The South Street Bridge, an 80-year-old span across the Schuylkill River, is falling to pieces and must be replaced, but the plans for its reconstruction have left much to be desired. The new bridge will effectively be a gussied-up highway overpass, designed for cars first, and the pedestrian as a distant second.
Sadly, while Philadelphia may be entering a true renaissance period, our government still treats our infrastructure problems with utilitarian solutions. Using budgetary constraints and the need to relieve congestion as the answer to all critiques, the city repeatedly justifies selling out our city’s greatest marketable asset – our walkability.
Something so rare in American cities and so abstract, we take it for granted in many East Coast metropolises. Yet, this feature, the wonderful density that makes a neighborhood, that provides convenience to amenities, and the infrastructure that provides a habitat comfortable to a human not encased in machinery, this is what makes a city truly great.
So much development in the United States has followed the pattern of ignoring our most natural mode of transport, simple walking, and created vast stretches of land that are unnavigable by foot. For me, this feels less like development and more like imprisonment. It restricts our ability to truly move about freely and forces a dependency on private automobile and petroleum companies for “access” to public space and transport. What separates a city like Philadelphia from these chronic problems of the car-centered suburb is that we are more free from the domination of the automotive landscape.
And it is for this reason that the incursion of an auto-centric structure into the heart of our city is so abhorrent, especially when we are only now experiencing success as a city because people are attracted to the novelty of our built environment. We cannot afford to idly accept substandard infrastructure that seems more fitting for the New Jersey Turnpike than Center City. It diminishes the character, history and irreplaceable authenticity that Philadelphia possesses, and that many other places, even cities, lack.
In the case of the South Street Bridge, a community organization in Center City has presented a revised plan for the bridge that provides better separation for pedestrian areas and car traffic. Mayor will soon weigh in on whether these recommendations will be taken seriously.
For many who read this, there is little to be done except hope that a better design prevails. However, this column is not a cry for action over this particular issue that is already largely out of the public’s hands, but more a vehicle for emphasizing the importance of design in cities. This is an issue that is elusive for the average city dweller, that too often people simply accept the things that are created around them, as if they were created by a force of nature.
Of course, these things are not supernatural, but very much a product of the priorities of the governments and therefore politicians who approve their construction.
Ryan Briggs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org