Source: Plan Philly
Date: March 17, 2009
Byline: Thomas J. Walsh

Ed Bacon’s call for a post-oil economy

Greg Heller, a planner with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, knew what former city planning director Ed Bacon had to say about himself, and about others. Bacon was hardly shy about sharing his opinions, and tended to oversell himself.

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. But Heller, who is close to finishing a draft of a Bacon biography, a multi-year effort scheduled to be published by the Urban Land Institute, says the late Mr. Bacon also undersold himself, to an equal degree.

“When I started, all I knew was Ed’s side of the stories, which are fascinating,” Heller said the other day. “They were also totally inaccurate. The real story is much more interesting. My goal is to get out the story of what he actually did.”

Remarkably, given what’s going on now, economically and ecologically, one of the things Bacon actually did was agree with his “Design of Cities” publisher to write a book about what he called the “post-petroleum” world, and the role cities would play in smoothing that transition. This was in 1973, when Middle East oil embargoes ushered in the energy crisis later in that decade.

“It was timely to a certain extent, but Ed was way ahead of his time in terms of working out ways of doing something about it,” Heller recently told PlanPhilly.

Timely then, but perhaps more so today: Bacon’s “post-petroleum” book was started 35 years before a symposium and exhibit at Penn last fall, entitled, “Re-imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil.”

What’s more, Heller says that years later, inspired by reaction to a 1987 speech he gave in Kyoto, Japan, Bacon himself proposed such a conference, but on a global scale. He enlisted willing participants on the spot, in typical Bacon fashion.

But the 1980s were not kind to Ed Bacon’s ideas or visions. After a decade of work, the “post-petroleum” book fizzled. The global conference on alternatives to oil never happened.

The Bacon stimulus package

In addition to his detailed biography (working title: “Edmund Bacon: Biography of a Visionary Planner”), Heller recently contributed a chapter to a University of Pennsylvania Press book due out this coming autumn, based on a long-forgotten article Bacon penned for Greater Philadelphia Magazine.

Scott Knowles, an assistant professor of modern urban history at Drexel University, was researching material for an article he was writing in 2006 about early Cold War civil defense planning when he stumbled, “in one of those moments historians treasure,” upon the original version of Bacon’s magazine article.

Its title: “Philadelphia in the Year 2009.”

Knowles, who moved to Philly in 2005, admits that at the time, he was only familiar with the latter-day version of Bacon’s reputation — the crotchety naysayer of Laurie Olin’s Independence Mall makeover, the unlikely champion of Love Park skateboarders, etc.. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Knowles found no evidence that Bacon gave the time of day to useless Federal safety measures in the event of nuclear holocaust.)

But he started copying the magazine piece and sharing it with colleagues, all of whom told him they found it fascinating. In the meantime, Knowles started to learn more about the man who ran the city’s Planning Commission from 1949 through 1970.

“This article was a pretty elaborate, fanciful vision of quasi-utopian Philadelphia in 2009,” Knowles said. “I thought, ‘This could really spark some conversation,’ and when the (2007) mayoral race came, there was quite a bit of discussion about planning, and I was surprised by that.”

He took the idea to his editor, and soon Knowles was himself an editor — of a volume that will re-print the original Bacon piece, along with chapters by various planning professionals that “could contextualize the essay.”

The working title of the book is “Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the City of the Future.” It includes an afterward by development and sustainability expert Eugenie Birch, a director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research.

Catalytic converter

Knowles says Bacon’s formula in the article is that “the combination of wise, forward-looking planning, with public spirit behind it, a rallied populace and Federal funding can do just about anything, especially if there is something to rally around, a catalytic moment.”

For Bacon, that catalyst would be a World’s Fair in the Bicentennial year of 1976, in the birthplace of the nation. The fair would be so transformative that Philadelphians of 2009 would look back and say, ‘That was the moment’ when the transformation occurred, Bacon reckoned.

In his 1959 article, Bacon wrote that “Philadelphia, among the cities of the nation, now enjoys perhaps top place in recognition for its achievements over the past few years.” This was in no small part due to the Better Philadelphia Exhibition of 1947, he argued, which he helped to stage within the Gimbels department store on East Market Street.

This was not simply Bacon’s famous healthy ego talking — he is still the only city planner to ever grace the cover of Time magazine, Heller reminds us. And the pool-table sized, three-dimensional model of a futuristic Philadelphia — a centerpiece of the expo which could be flipped over, on an axel, for before-and-after views (a major wow-factor in ’47) — was shipped off for use by the U.S. government at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.

“The great need is for a new, clear, concrete objective,” Bacon wrote, “set for [a] manageable time in the future, which establishes new, strong ideas and which acts as a continuing stimulant to sustain civic activity. Such an objective is available, ready-made, only waiting to be used, in the form of the 1976 Philadelphia World’s Fair.”

He describes such a fair in some detail, and one cannot help but pause at one particular paragraph, a prediction which had not come to fruition in 1976, and that only now is getting serious attention: “The Delaware River Marina will be a magnet for visitors, with its historical ships and marine museum, aquarium, swimming pool and restaurants. It will be the point of departure for the launches that take visitors to the Navy Yard for trips through aircraft carriers and cruisers, and for a stop at Old Fort Mifflin.”

Harris Steinberg, executive director of PennPraxis, the clinical arm of the Penn School of Design and PlanPhilly’s parent organization, is writing a chapter for Knowles’ book on “Philadelphia in the Year 2059.” Given Bacon’s knack for time-space conceptual theory and his belief in bold projection, it’s a natural subject to include.

“What’s interesting is how he used the Bicentennial as the fulcrum for this much more widespread planning,” Steinberg said. “We know those days are over — Bacon was writing mainly before the 1960s started to really happen, when Federal funding was something to be counted on. It was the beginning of the ‘Mad Men’ era, and he was at the height of his power. The world was his oyster; but that oyster was starting to disappear fast.”

Several times in the article, Bacon speaks of the power of a “stimulus.” It’s a bit ironic in two ways. First, of course, is the dominant story of the actual year 2009, the here-and-now, featuring an America receiving a Federal stimulus package in the hundreds of billions of dollars, with urban advocates clamoring for infrastructure repair and rebuilding. But more to the point, what he referred to as stimuli would have been the actual results of targeted funds, not the money itself. His assumption was that the plans would be already sketched out, if not fine-tuned. That city officials would be onboard, and contracts signed. That, in requesting Federal money, the groundwork would be “shovel-ready” as a matter of course.

Wrote Bacon: “Seen within this framework, the Fair should inspire the Federal government to lend special support to see to it that the main features of the downtown plan are actually completed by 1976, and completed at a high level of engineering and design, as a part of its world strategy.”

He called it a “world strategy.” These days, it’s known as the “global economy.”

‘Institutional memory’

Despite his extraordinary vision, Bacon was also well known for a lack of political savvy. For a guy from Texas unfamiliar with Bacon lore until recently, Knowles wonders what he could have accomplished if things were different in that regard.

He is writing about it in a chapter called, “Staying Too Long at the Fair: Philadelphia Planning and the Debacle of ’76,” directly addressing this piece of urban history. Knowles also is writing the preface.

The Federal funding never came, of course, done in by the late Mayor Frank Rizzo and other pressures, Knowles said, as the idealism of urban renewal dimmed. “The dream of the Bicentennial expo was subsumed by the social, cultural, political and economic turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s,” Steinberg added.

As far as projecting the Philadelphia of 2059, Steinberg said his chapter is not so much a vision as “a hope.”

“It’s about finding the way to make smart choices and rise above the politics and practices that we’ve devolved into over the past 40 years, that keep us stuck,” he said. “It’s about the hope for the triumph of a progressive process for decision-making in the built environment.”

Steinberg hopes that what has transpired with the recent PennPraxis Delaware River waterfront plans can serve as a model for “deliberative, open and transparent” processes and which “places sound planning and urban design principles, not individual gain, at the leading edge of decision-making.”

“A lot of the work of the next generation of planners will be sort of stripping away some of the mistakes that were made,” Knowles said. “The situating of the city, with its parks and between two rivers — it’s hard to mess that up, and yet we have.”

Another chapter is being authored by Guian McKee, a planning historian at the University of Virginia. McKee is exploring Bacon’s relationship with the rest of Philadelphia’s city government in those years, in particular the Redevelopment Authority, which he said yielded much more power than people realized. The chapter is tentatively titled, “A Utopian, A Utopianist, or Whatever the Heck it is: Edmund Bacon and the Complexity of the City.”

Knowles said that he’ll be interested to see reaction from readers on certain disagreements between his writers, particularly Heller and McKee. “One thing they do agree on is that he wasn’t as powerful as the legend makes him out to be,” Knowles said. “He was not the Robert Moses of Philadelphia.”

Yet the thing about Bacon, Heller said, is that much of what he planned did come to be, and plenty of what he predicted came true, in some form or another, the “East Market Street Transportation Center” not least among them. Even among the things that did not come to pass — such as the Schuylkill River Park, currently in the works — much of what he planned now seems obvious, he said.

“These were just dreams in 1959,” Heller said. “They are much less remarkable in retrospect. Once these things are part of the urban framework, we forget that there was a time when they were not there. And there was very little public support for some of this.”

“He truly was a visionary in the sense of a guy who did not allow disciplinary boundaries to confine his thinking,” Knowles said. Trained as an architect, he was riveted in his work by physical space. And though “like many of his era he was romanticized by the automobile,” his mind was broad enough to foretell certain finite characteristics of cars.

Particularly valuable about the 1959 article is that it allows present day thinkers to put forth observations, getting further at the truth of Bacon’s influence and his environment, Heller and Knowles said.

“I teach a course on the history of Philadelphia, and to be honest with you, it has always been, up until I did this research, very heavily tilted toward the 18th and 19th centuries,” said Knowles. “There’s not a lot written about post-war Philadelphia.”

He doesn’t have to remind Heller, who has found it surprisingly difficult to put living color into what is a thoroughly modern history lesson — about one of the city’s most colorful characters and one of its brightest lights.

“Philadelphia doesn’t have a very good institutional memory,” Heller said. “I think that’s a very dangerous thing for a city.”