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News > Context Summer 2024 > Editors' Letter | Downtown: No Finer Place

Editors' Letter | Downtown: No Finer Place

The vision of a vibrant downtown is no better described than in Petula Clark’s 1964 hit, “Downtown,” penned by English songwriter Tony Hatch.  

The lights are much brighter there 

You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares 

So go downtown, things’ll be great when you’re 

Downtown, no finer place for sure 

Downtown, everything’s waiting for you 

Though 60 years old, “Downtown” still captures the emotion that many of us associate with downtowns. That feeling is no accident. Urban leaders have worked diligently to make our downtowns attract and engage us. The popularity of Philadelphia’s Center City among young adults and retirees alike suggested that they were on the right track, until a global pandemic changed everything. 

This issue of CONTEXT is devoted to reconsidering how we plan our downtowns in a post-pandemic world. Downtowns are where we all came together, but when the pandemic kept us apart, the “bustle” that was the soul of so many urban ideals disappeared overnight. Urban planners like Joey Scanga were adrift, as he explains, “for the first time in my career, I feel less confident predicting the future of cities.” (see Commentary, page 24). 

We hear you, Joey. Images from the pandemic years — struggling businesses, quiet lunch times in Rittenhouse Square, empty SEPTA buses — still haunt us today. It’s easy to fear for the future of our downtown, but there are reasons to be encouraged, too. New research-centric development in our downtown — not in the suburbs — is a sign that something new is going on here. That “something” according to Bruce Katz in the feature article, “Downtowns and the New Economic Geography,” is an economic shift that could help to diversify our downtowns and strengthen our economy. (see page 12). 

Meanwhile, Omar Blaik and Alex Feldman suggest that our downtowns relied too heavily on the 9-5 office worker. They argue that a more holistic perspective, coupled with additional investment from higher education, healthcare and governmental institutions could attract a more robust — and diverse — constituency to our downtown. (see page 20). 

Perhaps the pandemic was an opportunity to rethink our downtowns as more dynamic mixed-use destinations filled with vibrant public spaces? After all, parks and plazas proved vital as social relief valves during the shutdown. Patrick Morgan and Matthew Rader adopt that thesis in their article, “If You Build It, They Will Come” (page 16). Philadelphia has a history of wonderful public spaces. How can new types of shared amenities like Dilworth Park transform the urban landscape? And what role does natural beauty play in our social infrastructure? 

There are more questions now than answers, but there is plenty to be excited about. Downtown, there’s no finer place for sure. We hope you enjoy this issue. We begin with JoAnn Greco’s profile of the remarkable Paul Steinke, who has steered the Preservation Alliance, Philadelphia’s principal advocate for historic preservation, to a position of greater strength and prominence.  

Then we have a report on the work that has been done to implement the recommendations of the mayor’s Historic Preservation Task Force. It was penned by the Task Force’s chair and vice chair, Harris Steinberg and Dominique Hawkins, who also outline what remains to be done.  

Three additional essays tackle some of the knottiest problems in historic preservation and dispel some of the most persistent misunderstandings. Francesca Russello Ammon tells a new story about the creation of Society Hill, describing the provisions that were made to limit gentrification and enable some of the original, moderate-income residents to remain. In another piece, Amy Lambert and George Poulin argue that older buildings provide some of the best opportunities for creating affordable housing. Finally, Julie Bush chronicles the efforts of her Spruce Hill neighborhood to secure designation. She details how the current uptick in creating historic districts is the product of a powerful grassroots effort to use the protections afforded by historic preservation to promote stable communities. 

Historic preservation has been around for as long as some of the buildings that we now need to protect, but the authors published here show that we still have a lot to learn. 



Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation 

Drexel University 




Project Principal at HDR 



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