The Future of Cities Sucked

I went to the Penn Institute of Urban research sponsored forum on cities last night. It had a great hard hitting line-up of speakers: Professor Ricky Burdett, Director of Urban Age at the London School of Economics and Political Science; Bruce Katz, Vice President of the Brookings Institution, Mayor Nutter, Head of Planning Alan Greenberger, and Deputy Mayor Andrew Altman. So I have a hard time understanding why it sucked so badly.

I was expecting a great presentation for a vision of the Philadelphia's future, and a good bit of perspective in the national and international context. To be Fair, Bruce Katz and Ricky Burdett were pretty good. Burdett had a polished powerpoint that stressed what global cities are doing wrong to deal with massive urbanization. Katz gave a nice speech on how metropolitan areas have been given short shrift by the federal government, and rather than trusting Obama to change this, it was up to their constituents keep pressure on Washington.

But then Mayor Nutter got up there. I think it might have been exhaustion from budget negotiations in Philadelphia, but his speech kind of listed around from bland assertions about the importance of the city to to tired nods towards entirely uncontroversial concepts of sustainability, safe neighborhoods, and jobs. Oh and efficient government. And by the way, we can't do anything without money. Then he had a really unhelpful narrative about a day in the life of a future thriving philadelphia, which was exactly like life in present day philadelphia except you go to work at a "green collar job." Alan Greenberger's presentation was worse. The nadir of the night was a completely meaningless diagram he threw up with lines connecting barely related areas of the city. I have no idea what that slide was supposed to convey, except that connectedness is good, especially when coupled with some glassy-eyed hand waving.

Then to the last layer of fluff, we went to Mr. Altman, who talked at length about how Philadelphia is perfectly positioned to be a national and international leader, located exactly between New York and Washington. He never convincingly articulated what Philadelphia would be leading. Cityness? Planning? Proximity to more important places?

At the end of the presentations, they had a very limp forum to connect all the concepts. Sadly, Genie Birch's moderation was most responsible for the tepidness of this portion. One of her questions, directed at Bruce Katz went like "Mr. Katz, Mayor Nutter is going to have to travel to Washington quite a bit, do you have any advice for him?" Presumably she was trying to get a discussion going about how cities should talk to the federal government, but he realistically could have answered "Sure. Take a dump before you hit the road."

What would I have liked to hear? Mechanics! A year ago we had a presentation of the exact same material each of these speakers presented last night. We should have more specifics. I usually hate when people complain about lack of specifics, but really. We've had a commission to update the zoning code working away for months. How about telling us what an updated zoning code will mean towards the goal of making the city a leader? If a huge asset of our city is being in the middle of the northeast corridor, what are we doing to strengthen transportation links between other metro areas? What exactly does it mean for Philadelphia to be a "great city" and what are our biggest policy priorities to get there?

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