Rethinking the river, with your help

WATER, WATER, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

I couldn't help but think of that famous line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" as I drove recently along the central Delaware riverfront from Allegheny Avenue to Oregon Avenue.

For over the more than seven miles of river that stretch from woebegone Pulaski Park at the north to the Homeland Security-cordoned-off marine terminals at the south, there are only three places that the public can access the river.

Think of it - three places in 7 miles! Like the hapless sailors in Coleridge's macabre tale, we are surrounded by water but can't get to it.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Fortunately, Mayor Street recently issued an executive order that authorizes my office, PennPraxis of the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, to create a "civic vision for the Central Delaware that balances the public good, access to the waterfront, open space and quality urban development."

Waterfronts are the hot ticket in progressive cities these days. Everywhere you go in planning and economic development circles, the air is filled with talk about waterfronts. Why? Because in today's knowledge economy, yesterday's industrial sites are rapidly becoming today's centers of civic pride.

People want to be able to live, work and play in an area without traveling great distances at great expense. Waterfronts are recreation centers, places of natural beauty that offer an escape from the hubbub of city life. We can look no farther than the glories of the upper Schuylkill to know that this is true.

And yet we're allowing the Delaware to become clogged with graceless, towering condominiums perched on distended parking podiums and gated communities that cut off public access to the water's edge. We've allowed soulless, Anywhere, USA, big-box stores and strip malls to bring unprecedented traffic congestion.

And just around the bend, looms one, possibly two, giant slot-machine barns that could blow all of this out of the water.

It's time to hold a civic conversation and create a vision for the central Delaware, a civic vision for the people's waterfront that gathers the hopes and dreams and aspirations of Philadelphians who live both near the river and from across the city. A civic vision that establishes a road map for development that puts Philadelphians first and foremost as it creates an elegant, exciting, vibrant and humane 21st century urban design that makes the world take notice.

That's what we're embarking on - and we need your help.

Over the next year, Praxis will be working with the people of Philadelphia to create this vision. As we did with Penn's Landing, school design and casinos in the past, we'll host a series of public forums in which the people's voice will be roundly heard.

WITH YOU, WE'LL create principles for waterfront planning and design and then work with an internationally acclaimed design team to produce a vision that balances the public good with private development. We'll also recommend how to create the public body that will implement the plan, one that will remain accountable to the voice and vision of the people.

This is our moment, Philadelphia.

Let's get to the water's edge.

Harris Steinberg is executive director of PennPraxis at University of Pennsylvania. Reach him at harrisst@design.upenn.edu.