Consensus is Costly: Philadelphia’s Delaware Riverfront

In autumn 2006, the forty-six members of the Central Delaware Advisory Group—the body tasked by then-mayor John Street with reimagining Philadelphia’s Delaware riverfront—commenced a year-long process of informing and soliciting public opinion. When the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware was finally unveiled in November 2007, the Advisory Group could proudly claim (and did they ever) to have created “a vision plan that married citizen values with professional knowledge.” Indeed, the Central Delaware Advocacy Group (born out of the Advisory Group and featuring many of the same characters; keeping the two CDAGs straight isn’t particularly important) boasts on its website today that the Civic Vision was informed by “approximately 4,000 citizens.”

The CDAG spent the year engaged in what the aptly-named Project for Public Spaces (PPS) would call a placemaking exercise. While the concept of placemaking isn’t new, the lengthy PPS definition is worth a look: placemaking “involves looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work, and play in a particular space, to discover their needs and aspirations. This information is then used to create a common vision for that place” (the definition continues).

Philadelphia’s Civic Vision for the Central Delaware touts its participatory planning street cred. Though as yet almost entirely unrealized, the Civic Vision can boast of more than 4,000 citizen participants in the planning process.

The appeal of the placemaking philosophy to anyone who’s read The Death and Life of Great American Cities or watched The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is undeniable; the cases made by Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte, nearly unchallengeable. Indeed, the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of City Planning scheduled its entire fall lecture series as a response to one planning theorist who dared to do just that. Having spent her life camped resolutely outside of its gates, Jacobs posthumously finds herself—and her fellow would-be placemakers—firmly ensconced within the citadel of mainstream city planning. But let’s return to CDAG and the Civic Vision. A year-long placemaking exercise, approximately 4,000 citizens consulted … those readers with a grounding in municipal finance should be raising their eyebrows about now. This placemaking business runs into real money soon enough, doesn’t it?

The Civic Vision was completed by the time Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in September 2008, but most municipal budgets today still haven’t recovered from the crisis of 2008, the recession of 2009, or even the “recovery” of 2010—and who knows what kind of demons the last month of 2011 has in store for the global economy. “Common visions” are nice and all, but not worth the money to many cash-strapped municipalities; to the extent that “participation and collaboration” means “fiscal and temporal opportunity costs,” most municipalities simply won’t bite.

So what does this for mean city planners, landscape urbanists, and other would-be shapers of the urban form? That we hold off on all placemaking activities until municipal ledgers read more black than red? That the public realm languishes in squalor and decay until GDP growth returns to trend? To a certain extent, this seems to be what PPS might suggest: if we can’t have collaboratively designed places and consensus-driven planning, then we might as well abandon planning and placemaking altogether. The PPS website is pretty unequivocal: placemaking requires collaboration and participation; no ifs, ands, or buts. And since collaboration and participation require cash outlays, placemaking does too.

Financial objections to placemaking and collaborative planning are nothing new, even if these types of complaint have been given new life by the slowly unfolding crisis in municipal budgeting affecting cities all across the country. Would-be placemakers argue that cities find plenty of money lying around for other projects, and the costs of participatory planning are relatively low: a city that can’t find money for placemaking simply isn’t a city that prioritizes placemaking. However, while this is a reasonable argument, it’s also a relatively useless one. If participatory planning is a good thing, but a city won’t prioritize it, smugly pointing out that the city won’t prioritize a good thing leaves nobody any better off. Unfortunately, this rather regrettable and altogether useless attitude is one encountered all too frequently among students in today’s top-flight city planning programs. Let this essay, then, stand as an unfortunately-necessary corrective.

Participatory planning should never become an end in and of itself—its means for achieving varies from plan to plan, from planner to planner, and from participant to participant. The much more elusive goal of “planning for participation,” however, is a desirable end. Participation in civil society, community engagement, simply talkingto you your neighbors: these are all good things, most people would agree. Installing a few park benches along a commercial corridor, apart from providing a possible temporary shot-in-the-arm for local commerce, does not engender long-term benefits alone. The way that park bench is used, however, could have lasting consequences indeed: the same bench might become a forum for debating the changes taking place in a neighborhood, for the exchange of essential (or nonessential) bits and pieces of community gossip and information, or for simply haranguing passers-by.

A “placemaking” school of city planning recognizes this, of course, and tries to get at this problem through the collaborative listening process and the construction of “triangulated” spaces. Indeed, understanding how places are used is perhaps the essence of the placemaking approach. However, this ideal exists in tension with another central tenet of the placemakers, that of the need for a “common vision.” After all, it’s rarely the listening that consumes too much money, but rather the consensus-building that must follow. And consensus-building isn’t just costly; it’s also of incredibly dubious value. The idea that a compromise-driven, partially-realized distillation of the collective will of any group is destined to succeed is ludicrous. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.

In advocating for what she calls “the Just City,” Harvard planning professor Susan Fainstein argues that planners should be judged on the results of their plans, rather than on the process by which they’re arrived (Fainstein’s not a totalitarian, and there are limits to her prescription; still, the gist is that we need to spend more time focusing on the ends that are achieved, and less time on the means used to get there). The same criterion can be applied to the designers of public space. Adapting Fainstein’s formulation: was the space designed with participation, or designed and used for participation?

Race Street Pier, thus far the jewel in the crown of Philadelphia’s Delaware Riverfront planning process. On what basis should we judge its performance as a public space? 

When they’re flush with property tax windfalls from the next housing boom, American cities can start worrying about the role of participatory planning in placemaking once again. In the meantime, cash-strapped municipalities have more pressing concerns. Public spaces designed for participation can help to keep the fabric of civil society from fraying more than it already has, and perhaps even assist struggling cities in putting together new recipes for economic growth.

Peter Chomko is a city planning student at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Design. 

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