Beaten by an ugly stick?

<p style="margin: 0in 0in 0pt" class="MsoNormal"><span style="font-size: 9pt; font-family: Verdana">Journalists and bloggers love to argue over city rankings which tend to multiply faster than the tribbles on star trek.<span>  </span>Which city is the friendliest?<span>  </span>What cities have the nicest parks?<span>  </span>What cities are the best places to live for mildly overweight divorcees between the ages of 32 and 34?<span>  </span>The data is scrutinized and then how it was interpreted lambasted as ridiculous.<span>  </span>And of course rankings are ridiculous.<span>  </span>Cities are too complex to boil down to a few numbers.

November 26, 2007, 11:22 AM PST

By Scott Page

Journalists and bloggers love to argue over city rankings which tend to multiply faster than the tribbles on star trek.  Which city is the friendliest?  What cities have the nicest parks?  What cities are the best places to live for mildly overweight divorcees between the ages of 32 and 34?  The data is scrutinized and then how it was interpreted lambasted as ridiculous.  And of course rankings are ridiculous.  Cities are too complex to boil down to a few numbers.  But while rankings are good bathroom reading, a recent poll did pique my interest as it just so happens that my home town is throwing around a war of words on the very same subject. 

It seems Philadelphia was ranked the nation's ugliest city according to 65,000 respondents.  For the record, I couldn't disagree more.  Like any city, Philadelphia has great moments of beauty and other, less fortunate, instances where what was once beautiful has transformed into an eyesore for neighbors.  But what has really energized the local debate about the look of our city has been the rash of new construction. 

Philadelphia was once a city desperate for new development ..of any kind.  But with a strong housing market and increasing demand to live in urban neighborhoods, we no longer have to accept anything thrown our way.  We can, and should, demand excellence in design from our developers and architects. 

In line with this thinking, our local design columnist stepped up and strongly criticized the Symphony House - a recently completed condominium project in Center City.  Dubbed the "Nightmare on Broad Street," her column brought swift response.  Some readers felt the critique was one-sided, coming from someone with a ‘modernist agenda.'  Others wrote letters of support, agreeing that the building was a blight on the city.  I was asked by neighbors and colleagues whether I thought the column was fair.  Everyone, it seems, had seen the article and had an opinion. 

The most interesting letter came from a prominent local developer who felt the column only perpetuated the culture of negativity that surrounds the future of our city.  Nonsense.  If you build a high-rise, you should expect to generate both positive and negative feedback.  But his most effective point, and reminder, is that building anything in the city is a difficult process.  Permitting and zoning has long been immensely complicated.  The Building Industry Association is well aware of these issues and completed a plan in 2004 designed to improve local permitting.  The City of Philadelphia has also started a process to reform the local zoning code.  But while these valuable efforts are underway, much will get built under the existing system.  Should we criticize those that take real financial risks to build in the city?  For me, that answer is yes.   

On the other hand, I have to admit that I have a fair amount of sympathy for local developers.  This is despite my strong distaste for the Symphony House.  I recognize that the project will add new housing to what is considered Philadelphia's theater district.  I also acknowledge the fact that a new theater was built as a part of the project to add a new venue to the city.  The developer is clearly capable and has a track record of nice work.  But I can't help but see these assets in the context of what could have been. 

And this is the issue for those that deeply care about the aesthetics of the city.  It's not that we don't appreciate taking the financial risk that continues to add vibrancy to Center City, but we also know that in the hands of a creative designer these amenities can be packaged into something that actively speaks to the beauty of Philadelphia.  My sympathy is grounded in the fact that we all too often see poor design as the developer's fault and, therefore, their problem to solve.  Given the permitting process, politics and other hurdles developers face, there needs to be a recognition that creating beauty is a collective responsibility.  We need to incubate good design.  We also need to call out those projects that fall short of our expectations - both big and small.  Maybe a local ranking of the best and worst examples of the city's fine-grained neighborhood texture would do us some good.  We might learn something about ourselves in the process. 

Scott Page

Scott Page is an urban designer and planner with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Georgia Tech.

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