More with Penn Praxis Director Harris Steinberg

Philadelphia Future Perfect, an exhibition of city maps depicting proposed plans that, for some reason or another, never came to fruition, was the Brodsky Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania’s first showing of the year.

“Our goal is, first of all, to show some of the historical maps as beautiful art objects,” said curator Lily Applebaum, a senior at Penn. “We worked hard to pull maps showing alternate histories of Philadelphia.”

Penn Praxis director Harris Steinberg is not unfamiliar with alternate Philadelphias. He has designed many of them, some of which have been realized, some not.

Here are some cool things we learned from the planning visionary:

City plans in the late 1600s through the 1750s were just as much advertising brochures as they were depictions of land. “Plans were shown to developers’ aristocratic friends to convince them to buy land in New
World,” Steinberg said. “They were often drawn in portraiture, as portraits of the city, to entice people to move.”

Acquiring land along the Schuylkill in the 1850s through the 1880s was not so we could have riverside parks or dragon boat races. “It had a pragmatic origin of protecting the water supply and ensuring Philadelphians have access to high quality water,” said Steinberg.

The Parkway could have looked a lot different, based on the city’s early 1900s plan. “The official city plan was a diagonal boulevard from City Hall straight through to Fairmount.”

– Many plans in the 1950s through the late 70s were “completely car-oriented” and “anti-urban and anti-people.” In line with this trend, I-95, which began to be built in the 1960s, divides the city, transporting cars at the expense of aesthetics and waterfront access from a pedestrian standpoint. “We always have to ask the question, ‘At the service of what?’ Is our job to accommodate cars or to accommodate people?” Steinberg said.

– When crafting a 2007 plan for the Central Delaware River waterfront, many planners had Baltimore Inner Harbor envy. “Number
one: we don’t have harbor,” Steinberg said. “Number two: we don’t have
the kind of leadership they have – and they don’t have a highway.”

– Planners and developers don’t always get along. Exhibit A: the 2007 waterfront
“We argued with developers who thought we
were Communists or Socialists who wanted to develop whatever we want.”

– But plans are meant to challenge and provoke, and are always changing. “Our drawings are meant to push Philadelphia,” said Steinberg. “A plan is a way to work out ideas. Even those that we think are finished are not. A plan is never really an actual plan.”

– Mayor Michael Nutter is a planning-friendly mayor. “With Nutter embracing the waterfront plan and having [Alan] Greenberger professionalizing the planning commission, it’s a completely different ethos than [former Mayors] Street and Rendell.”

– No one likes the Gallery. “It’s a part of the 1950s-to-1960s giant megastructures,” Steinberg said. “It has no windows and no natural light. It advanced the decline of East Market Street. But how do you transition essentially a giant refrigerator into something that livens the street?”

– Even though we are “behind the pack,” as far as how often we refresh
our architecture (every 50 years, compared to every five to 10 years in
New York), this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“It enables us to have a
strong sense of who we are. Outsiders often interpret this as not being
proud of who we are, but we actually have a strong sense and don’t feel
the need to prove it to others.”

– Plans that endure are based on people. “I think if it is based on values that are connected to universal human values, these are the plans that are lasting. Those that are purely technological or purely financial are not addressing basic human values. They may have the tools to achieve things, but plans have to be about people.”

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