Architect Brian Phillips at The Nine in Fishtown, a development where the pace of work is scaled to the market (Laurence Kesterson/Staff photographer)

Architecture tends to follow the money, and right now there isn’t much green stuff to be pursued. But just because banks aren’t lending and governments aren’t spending doesn’t mean we should assume urban design is dead.

Welcome to the year of small – small parks, small houses, small improvements, small plans, but not necessarily small thinking.

Only a short while ago, there wasn’t a big city in America that didn’t salivate at the prospect of building a downtown sports arena, an attention-getting museum, or a clutch of vertiginous condo towers, preferably by brand-name architects. That’s done.

While the lousy economy has forced cities to lower their sights, it has provided clarity about what really matters. The smart places are investing their limited disposable income in low-cost, high-impact projects that improve the quality of life for people who actually live in them.

Philadelphia’s Race Street pier park, set to open in April, is perfectly tuned to the times, as is New York’s experiment with appropriating stretches of Broadway for pop-up parks. The rowhouse boomlets taking place in certain Philadelphia neighborhoods, such as Fishtown and the area south of Graduate Hospital, also belong in the category of incremental improvements that make urban life better. And these infill projects remind us that progress continues even in hard times.


Inga Saffron
Philadelphia Inquirer