27 June 2013

Exploring the Landscape of Smart Urbanism in Philadelphia

The new corporate office cluster of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, a special economic zone for the southeastern Pennsylvania region, with its executive putting green in the foreground. For more photos see my Navy Yard photoset on Flickr.

What follows is an initial draft of research I presented at two conferences this June, first at the Symposium on Urban Informatics: Exploring Smarter Cities at Drexel University in Philadelphia, then a week later at the Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn? International Roundtable Workshop at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Smart Urbanism in Philadelphia: Utilizing Social and Technical Systems to Promote Economic Growth

In this essay I examine Philadelphia’s engagement with the smart city concept through two interconnected projects, the Digital On-Ramps workforce development efforts that originated from consultation IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge provided, and the city’s economic branding and marketing efforts “Philadelphia: Smart City, Smart Choice” (pdf). My overall argument is that, while there will likely be many productive outcomes of both projects--new industries and jobs in those new industries for marginalized city residents--through these new, technologically-mediated forms of civic engagement and economic promotion, the greater utility of the ‘smart city’ is to present Philadelphia as an innovative, competitive node in the global economy.

The smart city as a concept can be defined as the municipal adoption of software, hardware, urban sensor networks, smartphone applications, or other forms of ubiquitous computing technologies to improve on urban issues and to achieve particular goals, such as economic growth. While there are numerous visions for the potential of smart urbanism to target localized, neighborhood-focused urban change, in Philadelphia the rhetorical utility of the concept has an economic, business-focus that translates to similar deliverables in the Digital On-Ramps project.

Programming for an Intelligent Philadelphia

The Digital On-Ramps workforce education effort emerges out of a proposal put forward to IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge, which was established in 2010 to provide free consultation to cities around the world around implementing technological solutions to urban problems. The Challenge ends this year, having consulted on approximately 62 of the intended 100 recipients. Cities asked for help on a number of issues, from workforce development to ecological sustainability to urban renewal. Philadelphia was part of the initial 2010 round of consultation. Mayor Nutter’s Office asked for help conceptualizing a workforce education portal to link unemployed or underemployed residents to online, easily accessible job training for work in emerging industries.

Initiated through the discussion with IBM, as well as ongoing work with a number of city government, educational, and non-governmental organizations (here is the list of partner organizations), the Digital On-Ramps project is advancing toward full implementation in the near future. The rationale for the project comes out of acknowledging the endemic poverty, low high school graduation rates, low overall literacy, and limited access to computers and broadband Internet among significant numbers of the city’s population, all contributing to long-term difficulty finding jobs. Digital On-Ramps seeks to overcome these multiple, inter-connected issues by providing a platform for ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning, a portal to train city residents across access platforms, from smartphones to tablet computers to desktops. The easy-accessibility is a convenience intended to allow users to participate when and where they have the time, instead of requiring users to travel to a particular place for the workforce training. The idea is that a user could learn the digital interface for a piece of office or manufacturing equipment, and then to connect that person with a company looking for workers knowledgeable in that equipment. Digital On-Ramps had an initial roll out in spring 2013 with 500 high school students at four schools participating. With this soft start, the project is targeting the advanced manufacturing industry as an initial focus for employment.

Advanced manufacturing is a very new industry that is slippery to define still. The push for this sphere of industry stems from efforts from the United States' federal government to reinvigorate the manufacturing capabilities of the United States by fostering business that centers on high-tech, high-precision, flexible and nimble production model, with the further ability to adjust to changing demands and products. 

A significant issue, however, is that the industry is brand new and Digital On-Ramps recipe for securing work for participants has not yet been proven. Beyond that, Digital On-Ramps is targeting the marginalized neighborhoods of the city that have not recovered from the post-industrial blight that has defined large regions of the city for the last fifty years, and it is not clear where these jobs in advanced manufacturing might be located.

Smart City Smart Choice

Now I will to shift to look at Philadelphia’s other application of the ‘smart city’ terminology: its place-based economic marketing and branding efforts, “Philadelphia: Smart City, Smart Choice”. The “Smart City, Smart Choice” marketing campaign is a component of Philadelphia’s business services web-portal, and is a nicely done introductory document to show the business-friendly side of the city. In the document, ‘smart’ refers to the central location of the city in the greater Northeastern United States as well as the many transportation options into the city, the opportunities for higher education and hiring a trained workforce, and the quality of life married to an affordable cost of living.

‘Smart’ in this example becomes a rhetorical device intended to promote a vision of the city as a creative, innovative, intelligent place to set up a business. This promotion ties in to the city’s efforts to re-cast Philadelphia in a more positive light, not as the next Detroit but as a city with the potential to regain its economic strength.

While Digital On-Ramps presents a new, productive way of providing workforce education and outreach, it can only do so much. Both it and the “Smart City, Smart Choice” campaign’s use of smart city language seek to bring economic growth to Philadelphia, but neither offer a clear pathway to improving marginalized neighborhoods in the city; instead the focus seems to be either in other, peripheral areas far from the city’s central neighborhoods, or in the already-strong, already well-developed central business district.

To an extent, the landscape of the smart city or the smart economy in Philadelphia is locating in areas away from the historical, industrial districts, the areas that have suffered the most decline as the city has transitioned away from its industrial economy and toward an information-based, service economy. While these new projects may provide jobs for residents throughout the city, the overall economic development does not seem to be bringing industry back to the core areas of the 19th and 20th century industrial economy.

The former site of the Stetson Hat Factory in North Philadelphia.The factory complex burned down in 1980 and nothing has been rebuilt in the intervening years.
As an example of this change, the location of what was the Stetson Hat Factory in North Philadelphia, just east of Temple University, is telling. I present it to show what an area of the city's modern industrial economy looks like today--to be fair, not every formerly-industrial neighborhood looks like this, but many do. The factory closed in 1971 and burned down in 1980, but until it closed this was where the iconic cowboy hats of the American West were manufactured. Today, forty years on, the site sits abandoned, like much of what was Philadelphia’s industrial core. While some of the post-industrial areas of the city have been gentrified into residential neighborhoods, sites like this one are not uncommon.

Zonespaces of the Globalized Information Economy

Looking north from the Delaware River waterfront.
As a means of exploring the spatial consequences of smart urbanism in Philadelphia, I want to pivot here to look at where advanced manufacturing, among other facets of the new, globalized economy, are locating in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Navy Yard is of the city but not in the city. It is an extra-urban special economic zone--as Keller Easterling terms it, a zonespace--for the global economy at the far southern fringe of the city itself. This 1000 acre, public-private development opened in 2005, after the US Navy turned it over to Philadelphia in 2000. Approximately 100 businesses employ over 8,500 people in the complex. There are numerous incentives for businesses to locate in the Navy Yard, including exemptions from state and local income tax, real estate tax, and sales tax at least until 2018. The entire zone is separate from the city, with security guards at the road entrances and the visible presence of Philadelphia police, but also geographically: two major freeways, a railroad corridor, and the professional sports complex divide the area from the southernmost neighborhoods of the city proper. With the twenty-four hour private security, the Navy Yard is only open to the public during business hours Monday through Friday. At the far side of the zone, the Delaware River separates the area from New Jersey. 
While Digital On-Ramps could be considered a-spatial due to its use of pervasive connectivity--a participant would not even have to be within city limits to access their account, the outcomes of these information and communication technology-driven economic development projects can be located. The spatial consequences of the dual smart city/smart urbanism discussion in Philadelphia can be seen in places like the Navy Yard, which is why I want to highlight its presence in the city.

The Navy Yard could be one of the best-maintained area of the city. With its mix of historic naval officers quarters, barracks, warehouses, industrial buildings, and new office buildings, it looks like a cross between the grounds of an established, sprawling university and a suburban, corporate research campus. Mature shade trees line the streets, bike lanes are newly painted on the recently resurfaced pavement, and there is little traffic except at the start and end of the work day.

Glaxo Smith Kline's new offices, employing an contemporary aesthetic rarely seen in Philadelphia proper.

Tasty Cake, PNC Bank, and Glaxo Smith Kline have built new buildings close to the entrance, while Urban Outfitters houses their global headquarters on the waterfront in a series of long and low renovated brick factory buildings. On the western end of the zone there is still shipbuilding businesses; the Navy houses research and development work, and both Penn State and Drexel University have research clusters.

A former Marine Corps barracks acts at a hub for the region's advanced manufacturing industry. The Building 100 Innovation Center is where advanced manufacturing has been developing in the Philadelphia region--federal grants run through offices located here, and the emerging industry is rooted in this location. Conceivably if an advanced manufacturing factory were to open, it could do so in one of the many historic factory buildings available for conversion nearby, which in turn could offer jobs to the Digital On-Ramps participants looking for work in the industry.

The Building 100 Innovation Center in the Navy Yard, where the early advanced manufacturing industry is locating in the Philadelphia region.

There are other areas of the city and the region where new industries and precision manufacturing are located, but little if any of these businesses can be found in the marginalized neighborhoods that have been targeted for participating in Digital On-Ramps. The emerging landscape of a smart Philadelphia has yet to re-invest in the areas that once represented the city’s innovation and economic wealth, such as neighborhoods of North Philadelphia surrounding the Stetson Hat Factory site.


In the dynamic, changing landscape of Philadelphia today, the emerging economic activities that are targeted as contributing to ‘the smart city’ are to a large extent not found in the same locations as earlier industries. As a rhetorical device contributing to place-making efforts in the globalized digital age, the ‘smart city’ discussion focuses on much more on the possibilities change could bring instead of on the actual economic situation across much of the city. For Philadelphia, the ‘smart city’ is an effort to brand the city as a location for economic development that may or may not have a widespread impact on the actual city. Thus far the new businesses such as the advanced manufacturing cluster have not located in the areas of the city that have faced significant decline in economic opportunities over the last decades. By prioritizing a smart city over smart citizens, the potential to create widespread improvements is limited by the targeted focus on a particular form of economic growth. The special economic zone model of economic development that the Navy Yard represents is a new, global, extra-urban device that is located in the city but offers a new, unprecedented example of how to produce economic growth ways disconnected, geographically separated from the rest of the city itself.


The Navy Yard's website contains much easily-accessible information, including the master plans for the complex, a printable walking tour (pdf), and information about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Keystone Opportunity Zones, areas where taxation is reduced or eliminated in the interest of promoting economic growth. In addition to Rob Holmes of Mammoth as well as others, I am very interested in the spatial and political implications of special economic zones and free trade zones. Much of the discussion of these spaces seems to position them as elsewhere, far from city centers for instance, when, as the Navy Yard indicates, these places are already part of cities in the United States, their impact spreading throughout the country.

Finally, I have actively returned to using Flickr in the last few months, after a hiatus of at least four years. While the service is not perfect, it is easy to use; I'm considering it as a photographic back-end to this blog, where I can organize and update images that relate to my greater geographic research interests. There is a Philadelphia Navy Yard photoset with images from three visits to the site over the last year. For those readers in the Philadelphia area, I encourage you to visit the Navy Yard. It is open to the public, full of interesting architecture, and well worth a few hours of your time.

No comments:

Post a Comment