It’s hard out there for a planner. Why? Not because our jobs require us to risk our lives, work overnight, or make crisis-time decisions that instantly affect millions of people. No, it’s tough because sometimes, for as much as we love to look forward and think about the future and focus on what’s ahead, we get sidelined by the pressing issues of today. Issues that, frankly, aren’t in our bailiwick and we can’t do a whole heck of a lot about, but issues that focus people’s attention and energy on the here and now: when will they fill this sinkhole? How do we combat crime on this corner? Why can’t this school get better?
These are incredibly important topics that rightfully occupy a lot of head space for most residents and decision-makers alike, and so it can sometimes seem almost laughable that we’d ask anyone to pull themselves out of that to ask, “what if?”. “What if there were money to green your street? What if we could adjust a bus route to serve you better? What if we could encourage development on this vacant parcel? What do you want to see? How should we prioritize?”
We’re going to stick our necks out there and say that it is terribly important to never lose sight of the “what if’s”, that it’s especially when times seem tough that there’s something valuable about taking stock of where you live and imagining all the ways we can work to make it better. More broadly, it’s important to step back from the daily routine sometimes and find something to love about Philadelphia, because there really is so much. You don’t always find it on your block, or along your commute, but they’re out there: places and people and buildings and views and events and experiences that make this city special.
There’s even a term – perhaps better suited to a Wonky Wednesday post (sorry, it’s been a busy week) – that describes an aspect of what we’re getting at: tactical urbanism. Tactical urbanism is about reprogramming the public realm in small and often experimental ways to improve neighborhood livability and alter perceptions about one’s space, block, community. If you look close enough, you can see tactical urbanism projects playing out across the city, many of them started by the person next door.
Today, we use the term a bit loosely – maybe straight up placemaking is more what we’re after (placemaking is a GREAT word to throw around if you ever find yourself trapped at a planner/designer party and don’t know what to say) – to give us an excuse to highlight three things we’re excited about today that capture the essence of tactical urbanism, the idea that without too much money, but with a lot of thought and creativity, you can totally redefine a familiar space, improve it either for a moment or forever, and give a few people or maybe a lot of people a whole new idea of what Philadelphia can be:
1) The Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll: pictured at the beginning of this post (photo courtesy of uwishunu), this event has been an almost unbelievable smash success since its inception a couple years back. The concept is simple: flip the businesses inside out on a commercial strip, bringing the shopping and dining experience directly onto the sidewalk. even better? charge $1 for everything you’re serving, and then see what happens. If you’ve never been, we can tell you: thousands of people – folks from surrounding neighborhoods, Penn students who’ve never been west of the fraternities, people commuting on the trolley who decide to get out and walk around instead – a sea of humanity all taking in a place that they either take for granted or didn’t know about before.
2) A new pedestrian plaza: Also brought to you in part by University City District – thanks, dudes! – this inexpensive-in-capital-project-terms idea debuted yesterday at 42nd and Woodland Avenue. An incredibly simple concept – we don’t have use of this little slip lane on this corner, so why not get rid of it and give people a place they can actually enjoy – is not uniquely Philadelphian, but we think that the folks at ThinkGreen have managed to give us a uniquely Philadelphian space in its simplicity, functionality (stormwater capture! public gathering space! trolley waiting area!) and overall sexiness.
3) Open Air: We don’t even know quite what to say about this one, because we haven’t seen it yet, and the world has never seen anything exactly like it. Briefly, we’ve got two dozen search lights darting across the sky above the Ben Franklin Parkway, moving based in part of live citizen input. We haven’t a clue how that works. All we know is, it sounds like the future but it opens TONIGHT, and you can find out everything here.
We’ve heard some rumblings already in the press about this: the lights use a lot of energy; birds might get injured; it’s hard for astronomers to do their thing with all this light pollution. Valid points, all, but in the spirit of placemaking, in the spirit of reminding Philadelphians that there’s so much more this city can be, and in the spirit of people needing something to celebrate and be proud of, we say, flip the switch, Philadelphia. There’s a lot of problems to solve, and a whole heck of a lot of physical planning to do, but in the meantime, stop and smell the flowers (at the new ped plaza).