is an emeritus professor of sociology
at Drexel University
Dating back to William Penn's artful plan for a sparkling new city, Philadelphians have long shared responsibility for helping improve his innovative "Greene Countrie Towne."
Great Expectations, the latest of many creative citizen-planning efforts, harkens back in many ways to a 1981-83 project, Philadelphia: Past, Present, Future.
That project energized 250 participants and left a legacy of ideas well worth pondering by Great Expectations participants.
Created and led by Ted Hershberg, a Penn urbanologist, and aided by journalist Peter Binzen, the project asked 12 volunteer task forces to wrestle with pressing urban challenges.
Many of those problems endure today: job loss, high crime, struggling public schools, sagging infrastructure, inner-city blocks resembling bomb-wrecked European cities in 1945. And the city's lack of vision, pizazz, and soul was a glaring and debilitating wound.
Volunteers in that long-ago project were diverse in background, but in a critical matter, we were as one: We believed nothing good would be accomplished unless we upheld William Penn's confidence in our ability as engaged citizens to trump shared problems. Our literature reminded all that "in this city - where the American experiment began - we stand at the threshold of another beginning."
The task forces produced reports rich with scores of intriguing and pragmatic recommendations. Examples:
By 1990, to increase real income, achieve a citywide cut of 30 percent in the use of energy in apartments, businesses, and home.
Switch from a "growth-and-expansion" mentality to a "conservation-and-
Offer new flexibility in land use, to foster urban farming on vacant lots, the uncovering of the city's creeks, and the restoration of the landscape through massive reclamation.
Form a Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Economic Alliance.
The task force I co-led with civic activist Lenora Berson called for the city to be wired for mass low-cost access to computer power, anticipating the wi-fi initiative by more than 20 years. We wanted the city to accent reasons for tourists to flock here. We wanted outsiders to associate it with culture, fun and leisure. (Just to show we weren't clairovoyant about everything: We also wanted the city to champion collaborative arrangements with surrounding suburbs and cities.)
Many of us who worked on the project were changed in unexpected ways: First, we came to marvel at the "smarts" of one another, especially those quite different from ourselves. Second, we learned to practice the art of listening, as we were often far more accomplished at speaking. (Anecdotal evidence suggests many thereafter improved as parents and spouses.) Third, notwithstanding frank and unsparing discussion of urban ills, we gained new confidence that citizen power could overcome.
This year's Great Expectations project has the distinct benefit of using empowering techniques of civic deliberation developed long after our project. As well, participants can use the Internet (unavailable to us) to stay in 24/7 contact, hold virtual meetings, and research mind-stretching fresh concepts. Accordingly, we veterans of Philadelphia: Past, Present, Future pass the torch along with high confidence, having learned ourselves a quarter-century ago the exhilarating value of trying to take our city where it has never been.