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Class Conscience: When Is Clean-Slate Planning Okay?

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.

Jeffrey Barg | November 9, 2009, 5am PST
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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.
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