17 May 2016


Leaving New York City for the day, the delegates of the US-Australia City Exchange on Innovation Ecosystems, travelled by train to Philadelphia to meet with several leading anchor institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. The Exchange is presented by the Future Cities Collaborative, an initiative of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Philadelphia is one of two pilot sites for the new Bass Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking, a project founded by Anne T. and Robert M. Bass, to bring together the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program with Project for Public Spaces (PPS). The collaboration aims to distil practice-based lessons on innovation and placemaking to help local leaders better understand their assets, and develop strategies for vibrant and innovative mixed-use districts.

The day began at The Porch at 30th Street Station, a new public space that transformed the underutilised parking area next to the station into a premier, pedestrian-friendly plaza. We were met by Ethan Kent, Senior Vice President, PPS; Alan Greenberger, former Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, City of Philadelphia and current Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Architecture and Interiors at Drexel University; Jennifer Vey, Co-Director of the Bass Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking, Brookings Institution; Meg Walker, Vice President and Director of Design, PPS; and Nathan F. Hommel, Director of Planning and Design, University City District (UCD).


Ethan Kent, Project for Public Spaces, Nathan Hommel, University City District, Meg Walker, Project for Public Spaces, and Jennifer Vey, Brookings Institution at The Porch

Nathan Hommel led the delegation with a walking tour of the District where we learned of the successes and challenges in creating premium and safe pedestrian- and cycle-friendly spaces in an area where there is a convergence of major arterials from Philadelphia’s industrial heritage. 

Left: Nathan Hommel UCD, leading the delegation through the University District. Right: Walking through University City District

The walking tour took us to University City District (UCD). Arriving at its headquarters, Tony Sorrentino, Executive Director, Office of the Vice President at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), embodied the focus and intensity that drives the success in Philadelphia. He explained that to further embrace success in Philadelphia, it is necessary to “shake off the vestiges of its industrial economy and embrace the future of the innovation economy". A key part of this was re-envisioning the university campus so that it was “outward facing” and a part of the community. The resulting campus plan systematically set about transforming the campus from one with an oversupply of surface parking lots to a vibrant urban experience with mixed-use development. The campus has links to the City Centre that re-connects it with the neighborhood and attracts people and firms.

Tony Sorrentino, UPenn

The President and Trustees of UPenn have set the vision to be inclusive, innovative, and impactful, and require all "to be accountable and responsible to the community they serve and be good citizens of the neighborhood." Underpinned by strong collaborative leadership, the District’s actors, in particular the anchor institutions like UPenn and Drexel University, have a strong sense of accountability to bring communities recovering from industrial decline along with them on the innovation journey.

Alan Greenberger, former Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia, and currently a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Architecture and Interiors at Drexel University, also shared his insights with the delegation. He explained that the percent of graduates retained in the area rose from 26 percent in 2006 to 48 percent in 2016, exceeding rates in Boston. The vibrancy, geographical location, and good connectivity are key factors for the retention. However, there are still 81,000 people living in “islands of poverty”, Alan explained. Institutions in the district have a series of programs to bridge this gap, including programs to increase employment at the universities, such as the Philadelphia Skills Initiatives and STEM education in local schools.

The glue that brings the diverse parties together is UCD, under the leadership of Executive Director, Matt Bergheiser. Set up as a special service district, UCD is a quasi-government organisation that is funded by voluntary contributions from each key institution. In addition to its local employment programs, it focuses on mixed-use development and undertakes a range of placemaking initiatives to grow, attract, and retain talent to fuel the innovation economy and build an inclusive neighborhood. Given this platform, it is understandable why Philadelphia was selected as a pilot location for the Bass Initiative for Innovation and Placemaking.

Following an introduction to placemaking principals from Ethan Kent of PPS, Jennifer Vey from the Brookings Institution confirmed what we had observed, that “the ‘audit’ of the District’s innovation ecosystem reveals some key strengths from which to grow and advance its global and regional role”. According to Jennifer, there are “several opportunities to develop its position as a global innovation hub and increase its regional and local economic impact”.


Jennifer Vey, Co-Director of Brookings Institution's Bass Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking

Over the remaining six months of the Bass Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking's study in Philadelphia, key areas of focus for the District include:

  • Understanding the critical mass of key assets and talented workers needed to grow and attract more talent and firms;
  • Questioning whether the District is leveraging its competitive advantage and aligning its distinctive assets; 
  • Examining its cultural diversity and inclusiveness; 
  • Ensuring the District has the physical character and public spaces, namely the quality of place, which provides the experiences and connections that attract a diversity of firms, people, and other assets; 
  • And lastly, looking to see whether the innovation district is connecting the dots between people, place, economic clusters, institutions and other actors.

Our day in Philadelphia provided the delegation with a composite lens through which they could evaluate the innovation precincts we have visited during the Exchange and to form a plan for their development in Australia.


Thank you to all of our Philadelphia partners for joining the delegation, and specifically University City District for generously hosting our delegation and Ethan Kent, Project for Public Spaces, and Jennifer Vey, Brookings Institution, for their curation of the Bass Initiative for Innovation and Placemaking agenda.



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