Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

The Built Environment

The following panel discussion took place at the Encyclopedia’s Civic Partnership and Planning Workshop, April 16-17, 2009, at the University of Pennsylvania. Please join the discussion by adding your thoughts below.

The Built Environment morning panel, chaired by Randall Mason of the University of Pennsylvania, began with Gregory Heller of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. He suggested that the main goal of the Encyclopedia project should be to find a method of transferring history into a more accessible form. He explained that a printed book would be a fine product, but that the project should strive to go beyond print, allowing users access and participation through a wiki format, and creating a dynamic online interface.

Furthermore, the project should try to integrate new ideas in scholarship, rather than simply reiterate previously known information. The speaker noted that there are several scholars currently developing new printed works on Philadelphia historical topics that have received little attention to-date. Such topics include the development of recreation and transportation in Philadelphia.
Also, the speaker offered that pre-WWII infrastructure projects and programs have been largely overshadowed by the much more famous post-WWII period and that this error should be rectified. He continued to explain that, even in the post-WWII period, the whole story of the development of infrastructure and physical development in Philadelphia has not been told, specifically in the evolution of spaces around the city.

The speaker argued that the project should strive to give voice to people who had impact on the physical environment of Philadelphia, but whose stories have been largely forgotten. Offering some ideas for future research and thought, he asked, “What happened to the built environment since the 1960’s?” and “As the city repopulates, how do you retain the historical memory of those [spaces] already gone?” He noted that a new generation of urban dwellers are moving in and redefining neighborhoods, without strong knowledge of the history and meaning of those places.

Next, the speaker outlined a few resources and subjects that should be included in the encyclopedia. Philadelphia is known for emerging topics such as urban farming, guerilla gardening, and urban activities such as skateboarding (for which Philadelphia is internationally famous). Furthermore, he argued for the inclusion of what he called “forgotten” and “hidden” Philadelphia. Forgotten spaces no longer exist (like Broad Street Station), while hidden spaces are essentially the “necessary ruins” of the city which still exist but are largely undiscovered or overlooked. These areas have a story to tell in their past, the speaker argued.

Ultimately, he argued that hidden meanings of the built environment must be explored (what the city looks like and why it looks that way).
Also, there are resources that can be used or communities that can be consulted regarding the modern form of Philadelphia’s built environment. For example, the current wave of modern physical development has largely been catalogued by the PhillySkyline blog (www.phillyskyline.com), and other bloggers and ad-hoc built form planners who serve as a community of interested and knowledgeable parties that would be a useful resource in the development of the project.

Finally, regarding the actual form of the encyclopedia, the speaker suggested that any online component could include dynamic articles with geo-coded links on the city map. This resource could tap into existing GIS data sets maintained by various public and private organizations.. Furthermore, he argued that the project must add value to what information already exists. He speculated that the online component, separate from a published book, may best serve the community if it were uploaded onto www.wikiphilly.com or onto wikipedia.com. He noted that studies have shown Wikipedia is as accurate as Britannica (for example see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4530930.stm). However, unlike a conventional encyclopedia, Wikipedia gives the world scholarly community access to add and develop entries. This would allow the world community to expand on the content, and build the scholarly research developed for this project into something more robust, accurate, and accessible, over time.

Next, Rebecca Yamin, an archaeologist for John Milner Associates, began by asserting that the encyclopedia project will provide an opportunity for her field to tell their version of the story of Philadelphia. She explained that archaeologists often feel left out of these projects, but that their work plays a crucial role in the crafting of history.

She stated that although archaeological evidence of the built environment is fragmentary, it shows the power of the place, and this leads to numerous stories of the life of the city. Furthermore, archaeology can show the apparent resilience and multiple purposes of spaces–things that cannot be adequately proven through documents alone. For example, backyards and other places of “domestic infrastructure” display intimate but unintentional pictures of people’s lives and help show how things are organized while telling parts of the city’s past that generally cannot speak for itself. The speaker offered a few other built environments within the city that can be better explored through the use of archaeology: cemeteries and the waterfront. While cemeteries can tell stories about people and how they congregate, explorations of the physical environment of the waterfront can give new insights into the tale of immigration in Philadelphia.

Finally, Yamin argued that archaeology should be included in all parts of the encyclopedia, and not just in small articles on specific buildings, monuments, and other such objects. She argued that archaeology should be regarded as a “way of knowing with much to contribute to the stories of the urban process, landscapes, changes, building and rebuilding, and the neighborhoods and people of Philadelphia.

The third speaker, Tuomi Forrest of Partners for Sacred Places, spoke briefly of the importance in recognizing the multitude of sacred places and the phenomena attached to them throughout Philadelphia. These places cross all denominations of religions and are stories worth telling due to their local and national significance. Forrest argued that sacred places provide positive narrative arcs for the Encyclopedia project. He explained that the histories of the sacred places provide relatively unbroken continuity of religious communities who offered aid, help, and comfort for the people of Philadelphia during periods of social and economic change. Furthermore, sacred places contributed to or reflected the art forms of the various periods. In conclusion, he urged the editors to consider and embrace the histories of sacred places, both as built structures, and the new stories created when such structures would change hands over the years.

The next speaker, George Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania, began by offering that one of the challenges facing the encyclopedia project will be to deal with the issue of rapid change. He explained that the book is often viewed as old media where the reader is confronted with outdated information. For the project to be successful the challenge of rapidly changing data must be faced.
Thomas posed several questions that he considered should be the focus of the project, namely “What made Philadelphia so special?” and “How did it grow so fast?” The Encyclopedia must show, he argued, that Philadelphia created the modern world and that what made the beginning of the city different from all of the others was not the Quakers, but the industrialists that founded it. Also, the project should help the reader understand the critical ideas found in William Penn’s experiment in religious freedom.

Most importantly, according to the speaker, the encyclopedia should work to re-brand Philadelphia—from a place of “old history” (focusing on class and order) to a history that shows a city where the world grows (stressing change, adaptation, and transportation). In this spirit the project should focus on the city’s “bests” instead of the traditional approach that simply focuses on its “firsts.”

The final speaker for this panel, John Gallery of the Preservation Alliance, offered that there were three things that interest him in any topic about Philadelphia’s built environment: What is the story? What is noteworthy or significant about it? What is its urban form? He continued by explaining that what marks a structure as historical is intimately tied to the people associated with it, both during its construction as well as its current use. The speaker suggested that the project should include some kind of index that identifies people associated with the various buildings that were written about, even including those historians and professionals that researched the built environment itself.

Turning to the form of the project, Gallery argued that any articles in the Encyclopedia focusing on the built environment should also reference the architectural history of the city. This should not only include how these environments were created and used but also how Philadelphia will continue to use them in the future. The latter is important, he stressed, because most people don’t understand how recent the Philadelphia built form is and also how it continues to evolve. Lastly, the speaker offered that it is ineffective to talk about the built environment without showing pictures of it, and therefore the project must include numerous visual references to be successful.

Dialogue: The Q&A session for the Built Environment panel mostly progressed as a general discussion of ideas amongst the panelists and those present in the audience. One participant suggested that the project should serve to fill in various embarrassing gaps in scholarship (referred to as an “enormously large forest of short trees”) that are instrumental in understanding Philadelphia’s built environment, such as public housing and row houses. Another person offered that the built form of the city must be considered through both topography and culture. One member suggested that suburban growth should be mentioned, including tracing suburban growth, suburbanization, and land preservation.

A participant offered that the project should be structured around the five great migrations of Philadelphia’s history and that associated articles should discuss both who lived there first and who lives there currently while another person said that the Encyclopedia should refer to the city as setting an individual standard for the rest of the country to follow.
Many other subjects for consideration were offered, including: vernacular structures and cultural landscapes, congregations and the multiple uses of structures (such as a religious institution existing in a building with a different purpose), the strategic archaeology of the riverfront, the importance of commuters, the Philadelphia Social History Project, and oral documentation (which was argued to provide a more holistic picture of the built environment since, while architects may be present in the official documents the general contractors are not). One person reminded those in attendance that Philadelphia’s urban form exists in two spheres, the built environment above ground and the archaeological remains beneath. Finally, someone suggested that commentaries about the built environment by public figures should be included in the Encyclopedia.

What are the region’s information needs in the area of built environment? Add your thoughts below.

One Comment Comments

  1. I would simply like to underscore the general availability of the following database which may be of use to the built environment aspect of this project. Philadelphia Neighborhoods: Histories, Plans and Futures is a free, searchable database of neighborhood-based reports issued by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission between 1946 and 1990. The database was conceived in the Fine Arts Library of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and created by the Libraries’ Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image. It may be found at http://sceti.library.upenn.edu/PhilaNeighborhoods/.

    William B. Keller Posted May 29, 2009 at 8:38 am

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