PHILADELPHIA – A few years ago, Geoff Kees Thompson created a blog, called This Old City, as a means to connecting the dots between various aspects of planning that affect the urban dwellers on a daily basis. Thompson believes many of these facets are taken for granted. And it is all connected to the public space.
Thompson holds a masters degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Amsterdam.
In December 2014, the 5th Square political action committee was born out of the ideas formulated on This Old City.
In his words, the public space consists of streets, parks, infrastructure and transit. These key parts of any successful urban area attract residents and in a way connect the people to the space.
Following the expansive urban sprawl of the mid-20th century, the United States experienced a peak in 1994 and has actually seen a trend of people reverting to urban centers and better planned infrastructure in general. A recently published study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reports that sprawl fell by about nine percent during a period from 1994 to 2012.
Experts attribute this reversal in the mid-1990s to smarter policy initiatives pushed by groups such as Congress for the New Urbanism which was founded in 1993.
Since the early to mid-2000s, numerous studies have been carried out linking renewed green spaces and shrewd urban planning to better overall quality of life for city-dwellers.
In 2005, the Trust for Public Land re-released a research paper entitled The Benefits of Parks: Why America Needs More City Parks and Open Space. It concludes that access to parks and green spaces lead people to exercise more, increase the value of neighboring residential property, reduce air pollution and keep cities cooler as well as produce important social and community development benefits.
Another study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health correlates green space with improved mental health as well.
Finely engineered public space creates civic pride and a sense of community where people look to protect each other and their neighborhood.
“When we have tourists come here or we’re showing friends around, we are showing them through the public space,” Thompson said. “It’s these things that make cities so unique in general.”
One thing that Thompson continued to hammer home was the interconnectivity of all city issues to the public space. He believes health, crime, community-building and civic pride all feed and build off of one another.
As trivial as good parks may seem, Thompson and the 5th Square are backed up by a great deal of studies that link strong urban planning and well-developed public space with a thriving community.
A 2008 University of Pennsylvania study concluded that low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia saw a two percent increase in sales prices of homes which were in close proximity of recently planted trees.
The study was published in Real Estate Economics titled, “What Is a Tree Worth? Green-City Strategies, Signaling and Housing Prices.” Curbside trees were installed in the studied communities and the inflated home prices were calculated over a five-year period from 1998 to 2003.
Although the 5th Square has only been around for about six months, the PAC has already experienced its first election cycle.
“For just being a small group, we’ve had a good amount of success already. We raised almost $20,000 just from grassroots support,” Thompson said.
In the city council at-large race, the PAC endorsed five Democratic and two Republicans who scored well on their candidate questionnaire.
“We just want politicians to care about our issues. And advocate for our issues. It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrat or Republican.”
Lily Goodspeed, an advisory board member of the 5th Square, believed the group’s candidate questionnaire helped to solidify votes for their endorsees.
“If we did anything, we raised awareness of the issues in the race,” Goodspeed said. “Helen Gym is known for being great with education. After we started sharing our sample ballot with Helen on it, a lot of people that were ‘planning’ voters felt like they had permission to vote for Helen Gym.”
Helen Gym ended up winning her respective primary.
“Support from The 5th Square was certainly welcomed and helpful in that it gave us exposure on some key issues Helen has been out in front of related to the intersection of smart city planning and how we fund our schools,” said Brendan McPhillips, Gym’s campaign manager.
“For instance, Helen was the only Council candidate to campaign on raising the parking tax as part of a broader, sustainable school funding plan. It gave us some good press at a time when we were gaining momentum, and as we’ve seen in recent weeks with Council beginning to move on the parking tax issue I think it’s fair to say that Helen led the way on this early on and proved that advocating for smart policy can also be good politics.”
Thompson said the PAC’s support of Gym worked on many angles including transportation.
“She has drawn the connections between public space and economic justice and environmental justice and bringing the bike lane issue further than a lot of the other candidates did,” Thompson said.
“There is a misconception that bike lanes are just for wealthy center city white people. And if you look at who is using bikes, and this is one of the reasons why IndeGo has been so successful, they’ve expanded out into areas beyond center city and their second phase will go even further. Bikes are the cheapest way for people to get around.”
The 5th Square also endorsed a guy by the name of Jim Kenney, who will most likely become the next mayor of Philadelphia.
“Jim was very appreciative of their support. They were a critical part of the unprecedented coalition of support behind Jim’s candidacy,” said Lauren Hitt, Kenney’s communications director.
Thompson expects the group to grow stronger over the coming months in order to have a strong showing in the November elections.
“I think Philadelphia a unique opportunity to address a lot of the issues facing the city right now including poverty, public health, obesity rates, crime, environmental issues, and economic development,” Thompson said. “All of these assets need to be addressed to move forward and grow as a city.”