The first warm week of spring pushes many of us outdoors for the first time since last summer. Not that we don't get outside at other times of the year, but April's warmth is an annual milestone, much like this weekend's Penn Relays. The first burst of warm sunshine slows our pace as we hurry about the activities of daily living. Suddenly, the benches in the park seem inviting. Tables reappear at sidewalk cafes. Soon the outdoor farmer's markets will reopen across the City and beyond.
This past week also included Primary Day in Pennsylvania and Earth Day around the globe. The convergence of the warm weather, a day to reflect upon the environment and sustainability, and a primary season in which urban/metropolitan issues seem to attract little attention from the candidates got me thinking about slowing down as a strategy for urban community development.
The economic literature is full of studies that equate regional economic development with competitiveness. In simplistic terms, many people-economic development practitioners, journalists, the at-large public-wrongfully confuse uncontrolled growth with competitiveness and development, believing that "bigger is better"-always. Many of the same people regard competitiveness as a "zero-sum" game, where in order for some community to win another has to lose. While comprehensive strategy relating to economic competitiveness is something best considered at the appropriate level of geography-the functional urban region[i]-great places to live and to visit are crafted at much finer levels. Greater Philadelphia may be blessed with many such locations within the region, where slowing down could be a great community development tool, while at the same time, the entire metropolitan area would benefit from a comprehensive regional competitiveness strategy.
to "Big Box" and homogeneous development, a movement dedicated to "slowing down"
as a means for sustainable community development and improved quality of life
has been spreading around the world. Many localities that have become champions
of the cause also benefit from increased tourism and expanded trade in what are
regarded as "authentic" goods, such as local foods, clothing, and crafts. The CittàSlow or
Slow City movement, as it is called, began in Italy in 1999 and follows a
similar philosophy to that first espoused by the Slow Food movement, which started there in
1986. The Slow Food movement began as journalist Carlo Petrini's response to
news that a fast food establishment would open in the Piazza di Spagna, near
the heart of Rome at the base of the Spanish Steps-a site popular with tourists
and locals where poet John Keats lived briefly and, more famously, died.
Slow Food is in "contrast to fast food values"[ii]. Likewise, the ethic embraced by the Slow City movement, as set forth in its charter, is similar. The CittàSlow movement does not eschew technology or the benefits of advanced civilization; rather, it advocates for a quality of life that "means having the opportunity of enjoying solutions and services"-in other words, good living. It also preserves the unique character of the places that adhere to its principles, which connect the three E's of sustainability: environment, economy, and equity.
All fine and well, but does Slow Food or the Slow City movement really merit mention here? I think so. Greater Philadelphia already has a local branch of Slow Foods USA, and I probably do not need to list the many fine restaurants and specialty shops across the region that tie together local suppliers, producers ,and farms. Our region spans portions of Pennsylvania and New Jersey (the Garden State, after all!); and all kidding aside, both states are agricultural powerhouses. Unlike the residents of the Midwest and West where giant, factory farms thrive, we are the beneficiaries of locally-produced agriculture from relatively small, mostly local farms.
As for Slow Cities, the movement has been studied[iii] and remarked on by an academic researcher who was also co-author of one of the earliest-and still one of the best-investigations of biotech clustering in the US (which ranks Greater Philadelphia near the top). That the movement has drawn the attention of prominent researchers in economic development is reason enough to consider the merits of the Slow City movement as one of many development tools. As a "region of villages," Greater Philadelphia might learn something from the Slow City movement.
Greater Philadelphia has many great downtowns and center squares. The largest, of course, was laid out on a grid of streets with four public plazas or squares evenly distributed in each quadrant and at the center. William Penn's plan was for Philadelphia to resemble an English rural town rather than a city. Of course, even the City of Philadelphia has its own villages-places that are unlike other parts of the City-Manayunk, South Philadelphia (which includes the Italian Market Area, Bella Vista, Moyamensing, Devil's Pocket), North Philadelphia, the Far Northeast, Fishtown, and so on. If you ask those in the know, I'm sure you will hear that there's only one best place to buy kruschiki or good rye bread or Phở or the best dim sum or the best falafel in pita (baked or fried?) or to watch men play bocce or to fish or...
And I have yet to mention the villages in the suburbs and the great downtowns there-Haddonfield, Moorestown, Collingswood, Newtown, New Hope, Lambertville, the towns along the Main Line, Swarthmore, Media...
Each of these towns has attributes that make it a candidate for Slow City status, in spirit if not actuality. It might be wise for some towns to join CittàSlow International, the organizing body of the Slow City movement. It's a way to maintain individuality while becoming more engaged with the world-the brand is global yet individual.
And if some of our "villages" (it is not a pejorative, by any means) chose to apply for CittàSlow status, I would be over in a slow second, sitting outside with my espresso and staying for dinner (slow food, of course!) It seems that Simon & Garfunkel got it right 40 years ago--
"Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones..."
[i] See article by Cheshire and
Gornostaeva, "Cities and Regions: comparable measures require comparable
territories," beginning on page 13.
ii] Page 36.
ii] Chapter 2, "Pace of Life and Quality of Life: The Slow City Charter"; (with Paul Knox).