Two weeks ago, the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH) hosted their fourteenth biennial conference in Baltimore, Maryland. Some of the best architects, urban planners, and scholars came together to discuss recent and long-term trends in the growth and transformation of metropolitan areas. For folks unfamiliar with the term, a metropolitan area is a city and its surrounding counties. Southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, New Castle County (Delaware), and Cecil County (Maryland) form a functional definition of the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The area has grown over the last decade as Chester and Berks County have experienced significant growth of commuting households. In large measure, the prosperity of the entire state of Pennsylvania rests in the hands of these metropolitan Philadelphia communities. Yet, television news and internet blogs continue to focus on the struggles of communities like Camden, Chester, and North Philadelphia to the exclusion of the successes in Exton, Newtown, and Blue Bell.
The professionals at the conference showcased hundreds of useful tools to shape and direct the next generation of metropolitan growth in the United States and around the world. Undergraduate and graduate students presented innovative analyses about more efficient transportation infrastructure, cost-effective private financing to promote socio-economic integration of neighborhoods, and micro-lending techniques to stimulate new entrepreneurship on regional mall sites. Senior faculty brought flashy new graphic tools to the meetings that showed how metropolitan areas have changed over thousands of years – geographically, culturally, politically, and economically. The major parties missing from the discussion were the corporations and local governments who benefit most from this research.
Dr. Richardson Dilworth, Associate Professor of History and Politics and Director of the Center for Public Policy at Drexel University, presented important work on the history of Philadelphia and the evolution of public-private partnerships like the Center City business improvement district. He began with the understanding that places like Northern Liberties and Moyamensing were significant American cities in their own right during the early nineteenth century. The binding identities of these early cities manifested in the twentieth century as local development agencies or neighborhood chambers of commerce. The insight Dilworth provides has great potential for the metropolitan suburbs like Norristown, Bensalem, Lansdale, Phoenixville, and Yeadon. When the small businesses in these communities work together to reshape local economic conditions for new enterprises, there is no limit on how great Pennsylvania can become in the future.