Philadelphia Metropolis


Thank you, Mr. Penn

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Although all 27 tons of him stands atop City Hall, William Penn isn't exactly a strong presence in the city he founded. 

Compared to Benjamin Franklin, he's practically anonymous, so it's rare for someone to offer a modern tribute to the man who founded Philadelphia.

But an essay that came over my email transom the other week that did just that.

The author was Michael Sklaroff, a local lawyer and bon vivant whose specialty is in zoning law. I've known Sklaroff since I covered him during his days as chair of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. He's a bright, sharp guy, though I wouldn't call him a Little Mary Sunshine.

So, it was a surprise when I read the title of his piece: "The Blessings of Philadelphia."

I thought he was being sardonic. He wasn't.

Sklaroff isn't blind to the city's problems: the grinding poverty, the population loss, the continued decline in jobs, the sad state of the public schools, high taxes, high crime...the list could go on.

But, the city has one clear advantage: its location.

As Sklaroff put it: "William Penn chose wisely the site of his greene country town, well above the malarial swamps of the tidewater. In a world of rising sea levels and increasing frequency of megastorms hatched in the North Atlantic, Penn's choice now appears fortuitous.  Philadelphia lies comfortably 40 feet above sea level and 60 miles from the ocean."

It's a point well taken.  While politicians may debate the reality of global climate change, scientists do not.  We may be looking at a future of rising sea levels, extreme weather and hurricanes and tropical storms increasing in frequency and intensity.

Philadelphia is not immune from Mother Nature -- Sandy knocked out electricity and felled trees as she made her way through the region -- but we didn't suffer the calamitous damage done to the Jersey shore and New York City.  Sandy was a stark reminder that Manhattan is not only an island, but also an island located at sea level. (In the same way, Katrina reminded us that New Orleans is a city that is below sea level.)

Now, the leaders of New York must debate how to rebuild and what they can do to prevent a repeat of the damage done by Sandy. These measures could run into the billions. And still there is no guarantee.  The evidence of past experiences indicates that you cannot built complete immunity from severe weather. One geographer has suggested that the best tactic would be a gradual retreat of people and business out of Manhattan towards the higher ground of Queens. And he wasn't kidding.

When 100-year floods happen every five years and "The Storm of the Century" happens every decade, no amount of money can undo the forces of nature.  Human beings who love and work along coastal areas may have to stage a retreat.

Like most great cities, Philadelphia is located along a waterway, with easy access to the ocean.  But, it is many miles before the Delaware Bay opens onto the Atlantic. And it is a long trip across New Jersey to get to the shore.

Neither Sklaroff nor I think Philadelphia's fortunes will change overnight. Wall Street will not move to Market Street anytime soon.

But, in an era of climate change and unprecedented storm events, new rules will apply.  The city will have a competitive advantage -- thanks to Mr. Penn.  We sit high and dry.

-- Tom Ferrick






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