You don’t need to be an urban planner to appreciate the inherent good of public space. This is what Dena Driscoll, co-chair of the all-volunteer grassroots organization and urbanist political action committee 5th Square wants Philadelphians to know as they reimagine the city beyond the pandemic.
Formed in 2014, 5th Square supports candidates for local elected office who are committed to policy change in the areas of transportation, land use, and public space. It also pushes policies that make Philadelphia more accessible, sustainable, and equitable for all residents.
Drawing a road map for citizens as to what initiatives 5th Square will pursue in 2021, Grid asked Driscoll to shed a little light on the organization’s goals surrounding our city’s transit, housing, public space and elections.
Acknowledging COVID-19 restrictions have driven down the number of people taking busses, subways, and regional rails this past year, Driscoll says rebuilding confidence in public transit is an integral 5th Square policy goal moving forward.
In past years, 5th Square’s advocacy efforts produced their “Fair Fares” platform, which culminated in SEPTA eliminating its pesky $1 transfer fee and allowing kids under 12 to ride for free.
This year, 5th Square, wants to keep pushing for policies that make transit frequent, accessible, and effective, especially during a pandemic, says Driscoll. They will do so as part of a wide-ranging coalition, Transit Forward Philadelphia, which aims to advance transit improvements, like the bus redesign that would make transit affordable, accessible, safe, and sustainable.
Early in the pandemic, Driscoll noted how COVID-19 adapted transit schedules eliminated subway stops and regional rail lines, preventing essential workers from getting to work. Part of the advocacy 5th Square is doing is to not just ensure that SEPTA itself is deemed essential, but to rebuild confidence that SEPTA is running frequently.
Some policies 5th Square would like to see in 2021 include relaunching a student transit pass system for all students over age 13 and promoting all-doors boarding on buses to speed up transit stops and thus increase ridership.
“These policies create lifelong transit riders,” explains Driscoll. “It’s easier to make kids lifelong riders than a middle-aged person.”
5th Square is working on developing a cohesive housing policy platform, collaborating with organizations that specialize in senior and low-income populations, Driscoll says.
One initiative the organization is pushing is the expansion of Accessory Dwelling Units, known as ADUs, to create more affordable housing units throughout the city. An ADU takes a single-family dwelling home, and converts a basement or a room above a garage into an apartment, creating a second dwelling unit.
In addition to increasing the supply of affordable housing, 5th Square is developing policy recommendations around the expansion and acceptance of voucher use for low-income families trying to stay in their homes.
Additionally, it plans to push policies that incentivize a shift to more transit-oriented development planning, so people can live, work, and play in close proximity.
Public Space Goals
Making roadways safe for pedestrians, bicyclists, and busses has long been a 5th Square priority that has gotten wider, renewed attention during the pandemic.
COVID-19 is “shaping how we think about the world,” Driscoll says, noting that the policies and programs 5th Square espouses have proven especially helpful in times of crises.
“Public space saw an awakening this year,” says Driscoll.
Converting Martin Luther King Drive from a waterfront highway to a recreation pathway for pedestrians has been a public space boon boosting recreational use from 500 to 5,000 visitors a day. For local businesses, parking spaces have been repurposed for seating for restaurants demonstrating how public space can be reconfigured for greater public use during a pandemic, and hopefully, afterwards.
“We saw the ways public space, walking, outdoor-dining saved people’s mental health and businesses,” says Driscoll. “We’ve known these [spaces] are important. Other people’s eyes were opened to how important they are.”
With greater awareness of how the built environment can be better utilized, 5th Square “believes that we have folks in government, planners, and engineers who can make really smart decisions,” explains Driscoll.
However, City Council often stymies or slows down such changes. The organization plans to support prospective candidates for public office who believe in the value of public spaces.
“Not every city councilperson needs to be an urban planner, but we need them to listen to city government and advocacy spaces,” Driscoll says. “You don’t have to be an urban planner to understand the inherent good of public space and how streets can be helpful.”
Driscoll’s own professional background in fundraising and communications further underscores how all Philadelphians are encouraged to be interested in how our public space is designed.
Looking to the mayoral race in 2023, Driscoll expresses excitement about seeing new faces, particularly those with progressive public policy agendas.
“The city more than ever needs some fresh faces, fresh ideas, and fresh changes,” she says. “We need new players out in the game.”