Q&A with Harris Steinberg

A decade ago, Philadelphia was a different city than it is today. Mayor John Street’s administration was just beginning the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. Grand plans were still in the works for Penn’s Landing. Philadelphia was focused on development, rather than city planning.

It was in this environment, in November of 2001, that PennPraxis was founded. Gary Hack, then the dean of Penn’s School of Design, asked Harris Steinberg, a practicing architect and Penn alum, to look into how other schools had created programs for students to get real-world planning and design experience. Once the model was created, Hack asked Steinberg to run it.

Harris Steinberg

Peter Tobia

Harris Steinberg has expanded PennPraxis to a consulting and applied research organization that has become significantly influential in public conversations about the future growth of Philadelphia.

In the nearly 10 years since its inception, Founding Executive Director Steinberg has expanded PennPraxis from one sponsored studio in Singapore giving Penn students the opportunity to put their design education into practice, to a consulting and applied research organization that has become significantly influential in public conversations about the future growth of Philadelphia.

PennPraxis ran the Penn’s Landing Forums in the early winter of 2003, working with the Philadelphia Inquirer and Penn Project for Civic Engagement to create a truly public city planning process that included civic dialogue, a platform for opinion and design and planning expertise.

Well if we’re already paying for it, what if these were turned into productive open spaces, or ones that added value? How do you change the paradigm?’

The model worked, so Steinberg says PennPraxis decided to use a similar approach when crafting the vision to transform a stretch of city land along the Delaware River, from Oregon to Allegheny avenues. The result was the creation of a 30-year plan called “A Civic Vision for the Central Delaware.”

“There’s a whole younger generation who are thirsting for this kind of forward-thinking planning, so it’s been a really rich and rewarding 10 years in that respect, because we’ve gone from one way of viewing the world, which is top-down and very back-door, to one that’s much more open and progressive,” Steinberg says. “We’ve been at the juncture of that, which has been exciting.”

The latest action plan from PennPraxis is called Green2015. It is designed to help the Nutter administration meet its goal of adding 500 acres of green space to the city in four years. Steinberg and his small, but dedicated staff identified a variety of places where greening could happen in a way that touches the most residents, including the greening of schoolyards, recreation centers and city-owned vacant land.
Steinberg sees the PennPraxis collaboration with the city as good for all. “It’s ultimately about true partnership for the city as a whole, keeping it as apolitical as we can,” he says. “If someone wants to pull me into a campaign for this or that, I try to walk the straight-and-narrow. This is about the city and best practices for how we move ahead in a way that’s constructive for all.”

The Current recently sat down with Steinberg to talk about the current outlook for the Delaware Waterfront plan, the areas of the city that need greening the most and what’s kept the Philly native in one place for so many years.

Q PennPraxis played a huge role in the plan for the Delaware Waterfront. How is the plan being implemented today, almost four years after it was released?
A By making it so public and having everything be transparent and play out in the press, we were able to kind of transcend administrations and were extremely fortunate that the [Nutter] administration was one that saw value in this. ... We were able to create an action plan through a civic association that spans 15 neighborhoods along the riverfront. It kind of was a watchdog for the plan. And through that action plan, the city is now ticking off all those steps. They’re making incredible headway.
Number one was to reform the Penn’s Landing Corporation because that had really lost the public trust. A number of folks had gone to jail over the past 20 or 30 years related to extortion. ... [Now] it’s highly professional. The meetings are all public. They have hired a master planning team to take the vision and really look at what it takes to bring it down to a parcel-by-parcel level.
We have a 100-year vision, but we also have [short-term] projects. Race Street Pier is one of them, designed by Jim Corner, one of our faculty members; a new park at the foot of Washington Avenue; a bike trail that the Center City District implemented, a master plan for Penn Treaty Park. It’s a remarkable convergence of vision and implementation, way beyond our wildest dreams.
The crash in the real estate market helped. As devastating as that’s been for the global economy, it’s slowed down an overheated market. There was so much speculation along the riverfront in the middle of the last decade that you had crazy big projects, none of which had a chance at ever being built, but which were being given the zoning variances.
It’s actually worked out well because in the first couple months, we were chasing a really fast-moving train. Casinos dominated the entire process and drove the numbers: 4,000 people participating in a public process are outrageous numbers, but those are casino-inflated numbers, for better or worse.

Q Is that something you think has shifted—that more people are involved and interested in these projects that are going on in their backyard?
A I think so. I think there was a tremendous amount of pent-up frustration that there had been decades of folks being left out of the process, in part because not much was going on. We were a city that was struggling to survive. We’ve now turned that corner, hopefully. You had administrations, particularly the Rendell and Street administrations, that were really into [making] development deals, so they circumvented public discussion and just went after deals in order to bring in revenue. Now, there is this incredible demand [for public disclosure] that’s been unleashed and that’s what we tapped into when we first did those Penn’s Landing Forums; there were people who came up to us as if we’d pulled back the Iron Curtain. ... People really appreciate being asked to participate. Rather than look upon that as a necessary evil, or just another perfunctory step in signing off on a checklist, if you engage in an honest and open way, you’ll be surprised at how much good will and support you can ultimately build.

Q It sounds like you’re hopeful about the Waterfront plan’s implementation.
A I am. The great thing about what we did [is that] it showed the city that you can will yourself into the future. I think that’s ultimately what I feel the most proud about, that we were able to transcend entrenched interests and power blocs and say, ‘Wait a minute ... this a conversation.’
Q Let’s talk about Greenworks, the mayor’s plan to turn Philadelphia into the greenest city in the country, and PennPraxis’ Green2015 plan. What surprised me is that one in eight residents don’t have ready access to green space, even in light of the Fairmount Park system and all of the parks in the city.
A That’s the great thing about these projects—they challenge all your assumptions, and your view of the world shifts 180 degrees, if not more. I grew up in Philadelphia under the assumption that we lived in the city with the largest urban park system in the world. I learned pretty quickly, that’s not true. We have a big park and we have a lot of parks, but certainly not the biggest. ... There are over 200,000 people who don’t have access to green space in a 10-minute walk.
This project was the opposite of the waterfront. It was, ‘How in the next four years, when we’re in the global recession, do we even think about adding 500 acres?’ There was a huge political messaging challenge there. Could you pick up 500 acres? In a heartbeat. Philadelphia’s got so much excess land. On the riverfront alone, you could add it easily, but how do you make the case? Fortunately, the Greenworks document said this is about equity. That gave us our marching orders: We’ve got to get parks to people who don’t have them.

What’s beneath our feet, literally? Schoolyards, playgrounds—land that the public already owns that’s not going to cost us anything to acquire. The Water Department has this great new initiative to turn parking lots into rain gardens in order to manage storm water, and there could be a lot of money to implement it. We tried to pull all these threads together because it did have this broader social justice [angle], as well as an environmental, public health point-of-view, and to many of us, redefined how we thought about the city as a whole.

Q There’s a movement towards talking about green space in economic terms. Have you found that helps make the case to lawmakers and stakeholders?
A Many municipalities and agencies are making the economic argument for green space because ultimately that’s what it’s going to come down to—how you convince investors or policymakers [to] invest in public infrastructure. The irony is that our forbearers understood this intuitively. They created Fairmount Park. They created Rittenhouse Square. They left us with legacies of incomparable value, but in today’s world, we have to make the case [to green parts of the city]. The city spends $21 million a year just on vacant land management alone, responding to nuisance calls, arsons, clean-and-seal. And we said, ‘Well if we’re already paying for it, what if these were turned into productive open spaces, or ones that added value? How do you change the paradigm?’

Q Where are the areas of the city where green space is lacking?
A South Philadelphia is number one. Broad and Snyder is sort of the epicenter of that world. Parts of North Philly—the industrial heartland; parts of the lower Northeast, which is kind of an extension of that. Surprisingly, parts of West Philadelphia, that are not within the Fairmount Park or Cobbs Creek systems. And East and West Oak Lane.

Q Once you identified those areas, how did you land on schoolyards and existing public places as potential places to green?
A From the Planning Commission, from the Redevelopment Authority from the Housing Authority, [we were] able to bring together a whole lot of data sets that we then used to overlay on maps that tracked the 10-minute walk. When you overlay the space with the opportunity sites, which were big schoolyards without any pervious coverage, recreation centers that were underutilized or mostly asphalt, public vacant land that wasn’t being used—that’s where all the opportunities are. There are scads of them. Schoolyards alone are 426 acres. ... there are 62 acres of [recreation centers]. Of the publicly held vacant land that’s greater than 1/4 acre, there are 527 acres. We gave the Commissioner a smorgasbord of opportunities. 

Q Did you look at other cities that have done similar projects?
A We really had to find our way into this in a way that we think is uniquely Philadelphia. It’s not that the solutions themselves are unique—people have [greened] schoolyards and even [done them] in Philadelphia—but as a system, we haven’t found anyone else who’s come up with this series of recommendations.

Q Do you think the political will is there to see this through?
A In the old days, you either had the Carnegies or the Rockefellers or patrons, or you had very powerful political figures like the Daleys in Chicago or Robert Moses in New York or Ed Bacon here. It’s a different era. We have to figure out ways to be able to accomplish grand civic projects in a grassroots age, where short political cycles do not necessarily give us that kind of ability to think big and long-term. That’s a challenge.

Q You’re from Philadelphia, you went to Penn and you’re still here. What kind of pull does Philadelphia have on you?
A I grew up in the northwest, just outside the city in Wyndmoor, and my early worldview was shaped by the Wissahickon, by the big stone houses, by the really solid sense of city-building.. ... I never thought of leaving and I just had a fairly profound sense of attachment to this city, its institutions, its history, its sense of possibility. It’s a big city, but a small town, and the Penn world, the architecture world, the planning world—it’s a pretty collegial, exciting, stimulating, but yet not overwhelming place. You can make a difference. I don’t know if I could do that in Chicago or in New York.

My wife is from Oklahoma. We met the first day of graduate school here in Meyerson [Hall]. And she said when she met me, she knew she wasn’t going anywhere.

Originally published on April 7, 2011