Class Conscience: When Is Clean-Slate Planning Okay?

Jeffrey Barg's picture
My classmate was up in front of everyone, flapping and flailing, pleading his case and getting shot down at every turn. It was a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

It was also kind of like looking in the mirror.

I'm just more than halfway through a planning school studio project working on the beautiful (no, really) Lower Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. They've teamed up about 15 planner/urban designers with about 45 landscape architects, who, as I mentioned last time, are reasonably bonkers. That was about a month and a half ago; since then, I've begun to think maybe I'm the one needing a room with padded walls.

The incident described above was just before our mid-semester review, and another one of us poor outnumbered planners was making the same argument I'd tried to make just a week or two earlier. I'd been similarly flagellated.

Without getting into too many of the boring details, it goes something like this: Our site is vast-about 20 square miles-and multifaceted, covered in things that planners find sexy (vacant former industrial land! preserved riparian edges! hot wetland action!). And the history is rich: Over the years, the site has encompassed everything from Bartram's Garden, America's oldest living botanical garden, to the Blockley Almshouse, a famous insane asylum that had a devastating fire in 1885.

But there are also plenty of spots that give planners ulcers: active, ugly industry in the form of oil refineries; scrap metal yards; functioning freight rail running along the river. Good for employment, but nobody's gonna put these things in a photo sim.

The instructors tell us to "dream big," to come up with a vision that's going to be grand and majestic. I'm good with that. But when it comes to translating these ideas into master plans on the ground, we run into a serious question: What land do we show as developable, and how soon? Take the bigass oil refinery sprawling across South Philadelphia. Do we decide unilaterally that, 50 years from now, we'll all be driving electric cars, so it's safe to assume that those lands will be convertible to parks and mixed use? What about 80 years from now? What about 20?

To make a broad, sweeping, wholly unfair generalization: The landscape architects are happy to turn it all green. The planners are a little more reserved.

Let's say I've come up with a great idea for a vision statement. (I have.) Where do I get off sacrificing hundreds of important jobs just because I have a great idea? My classmate made a similar argument: Don't we as planners have a responsibility to protect existing productive industries and work with them, not on top of them?

On the day I had this argument with the professors, I ended up with my head in my hands.

It shouldn't be too surprising that the suspension of disbelief won out. For now, we assume that the entire site is developable, and we'll deal with implementation down the road conscience be damned. In a perfect world, the elimination of these 1,000 jobs will create 10,000, and we'll find a way to both celebrate the site's history and ready it for the future.

Maybe we can expand Bartram's Garden. Maybe we'll rebuild the insane asylum.

Maybe I'll go there and check in.
Jeffrey Barg is an urban planner at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He can be reached at



Retaining Industrial Jobs

Hello Everyone,

There have been several articles and blogs on Planetizen that involve discussion of retaining industrial facilities. This topic is very relevant to our work.

The reality is that industry does not go away- it simply relocates elsewhere. Trade policies like NAFTA sent many US manufacturers out of the country, undercutting our middleclass and the jobs that supported them.

We are living in an "out of sight, out of mind" economic reality where the industries that manufacture the products we buy are relocating to other parts of the world, so we never have to think about how they are made. In the process, American middle class residents are losing ground while it becomes easier for people to disregard how the stuff we buy is made- and the pollution that results from it.

Preferably, in addition to human-scaled residential, commercial, office, cultural and parks development, we would have locally produced goods made by sustainable industry. Where environmental and worker protection were not hallmarks of previous industrial practices, they will be tomorrow.

Keep the refinery

Green space and mixed use are wonderful amenities, but they don't pay the bills like industry does. If there is an existing refinery which is being utilized, I would plan to keep it for the foreseeable future (certainly within the timeframe of any legally-binding planning document) unless the property owners had indicated that they had plans to shut it down. Refineries in this country are generally operating at full capacity, and our environmental laws make it difficult to build new ones.

It will never be possible for all rivers to be opened up to public use with lovely riverfront walks and dining. If there is industry in a city with a river, there will need to be designated areas for ships to load and unload both bulk and finished cargo, including the needed trucking and rail infrastructure.

Replanting rivers, too

This reminds me that in addition to general greening of our cities, I do want to see our riparian forests along our major rivers restored as much as possible. With industrial development came the complete removal of riparian forests in addition to channeling of the river. To date, I have not seen an urban river in an industrial setting that was replanted. I have only seen restored riparian forests in suburban and rural settings.

HRPlanner, check out

Pics of riverfront riparian plantings


Do you have links to pics of the riverfront/docks replanted?
I am referring to new plantings in the most urban parts.

For example, if you walk to the riverfront in Philly or to the riverfront in Albany, NY there is nothing but grass turf, concrete and asphalt. I haven't seen plantings in these most urban areas. There's no remnant of the former forest habitat that lined the river.


Sure, but I'm not talking little endeavors of the kind 1 sees put in portfolios. The thing to understand about Houston in particular is that it is not post-anything. In all the urban clumps that you know, and the ones in the Great Lakes, and the ones on the West Coast, industry and riparian forest are mutually exclusive, but there on the Gulf Coast it exists fully landscape, not landscape projects.
The way to get a first taste is by paddle or on foot, but will presumably default you to somewhere in the civic core, south of the area in question, and as you work your way along you will start to see what you are looking for. I don't see the Northeast achieving anything as comfortable.
IIRC, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership is mostly about taking those linear patches from 70% connectivity toward 100%. And not at the expense of industry, which is a bit of what I mean by 'comfortable'.

Economic Development

I think wrestling with economic development is the hidden challenge for urban planners (and us students too). Planners seem to have come around to the environment and livability easily, but the numbers for Tax Bases not so well. Maybe it's because there is no easy answer for what works. In my Masters program I am looking for more ways to get exposure and I hope they can provide! Still, it sounds like an amazing project.

Green Industry in US and Philly

Here are a couple of resources for community based, greener industry in our cities:

Sustainable Business Network Emerging Green Industry Report

Business Alliance for Local Living Economies

Robert Goodspeed's picture

Real plans have clients

Stay strong, Jeff. Just remember that in the real world, most clients for such a large-scale plan would be governments, which would approach the problem with the nuance of a planner and rarely the bravado of modern-day Burnhams.

There's an important lesson here for planning students picking programs, classes, and studio projects. The design professions have a strong normative component, and are trained to be creative sometimes to the point of exclusion of other values or perspectives. Even if designers are interested in the economy or public participation, it will rarely be central to their coursework. Look for opportunities to collaborate on equal terms, not to function as a token planner to be outnumbered and "shot down," in the violent language of your post. Although if it does happen, we can just treat it as practice for the inevitable public hearing gone wrong!

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
City Plate table setting

New Arrival! City Plates

City downtown cores printed on gorgeous decorative collectible porcelain plates.
 Blockitecture Building Block Set - Garden City Series

Just In! Get the Garden City Expansion

New from Blockitecture! Create towers, cities, and dwellings with this set of architectural building blocks.