City planning in Philadelphia balances history, development

City planners are often faced with the difficult task of deciding which buildings stay and which ones go, a clash between development and days of yore. However, new research from a sociologist at Rice University suggests growth and preservation can go hand in hand in Philadelphia.

Photo credit: Paul Loftland/Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Photo credit: Paul Loftland/Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Architectures of Memory: When Growth Machines Embrace Preservationists” will appear in an upcoming edition of Sociological Forum. The research examines existing work on how city dwellers use ideas about local history and culture to facilitate or oppose development.

Kevin Loughran, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Rice School of Social Sciences’ Department of Sociology, focused on the development of Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park (INHP), which he said presented an ideal case for examining the tension between history and growth in urban redevelopment. He and his fellow researchers examined the debates around the city’s important design and building decisions — including Independence Mall and Society Hill — since World War II. They drew on official documents, oral histories, newspaper accounts and other records to reconstruct the actors and organizations that influenced the development of the INHP.

Kevin Loughran. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

Kevin Loughran. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

After examining the development efforts in Philadelphia, the researchers found that the opposing forces of preservation and growth have often been fused together by city boosters, government officials and urban planners.

“Decision-makers within a city ultimately decide how much history lives on in a city, and which time periods are glorified,” Loughran said.

As Philadelphia grew, the area now known as the INHP had fallen into disrepair. However, the founding of the National Park Service in 1916 and the Historic Sites Act of 1935, combined with patriotic and nationalistic sentiments during and following World War II and the historical significance of the area, inspired developers and historical preservationists to revitalize the area, emphasizing Philadelphia’s central role in the founding of the U.S.

“Preservation involved refurbishing structures of historical significance to evoke their imagined presence in the colonial period,” Loughran said. “In addition, some buildings of historical significance that had been demolished — including the City Tavern, a regular meeting place for the founding fathers and the Continental Congress — were rebuilt to recapture important historical memories.”

Loughran said Philadelphia provides a great example of how urban players leveraged history to develop a large section of a major city. However, he said these factors are by no means isolated and reveal much about how memory and growth interact more generally.

Photo credit: Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Photo credit: Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Philadelphia was far from the only American city to undergo historically oriented redevelopment during the postwar period,” he said. “Although not every neighborhood can lay claim to the birth of a nation, nor can every historically themed project expect federal funds and global interest, the prevalence of similar, if smaller-scale projects across the globe suggests that key themes analyzed here can be found in many other situations.”

Loughran said the creation of a historic district — now common in cities and towns in the U.S. and beyond — involves far more than placing a few markers.

“It involves strategies of development involving the understandings of the past, present and future,” he said. “Ultimately, the story of Philadelphia is an urban story.”

The study was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.