Monday, June 7, 2010

Tipping Points in Philadelphia

Ghost Busters on South Street

How much is too much?

Planner, developer, and academic types have asked this question for decades. So has Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller The Tipping Point. I asked this question in field research with Paul Wong my business partner years ago. I asked it again in research with my colleague Chuck Genre, a co-faculty member at our university research center.

In the 1960s, Jane Jacobs and William Whyte talked plenty about it too in their writings of diversity on the street. How much diversity is a good thing? How many benches before people use them? How many shops before a street becomes vibrant. How many shops is too many? What kind of shops will tip a neighborhood into or out of crime? How many bars are too many (Paul and I tackled that in the mid 1990s). How many parking lots trigger auto crime (Chuck and I studied that from 2000 - 2002).

I am back this week with my latest SafeGrowth students in Philadelphia. My weekend comprised walks and talks on the eclectic South Street, the Bohemian mecca for street kids, students, shoppers and a fair share of tourists, artists, and hangers-on.

South Street is one of those self-evolving, hipster commercial drives, about 25 blocks and a mile and a half in length. I walked back and forth on it and was surprised by its intense diversity. Unlike many such entertainment venues like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, this one does a much better job catering to local residents. Over a thousand live in pricey digs directly on or near the one way, narrow street. I'm not a fan of one-ways, but the narrowness and eye-catching architectural diversity make this one work pretty well.

One of Philadelphia's famous murals

It has some community gardens, a grocery store, and similar places where locals can patronize. It also has a region-wide reputation for hipness, a place where, as the song says, "the hippies go".

I also learned there was local organizations and non-profits who kept momentum moving forward by watching zoning issues, providing programs, and working on neighborhood livability. As in SafeGrowth strategies, it is the local organizations and non-profits who sustain positive momentum forward. It sure seemed to work on South Street.

True, South Street has the odd controversy; one example was a recent Twitter Flash Mob of juveniles (both the chronological and emotional types) who rampaged storefronts and generally acted out their immaturity. Some crowded evenings the street gets so packed cops must siphon pedestrians in one direction to keep the street moving. I also found crime stats too, a handful of thefts, a store robbery, a street robbery, and a few burglaries over the past 6 months.

For the most part, with such a high population density and diverse population, it all seems to work pretty well.

Humanizing the street with community gardens

I don't know if this is the best combination for the diverse street. I don't know if South Street represents the Golden Rule for what diversity should look like. It feels like a cross between the positive vibe on Vancouver's Commercial Drive and the livability of Dayton's Oregon District. Yet it's much larger than both and Philadelphia faces considerably more crime.

So consider this - In one of the country's largest cities (6 million in the metro area), with a national city ranking in the top ten for too many crime categories, South Street's diversity and cultural energy thrives, it draws shoppers and tourists in droves, and still provides a convenient and interesting place to live.

Jacobs and Whyte, it seems, were right.