The image has the power : fighting blight in Philadelphia

Jonah Stern's (MCP '12) thesis argued that blight has plagued Philadelphia for the better part of a century, though the understanding of blight has changed dramatically over time. Originally used to describe neighborhood overcrowding, the term retained its currency even as once-overcrowded neighborhoods emptied out in the decades after World War II. The agenda of eradicating blight in its various forms has driven successive waves of redevelopment policy since the 1940s, and yet the problem persists to an astonishing degree in neighborhoods throughout the City. The "image" as a transformative planning tool is another concept with sustained significance in Philadelphia. This thesis defines an image as the vehicle for communicating a compelling idea about urban form that shapes broader understandings of place, and that serves as a catalyst of, and a framework for, individual and collective action. The importance of an image is best captured in longtime Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (1949- 70) Edmund Bacon's declaration that "it is the image, not the planner, which has the power." Admittedly a slippery concept, the presence or absence of a strong image has consistently circumscribed the public reception and subsequent implementation of Philadelphia's redevelopment strategies. This thesis is an examination of Philadelphia's recent history of redevelopment through the dual lenses of blight and image. Noting a repeated vacillation between neighborhood-scaled design strategies and abstracted citywide analysis in the mid- and late-twentieth century, it posits the need for a flexible image, conceived at an intermediate scale.