Center Square | Believing in the city, but weary of the status quo

Great cities dream. They dream dreams both ambitious and practical.

Ambitious because unafraid, refusing to settle for what is, what has always been, or what the cynics claim to be the limit of the possible.

Practical because honest. Honest about problems, limits and trade-offs. Honest about the work and courage it takes to get from here to there.

Philadelphia is an amazing, complex city struggling to get from good to great.

The underlying story of this year's city elections, beneath all the things we'll hear about money and ads and debates and position papers, is whether this city is content to keep settling for pretty good. Do people, and their leaders, really want to take the risks that come with trying to be great? Are they willing to shed Loserville habits and attitudes, to think and act in ways new and unsettling?

That's the fundamental question posed by the yearlong civic dialogue called Great Expectations: Citizen Voices on Philadelphia's Future. This project is a partnership of The Inquirer Editorial Board, the University of Pennsylvania and the Lenfest Foundation.

It has begun with a series of citizen forums, first involving about 180 people recognized as leaders in their fields around the region, and now reaching out to every nook and cranny of the city and its suburbs. So far, more than 850 people have joined the forums, which will continue through Feb. 7. To see a calendar of forums, and reports on those held so far, please go to

On that Web site and on this paper's opinion pages, all year we'll present findings from these dialogues - and reporting that responds to the issues the forums have raised.

Here's one observation: Most people who show up for these dialogues believe in this city. But they are weary of many aspects of the status quo. The hunger for political change, for a bolder, more inclusive style of leadership, is fierce. The worry that it won't arise in time is equally intense.

Forum participants take part in one of two exercises designed to get them thinking candidly but ambitiously about the Philadelphia region's assets and challenges. In one, called The Friend's Dilemma, they are asked to imagine how they'd advise a close friend thinking of moving to Philadelphia from out of town. Once they've drawn up a list of pros and cons for their friend, they work on action steps to strengthen those pros and weaken those cons. The other exercise, called History of the Future, asks folks to imagine they are living in 2015, a time when Philadelphia has realized its potential as the Next Great City. They're asked to describe in detail what that successful region looks, feels and tastes like, then to identify what had to happen to bring about that success and who had to do it.

Every forum participant is invited to write a short essay using his or her forum dialogue as a springboard. Today we present some first fruits, three essays by Great Expectations participants.

We'll continue to present these citizen essays, these attempts to weave dreams both practical and ambitious, throughout this election year.

Chris Satullo ( is editorial page editor.