The City Planning Commission’s 1960 Comprehensive Plan is a borderline schizophrenic document: one that casts the suburbs as siphoning population from the city while the city grows. The report estimates the 1980 population of Philadelphia to be somewhere between 2.4-3 million people. Thus the two structural features affecting how Philadelphians would live in 1980: the threat of the suburbs and an ever-increasing population.
In a very real way much of the city’s housing stock of 1960 looked as it had in 1900. “Philadelphia is old,” the Comprehensive Plan states, “and this fact is reflected in the condition of its housing. Nearly one-third of its dwellings are more that 60 years old.” Converse to the declining attractiveness of the city’s multitudinous rowhomes and duplexes was the car-friendly wide open spaces of the suburbs: Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks counties. Compounding the problems of a declining housing stock was a rise of middle class incomes. “A higher proportion of City families,” noted the Comprehensive Plan, “can afford good quality housing than could in 1949.” Considering the aforementioned population projections, Philadelphia planners settled on one rather intuitive solution: turn the last remaining undeveloped areas of the city into suburbs. Here is how the Planning Commission articulated the problem:
As more families move into middle and upper income brackets they move outside the City if they find its residential areas unattractive. The implicit question is whether the City can make its residential areas sufficiently attractive to retain the greater part of its middle and upper- income families and attract suburban families of this group back into the City. –p. 75, Comprehensive Plan, 1960
One of the planning principles still in vogue in the 1960s which led to an almost fawning appreciation for the suburban model was low density. The reverence for low density emerged out of the writings of European and American housing advocates and regional planners of the 1920s-30s who developed an orthodoxy of “light, air, and space” as an alternative to the narrow, fetid, infectious cities. The need for light (read detached houses), air (recreation), and space (distance from neighbors) informed the Planning Commission’s conception of community and they borrowed the suburban idioms of subdivisions, centralized commercial centers, and abundant roads in their plans for a new middle-class Philadelphia.
To create newer suburban densities (see chart below) of 20 houses or lower per acre, the city had limited options regarding undeveloped land. Most of the prospective land was situated in the Southwest (see Phillyskyline’s excellent essay on Southwest’s Eastwick neighborhood), Northeast and in the declivities and ravines surrounding the Wissahickon in the Northwest. These zones, it seems, were not enough and the city’s Residential Area Plan contained a provision euphemistically called “A Plan for Population Distribution”.
The purpose here is to set up an explicit city-wide policy that marks certain areas for residential use and determines through density standards (emphasis added) how many people are going to live in them when they have been developed or redeveloped. –p. 70, Comprehensive Plan, 1960
More explicitly, this meant a dramatic program of reconverting former industrial, commerical, or high-density residential land for new low-density residential purposes. Table 36 of the Comprehensive Plan details where the conversions would take place, what zoning category most of the removals would occur, and approximately how many people per planning analysis section would be removed. The city hoped to free up close to 3,186 acres for 116,000 new dwelling units. It was estimated that this effort would displace 350,000 Philadelphians.
Just as fearsome to planners as middle class Philadelphians permanently leaving the city was the loss of what the Northwest Philadelphia District Plan called a loss of “commercial hegemony” of the city. In fact, by developing suburban-style commercial districts and enhancing automobile transportation, the city could–perhaps–reassert this “hegemony” over the suburbs and lure suburbanites back to the city like the days of old.
Of course, despite these valiant efforts to lay waste to Philadelphia’s former housing stock and to create suburban car-centric oases on the periphery, Philadelphia could not effectively induce middle-class Philadelphia to buy, play, and pay wage and property taxes in the city. Larger forces in land economics were working against the city. As the Comprehensive Plan noted ominously, the seven suburban counties constructed 189,000 new units of housing, compared to 45,000 in the city during the years 1950-56. This trend would continue exponentially as more roads opened up rural land deep in Montgomery, Chester, Bucks, and Delaware counties. And what was Philadelphia left with? A Frankenstein-like postwar built environment: six-lane superhighways bifurcating neighborhoods, providing access and (headache) to only the automotive, a pathetic public transit system, white enclaves, viz, a city of “neighborhoods”. Most prominently, the city was further segregated by income—a hallmark of brotherly love since the 18th century.