Collective Impact and the Modern City

Tireless collaboration led to a revamped development process that promises to help revitalize Philadelphia.
by | May 9, 2012

Philadelphia's vintage zoning code — adopted in 1952 but amended through variances thousands of times each year — was replaced last year by one that recognizes modern building types, brings clarity to review processes and provides clear guidelines for development that doesn't require approval by regulatory boards. The city council's vote was the culmination of a seven-year campaign that illustrates the essential elements of successful collaboration as described by John Kania and Mark Kramer in their landmark Stanford Social Innovation Review article, "Collective Impact."

Kania and Kramer identified the structural components in collaborations that help make them effective, and the Philadelphia story of the campaign called "If We Fix It, They Will Come" illustrates the power of their insights.

Despite a surge in center-city office and residential condominium development in the 1990s, development in Philadelphia a decade later was costly, time-consuming and unpredictable. Multiple siloed city departments independently reviewed development proposals against unwritten requirements, with unpredictable results. Many national developers avoided the city. As Karen Black, the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia consultant who was the BIA's principal staffer to the Fix It campaign, put it, "After a century of managing decline, Philadelphia was ill prepared to welcome investment."

In 2003, the city's managing director asked the BIA to identify what was wrong with the development-review process and make recommendations for reform. The BIA launched an effort (supported by the William Penn Foundation during and after my term as its president) that culminated seven years and two mayoral administrations later with not only the modernized zoning code but with eight additional reforms that have repositioned the city to take advantage of a recovering real-estate market.

Of course, every dysfunction exists for a reason and every change produces pushback, even if it promises great benefit and opportunities for progress. Reform of Philadelphia's development-review process would not have occurred but for a broad-based, aggressive collaboration among diverse interests. The BIA and its partners mobilized nonprofits, government and business, along with smart-growth and environmental advocates, affordable-housing and community-development associations, design and architectural organizations, and a major financial intermediary. These partners were able to deploy a wide range of constituencies to persuade government (executive and legislative) as well as community interests of the value of the changes.

Their goal was to reform the economics of building in Philadelphia by changing the laws and politics that increased the cost of real-estate development to bring that cost down so that unsubsidized development was financially viable in more areas of the city.

Developers, well acquainted as they were with what the initial Fix It report described as the city's "permit purgatory," were best equipped to work with city agency heads to suggest more efficient review processes and tools. Local neighborhood organizations that had traditionally used their informal power over zoning variances on relatively minor zoning matters needed to be convinced by trusted peers that improved design-review processes would give them broader, more significant control over the character of their neighborhoods while providing developers with more predictability. Affordable-housing advocates were able to persuade elected officials that the reforms would benefit a broad spectrum of citizens, not just commercial development interests. And city council members needed to hear that reform was a safe political position.

The Fix It partners maintained a cohesive leadership team that worked to deploy the right partner for each mission. The BIA's Government Affairs Committee and its contracted partner, May 8 Consulting, served as the hub of partner activities, assuring that meeting time was well used and that there was follow-through. And a Fix It website provided updates, invited participation and served as a handy reference for anyone following this complex set of initiatives.

Seven years later, the overall development-review process has been cut in half, and thousands of hours of city staff time are saved each year through technological applications, elimination of redundant reviews and reductions of conflicts between departments. The BIA estimates that 8 percent more of the city's neighborhoods have been opened to development.

No objective observer would suggest that the Fix It campaign has wholly transformed the development environment in Philadelphia. With high labor costs and relatively low real-estate values, development remains a challenging undertaking. But the collective impact of the Fix It partners makes them confident that, in time, "they will come."

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