Bringing the Process to the People: An Interview with Harris Steinberg

A planning session for the Central Delaware development process. Courtesy of PennPraxis

Harris Steinberg is looking slim, trim, and smiling in his 4th floor office on the University of Pennsylvania campus. The life-long Philadelphian has a lot to be happy about. As the executive director of PennPraxis, the clinical arm of PennDesign School, Steinberg was a leading member of the coalition that successfully spearheaded the most civically engaged planning process in Philadelphia’s recent history.

I am, of course, referring to the saga of the central Delaware development plan, which first began almost five years ago. At the time, the seven-mile long area, bordered by Oregon and Allegheny Avenues, highway I-95 and the river itself, was a fractured landscape, both physically and politically. It was a time of easy money and development speculation, and pressures to turn the postindustrial parcels lining the river into more big-box development and highway design abounded. There was no formal riverfront development commission to lead development and Philadelphia’s aged zoning code allowed political pressures to invade the planning process.

PennPraxis was asked to step in where the city could not in the summer of 2006. Working with a three-pronged approach, which emphasized media coverage, civic engagement, and philanthropic support, PennPraxis and a larger team, which included members of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Penn’s Graduate School of Education, facilitated a process that spanned thirteen months, involved more than four thousand people, and laid out do-able plans to reconnect Philadelphia to the river of its birth.

Steinberg took some time out of his day to reflect on lessons learned from the experience and the status of development along the central Delaware today. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

Johanna Hoffman: What did you personally learn from the whole experience?

Harris Steinberg: I think the most valuable lesson was understanding the politics of Philadelphia planning and development. Not only the personalities and institutional hierarchy, but the baggage and relationships and turf identities that’s the world of old Philadelphia.

In many ways this process was about – and I’m not going to equate it to the revolution in Tahrir Square but it’s a timely subject and there are some good analogies there– but it was about bringing the process to the people. Through technology, different demographics, and through the neutral party status that we (PennPraxis) had, we were able to get to and create a different world, and not be bound so much by the old Philadelphia.


A rendering of the Delaware river waterfront, courtesy of PennPraxis)

What are effective ways for an organization that’s not so inherently objective as PennPraxis to bring objectivity into the planning process?

HS: It’s all about how far you can go to ensure transparency and civic engagement. Those were two essential ingredients in the [Central Delaware Waterfront Planning] process. Everything was online, all the meetings were open to the public, and there was intense press scrutiny. Everything allowed for folks to feel like they were taking part in the process. It wasn’t like the real deals were happening behind closed doors.

In addition to that, there was an honest, genuine and robust call for public participation. At some meetings we had 400 people. The threat of casino development was obviously driving [the public participation] but we bent over backwards 100% to accommodate their participation in a way that was genuine. And if a government who at times is seen as not neutral, but can still embrace those elements, they have a fighting chance of being seen as wanting to have an honest dialogue.

Having the press as a partner, our neutrality, and then public participation was altogether a potent antidote in the Delaware process to the backroom deals and special interests that had been the status quo.

Why is civic engagement in the planning process so important?

Well, we’re spending public money and we’re making decisions about the public realm. So the voice of the public, and again this is not directly analogous to what happened in Egypt, but you know they were cut out of everything, in this paternalistic society, with big daddy running the show and high unemployment, and high prices and there was a revolt.

Again its not directly analogous, but we live in a participatory democracy. We elect representatives to represent us, not to make decisions in a vacuum.

What’s so exciting about the work we’ve been doing with Harris Sokoloff [of the Center for School Study Councils at Penn’s Graduate School of Education] and others, is coming up with a way to recognize that ‘Yes, this a participatory democracy, that it’s representative as well, so what’s the role of the citizen?’ It’s not necessarily to say no, though that’s what we’ve become accustomed to. What Chris Satullo [of the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer] likes to say is ‘What if?’

So from that we’ve developed this model of creating principles that are recommendations to ultimate decision makers. That’s who we hire to make the decisions. We can fire them at the next election if we don’t like them but that’s the deal in our society. So it’s really about finding a healthy role for the citizen by in a way that we’re not used to.

It’s about having meetings where people leave their guns at the door, where you say ‘We’re here to do this specific bit of work that’s going to be delivered to our elected officials and what we’re going to ask of them is that when they make their decisions, they explain it with respect to the advice that we’ve given them.’

So it becomes a two-way street. There’s expectations on both sides, and it’s a much more civil and civic discourse.

What’s the status of riverfront development now that PennPraxis has stepped away?

The impact [of our work] has been pretty great. What we did after generating the vision was create an action plan. Mayor Nutter took office a couple months after the vision. He was elected a week before we presented it, and his incoming deputy mayor for planning and economic development, who is now in London, saw the vision as a great vehicle for an economic agenda for the administration. So it was seized upon almost immediately. And then we were asked to come up with an action plan, a ‘What do we do now?’ to take the vision down to concrete steps for the next ten years.

So we wrote that. Number one was to reform the Penn’s Landing Corporation, which was the opaque center of the whole power and intrigue situation. The mayor did that, in January of 2009, and the new corporation is implementing the vision. They’re doing a master plan, taking the vision and bringing it down, literally block-by-block, street by street.

So it’s being taken very seriously by the city. All the legislative and planning steps are being taken to ensure that long term the vision has a chance.

And there are particular early action projects seeded by the William Penn Foundation that are happening right now. There’s the design of a new park by Jim Corner [of Field Operations], which will open in the spring. There’s a piece of the bike trail that opened in the fall, and a wetlands park at the bottom of Washington Avenue also opened in the fall. So there’s a lot of small scale stuff that’s demonstrating to people that we can do stuff no, while we’re also thinking long term.

Ultimately you have to knit everything together – that’s what the master plan’s job is. One of the big questions is why PennPraxis led the initial process when it really was the job of the city. But the city is now taking the leadership and making this a part of the comprehensive plan. The draft of that plan was released today [2.12.2010] and the Central Delaware work is embedded in there. It’s a statement of the city’s long-term capital goals, which is telling the development, legislative, and funding worlds that this is what we the city believe are important investments that we’re going to make over the next 25 years to have a healthy growing vibrant Philadelphia.

So, the impact of the work is really profound in terms of policy and practice.

How confident are you that the vision and resulting plans are going to go forward?

I think we have a fighting chance. There’s a lot that needs to be done. The process needs champions and it needs constant scrutiny.

The creation of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group was a key piece of that. We have them organized as an independent watchdog. Their job is meet every month and make sure that the Waterfront Corporation is following the vision.

Am I sanguine it’s going be there five years from now? I think so. It’s going to depend on some key institutional and civic stakeholders holding the city and public’s feet to the fire. But there was so much participation and so much pent up desire and interest, from years’ worth of false promises and failed starts that I think we have a chance of it happening.

I think we have our eyes wide open, and our priorities straight in terms of streets, and parks and trails and public spaces being the key infrastructure that the city and public built and letting the market take care of the rest. Part of it’s in God’s hands and part of it’s in all of our hands.

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