Towards a sustainable city

City of Philadelphia

The city of Philadelphia faces enormous challenges in the days, months and years ahead.

Not only are Mayor Michael Nutter and City Council facing off over different ways to increase revenue in this year’s budget, but policymakers are also confronting the pressing long-term problems of housing, development and sustainability.

Enter Penn’s Institute for Urban Research—an umbrella organization that brings together urban-based research within the University and provides a decidedly non-political environment where policymakers can hash out visions for the future.

At the upcoming event on May 14, “The Future of Cities: The World, The Nation, Philadelphia,” the IUR hopes to again play just that role. There, Mayor Nutter will present his new vision for sustainable planning and infrastructure investment throughout the city. The event, which will be held at the Academy of Natural Sciences starting at 6 p.m., is free and open to the public.

“We fashioned this evening to have the mayor present this vision,” says Eugenie Birch, the co-director of the IUR and chair of the Department of City & Regional Planning in PennDesign. “This piece is the physical piece—what it’s going to look like on the ground.”

The mayor’s proposal will encompass the civic vision for development along the Delaware River by Penn Praxis, the clinical arm of PennDesign.

This event will also feature policymakers from around the world who will comment on the mayor’s plan, including Ricky Burdett, director of Urban Age from the London School of Economics and Political Science; and Bruce Katz, vice president and founding director of the Metropolitian Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Also in attendance will be Andrew Altman, director of commerce and deputy mayor for planning and economic development in Philadelphia; and Alan Greenberger, executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

This comprehensive plan, says Birch, is really the first for the city since Ed Bacon’s vision in 1963—and much more comprehensive, at that. “The point is to provide a strategic vision and to give [people] hope,” she adds. “We need to see on the other side of the gap here. It’s not time to waste a crisis.”

This lecture is part of the Philadelphia 360 program, funded by the William Penn Foundation, which featured a graduate seminar taught by Altman and Birch last year. Originally, the Philadelphia 360 project was focused on the importance of anchor institutions like universities, hospitals and sports stadiums in cities, but the scope of the project expanded when, as Birch put it, “the sky fell” late last year.

“We reshaped the 360 to be more comprehensive: What should Philadelphia look like? What are the investments today and tomorrow?” she says. “Our aim and what we’re doing is to take these issues of the day and project them much further forward.”

Building on the theme of sustainability, the IUR is also presenting a national roundtable discussion on Thursday, May 21, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. There, urban experts and representatives from Philadelphia, D.C. and Miami will discuss what the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the reauthorization of the Transportation Act mean for cities and urban centers across the country.

Birch emphasizes the work they are doing at the IUR underscores Penn’s role as a “civic Ivy.”

“This is the role that we can play, because we can be neutral,” she says. “We can provide intellectual content in a neutral, safe [environment.]”

To RSVP for the May 14 event, send an email to the IUR at

Originally published on May 7, 2009