves as a whole. The point of planning is to establish a proactive rather than reactive framework for progress, so we’re all on the same page as a city and, once the details are hashed out, we can move quickly and relatively smoothly into a future we all want.

Artistry in civic design solves multiple problems in the physical world at once. PennPraxis has world-class experience with this kind of problem solving but they need to be allowed to do their job. The plan has to come first. You can’t do the plan without the people. The people want to know that their views are being fairly represented. It’s irresponsible to push development forward without a plan, whether condos or casinos; it may even be distastrous. In any case, it’s not good government and the people do notice.

2006-12-19 07:34:44

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