From William Penn’s “Greene Country Towne” to Edmund Bacon’s postwar reconfiguration, Philadelphia is one of the most consistently and successfully planned (and re-planned) cities in America. These future visions have not always anticipated the realities of social and economic change, but the tradition is nevertheless a strong one. With the latest IPCC report in front of us, it has become evident that Philadelphia will once again require an effort of planning to imagine an urban form flexible enough to withstand the environmental shock that is unfolding.
This need for planning will be most evident in water—especially the management of excess water arriving in the form of riverine floods and intensifying storms. As it is, the city’s antiquated combined sewer system overflows during heavy rains and flooding events. This poses an unacceptable health risk to the population that will only grow worse over time. But, this is only the beginning of the concern. A direct hit from a hurricane, an event that predictions indicate will grow more likely throughout the century, will expose the degree to which the city is unprepared to protect structures from the ravages of a serious flood. The impact of Hurricane Sandy on the New York City metro region should be a sobering lesson for Philadelphians as they think about the need to protect people and critical infrastructures.
These worst-case-water scenarios are not a matter of if, it is a matter of when. Can the city’s planning community—including private sector and non-profit partners—work together to address deferred infrastructure maintenance, low rates of flood insurance protection, and a culture of apathy in terms of severe storm preparedness? A re-dedication of planning resources will be necessary, and undoubtedly a dedication of talent in finance, engineering, and communication will be required. The history of Philadelphia shows a strength in “big thinking” when it comes to planning—but are we up to it now?
(This essay appears in a special “Philadelphia in 2100” issue of Drexel Policy Notes, Fall, 2018)