Harris Steinberg C’78 GAr’82 is sitting at a conference table in the middle of his office, a long narrow room that once housed the stacks for the Fisher Fine Arts Library next door, when a young, bearded fellow walks in to discuss a project idea. He leaves after a few moments and Steinberg, turning to a visitor, explains that the adjunct faculty member is a landscape architect, originally from Italy, who wants to explore the potential of a string of abandoned Sicilian mines.
“Apparently, they run underground for miles,” says Steinberg. “He’s interested in asking questions around their environmental or tourism uses.”
That he’s come to Penn Praxis, the applied-research arm of the School of Design, is, according to its executive director and sole full-time employee, a “really good example of how we’re able to leverage the intellectual capital and interests within the University.”
This year marks the tenth that Steinberg has been charged with determining whether research ideas can translate into object lessons for design students by assigning them real-world projects with contracts, deliverables, deadlines—and, not incidentally, fees. Founded by former School of Design Dean Gary Hack, with $80,000 in seed money from the office of the provost, Penn Praxis was conceived as a way to give faculty members who weren’t associated with larger practices help with, as Steinberg puts it, “the nitty-gritty, back-of-house stuff.”
Along the way, the group has pushed farther and farther afield, branching into the sort of city-changing projects that other academic design groups only dream of.
“Its impact has been really profound,” says Inga Saffron, architecture critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Over the years, she’s watched Praxis claim center stage in beginning a conversation about Philadelphia’s built environment, elevating that discussion, and, finally, advocating for visionary ideas to become reality.
“Penn Praxis has established itself as neutral but informed—as experts who have no dog in the game, but are open to hearing what citizens have to say,” Saffron observes.
The work, which mainly originates from the fertile minds and robust contacts of faculty members, has taken Praxis—a 501(c)3 nonprofit that primarily funds itself via its fee-for-service model—from Miami to Taiwan to Spain. In its first nine years, it’s billed more than $12 million in fees for some 65 projects that have engaged more than 35 faculty members and some 600 students. Several years ago, it created an online news source, PlanPhilly.com, that now steadily employs an editor and several beat journalists, and draws the eyes of the city’s design, architecture, preservation, and planning communities to the tune of some 40,000 unique visitors per month. Recently, PlanPhilly itself spawned a spin-off: the whimsical blog Eyesonthestreet, a name that refers to the watchful neighbors who earned the praise of Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
But Praxis’s biggest achievement, thus far, came when it was tasked in 2006 with examining one of Philadelphia’s most perplexing problems: what to do with a Delaware River waterfront that offers so much promise but has been plagued by overbuilding, underachieving, and plain old neglect. The group had confronted the issue on a piecemeal basis before—in 2003, it looked at Penn’s Landing, the paved-over, unloved Center City portion; and later it led a design charrette to pick apart the idea of a waterfront casino or two.
This time, Praxis would tackle the entire six-mile stretch that acts as the city’s eastern boundary. And it would do so by massing an army drawn from all across Penn—faculty and students whose bailiwicks included city planning, civic engagement, landscape architecture, sustainability, mapping, surveying, and a host of other disciplines.
“So many attempts had been made at redeveloping the waterfront that it had become a cliché or joke to try again,” says Shawn McCaney, a program officer at the William Penn Foundation, a regional philanthropic institution that has been Praxis’s major supporter through the years. “We thought it was time for a party who had no stake, political or otherwise, to take a look.”
In fact, it was while participating in the casino charrette that McCaney turned to City Councilman Frank DiCicco—whose district encompassed the river wards—and wondered whether the model might work to create a broader vision for the entire swath.
Steinberg and his team, which included Harris Sokoloff, director of the Penn Project on Civic Engagement, facilitated neighborhood meetings attended by some 6,000 Philadelphians who worked together to create a wish list on how to shape the waterfront. “The response was just incredible at those meetings,” remembers Saffron. “Hundreds of people would show up. It was so moving to see them educating themselves about planning, and really thinking about what it was they expected from the waterfront.”
The results of all the debate and all of the flip charts were gathered into the 242-page Civic Vision for the Central Delaware, a grand-sounding report that laid out core values to guide development on the waterfront [“Gazetteer,” Jan|Feb 2008]. These, basically, emphasized respecting the river while reconnecting it to the city with the right balance of civic uses and building types.
The document was at once “hopeful and challenging,” Steinberg noted in his introduction.
“This is a vision of an inclusive Philadelphia—one in which commerce, culture, and ecology peaceably coexist,” he wrote, adding that it challenged Philadelphia “to aim high [and] change old habits.” To get the ball rolling, a follow-up report suggested early “actionable” steps such as creating a waterfront development corporation and transforming a dilapidated pier into an urban park.
“It’s pretty amazing how closely the playbook has been adhered to,” Steinberg says now. “That’s incredibly rewarding.”
The work put not only the waterfront back on the map, but signaled the arrival of thoughtful, considered planning.
“The real value of Penn Praxis, even beyond some of the brilliant ideas that emerged from the Vision, was the process that they formulated to encourage communication among disparate groups,” says James Timberlake GAr’77, partner in KieranTimberlake, the architects charged with developing a master plan—which lays out the specifics of where open space, transit, housing, and commercial buildings will end up—for the Central Delaware River. “Getting people to coalesce around notions of planning and feasibility was singularly impressive, especially in so contentious a site as the waterfront.”
That Praxis got to play such a powerful role was to a large extent a circumstance of the times. Until recently, a succession of Philadelphia mayoral administrations had exhibited if not an overt disdain for matters relating to the built environment, then certainly a tacit one. “There was a perception that planning had fallen into, let’s say, a quiet phase,” observes Alan Greenberger, who now serves as deputy mayor for economic development under Mayor Michael Nutter W’79, following a stint as the executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.
“Part of Nutter’s pitch when he ran [for election] was to take the lessons that Praxis had taught us all very seriously, and to return planning to a position of strength. After all, planning isn’t about predicting the future,” Greenberger continues. “It’s about aligning public will with that of the government and private investors. When you do that, it’s amazing how quickly the money flows and how fast things get done.”
As Praxis enters its next decade, its partnership efforts with the city are likely to continue, even if, as Greenberger puts it, “there’s not quite as much of an urgent need to hold our feet to the fire on planning issues as there used to be.” Recently, for example, the group completed a major project for Philadelphia’s parks and recreation department that pinpointed ways to meet the department’s goal of adding 500 acres of open space to its holdings [“The Park of a Thousand Pieces,” July|Aug 2011]. And Greenberger’s office is pairing with Praxis to look at how Philadelphia can take better advantage of the lower Schuylkill River.
Yet the occasional cage-rattling will no doubt continue. “Praxis has learned over the years how to strategically deploy an advocacy voice,” says Timberlake. “They’re not always happy with an 80 percent solution.”
But by accomplishing one of its main goals—jump-starting the conversation on just what planning can mean for Philadelphia—Steinberg realizes that Praxis’s role in shaping the city’s built environment will likely change.
“We’re beginning to take on more of an advisory role, becoming big-picture people,” he says. “We’d like to encourage that as the conversation goes on, that large-scale planning issues remain transparent and open to the citizenry.
“At the same time, we want to start really working to institutionalize Praxis at the University, to create more direct and stronger ties to the school. Cementing our relationship with the University is paramount—and looking back with perspective at all that we’ve done in the last 10 years only makes us recognize that there’s a lot more to come.”