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What Will Be Philadelphia's Next Calling Card? Technology, Sustainability, Food or the Arts?

Being a new father can change perspective on a variety of things, and in a hurry.

For example, upon arriving home with our 7 lb., 9 oz., bundle of joy two weeks ago, our nearly 2 year-old cat seemed enormous, as if he had advanced to fat-cat status magically overnight.

Also, our 5-month old niece suddenly gave the appearance of a toddler, with thick limbs, chubby cheeks and bright, wide eyes.

When it comes to Philadelphia, providing perspective is a lot of what we aim to do at Flying Kite. Examining perceptions, the realities and myths that contribute to Philadelphia's livability, is a constant interest for us.

For many years, Philadelphia has been known as a meds-and-eds town, with a massive life sciences presence, especially in healthcare, pharmaceuticals and research, and a host of top-flight institutions of higher education with varied specialties and points of pride.

Meds and eds are very much alive and well. One random, crossover indicator is the University of Pennsylvania ranked fourth in the nation in National Institute of Health funding last year with $463.5 million.

However, through the course of our coverage during our own infancy, it is very clear that the city and region are on the verge of a paradigm shift. We have identified four sectors – technology, sustainability, food and the arts – that appear ripe to vault past meds and eds as that which best represents Philadelphia. All four sectors have major assets, growth, talent and recent developments that promise to help create a new tagline for Philly.

The intersection of these sectors provide the greatest opportunity for growth throughout Greater Philadelphia. Flying Kite asked leaders in those respective fields to chime in on why technology, sustainability, food, or the arts will be Philadelphia's next calling card. 

As a project manager, chief of staff and now department manager, Jeff Friedman has played a large role in shaping Philadelphia's reputation for technology, transparency and efficiency in city government. Now as Mayor Michael Nutter's manager of civic innovation and partnership, the Temple University grad is a vital cog in the city's technology machine.
Friedman's work on OpenAccessPhilly, the city's strategic plan for connecting citizens with each other and government involves both digital inclusion and economic development in the tech sector. The kind of collaboration that has garnered OpenAccessPhilly such positive attention is opening the door to opportunity.

"Government, higher education institutions, K-12 schools, businesses and non-profits in the tech-using and tech-consuming sectors are working together to move toward a shared vision, including advancing strategic initiatives and removing roadblocks and obstacles," says Friedman.

ASSETS: OpenAccessPhilly and OpenDataPhilly are largely why Philly was represented at No. 1 or 2 in nearly half of the categories included in the 2011 GovFresh awards, which highlight tech innovators and innovations that nurture collaboration between government and citizens. …. The tech sector is on the rise, as Philly ranked third nationally  in tech jobs growth, and our population of young professionals is growing, too. …. Coworking leader Indy Hall is a hub for tech freelancers and has paved the way for other similar spaces and related initiatives. …. New president Bob Moul has been lauded as just what Philly Startup Leaders needed to solidify its mission of making Philly a hub for startups. …. Philly Tech Meetup's arrival on the scene last year has proven to be the preferred spot for local tech launches. …. Local companies Azavea and Monetate have garnered major headlines with its civic engagement and tremendous growth trajectory, respectively. …. Technically Philly, a tireless cheerleader and emerging thought leader for the city's tech users, provides a voice for the entire community. …. It never hurts to have the nation's fastest broadband provider in your backyard, either.

DEVELOPMENTS:  Code For America's return engagement in Philly. …. Nutter and IBM announced earlier this month a partnered effort to support workforce development by increasing accessibility and functionality of the citywide Digital On-Ramps initiative as part of IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge grant to Philly. …. SeedPhilly launched early this year to better organize the region's early tech startup community. …. The launch of the Project Liberty Digital Incubator, an effort involving Philadelphia Media Network, the Knight Foundation, Ben Franklin Technology Partners, DreamIt Ventures and Drexel University, aims to stimulate the growth of digital media startups in the region. …. Explosion of female-focused tech groups can only help the sector.

CHALLENGES: Reducing digital divide in underserved areas across the city. … Doing more with less funding from Harrisburg. …. Overcoming stigma of not enough tech talent and not enough investment activity for technology startups. …. Attracting more regional/local offices of major technology companies. …. Keeping the brightest tech students in Philly after graduation.

Friedman believes continued collaboration will help elevate technology to an even loftier perch in the city: "Job growth and economic activity in this sector will increase and the hacker culture will spread, spawning new tech apps and solutions that improve our lives in the commercial and public space," he says.

Unless you're staring at a bill, it's hard to appreciate energy efficiency. So for the millions of visitors that come to Philadelphia every year, the city's growing reputation for sustainability isn't as visible. But make no mistake, it's going down all over town and is only one small part of an entire platform of greening initiatives.

"What Philadelphia is doing to improve water and air quality is highly visible and not only makes Philadelphia a beautiful place to visit, it also improves property values," says Kate Houstoun, managing director for the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, which has built a network of 500 members, a Green Economy Task Force and wide-ranging interest and support for a number of related projects.

Sustainability's reach here extends from small business to large institutions, like SEPTA (creating energy from its subway braking system) and the Philadelphia Water Department (which created the first porous green street). One thing they all share, Houstoun believes, is economic vitality.

"Every project creates jobs for residents and businesses small and large," she says.

ASSETS: The Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster is easily the most funded and high-profile effort that pulls the best from the private sector, higher education and government to develop innovative energy efficient building technologies, designs and systems. …. Mayor Nutter's signature initiative, Greenworks Philadelphia, aims to transform the city into the greenest in the country, setting 15 targets for improving the city's environment, reducing energy use, creating jobs and enhancing quality of life. …. Energy efficiency starts at home, which makes the guys at Postgreen Homes important leaders in homebuilding and design. …. Entrepreneurs like Sara Van Aken (SaVa Fashion) and Gabriel Mandujano (Wash Cycle Laundry) who make sustainability the driving forces of their business are fast becoming role models. …. Philadelphia rates as the fifth-most walkable city in the country according to WalkScore. …. Our new e-waste recycling center in the Northeast provides a much-needed safe haven for our growing collection of electronic devices.

DEVELOPMENTS: Green Village will be the city's first sustainability focused incubator. .…Drew Becher's first year at the helm of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has been a boon for greening a much-too-gray city, as the organization's Plant One Million Trees campaign, a tri-state initiative, aims to increase the city's tree canopy from 5 to 30 percent. …. Rob Smith at the Carpenter's Joint Apprenticeship Committee raised funds to incorporate demolition waste recovery into its curriculum years after the IBEW Local 98's training center put a solar array on its building. ….Philadelphia was chosen as one of eight cities to participate in the 2012 Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities Program, which will evaluate and recommend infrastructure and policy changes that will help enhance sustainability.

CHALLENGES: The national discussion on energy and climate change needs to eventually produce significant demand for infrastructure improvements and related innovations. …. Investing in homeowners, which could pave the way for incentivizing improvements like green roofs or rain gardens. …. Funding, as stimulus funds become a distant memory and yield to expensive price tags on related technology, consulting and retrofits, will be a constant concern.

"Patrick Starr and Spencer Finch at Pennsylvania Environmental Council are always reminding us to think about multiple uses for any infrastructure improvement – let's not just consider parking spaces, but bike lanes, tree pits and stormwater management before we dig," says Houstoun. "They are leveraging ideas and resources from across multiple agencies and organizations to green our city.

"It's going to take that kind of collaboration, focus and nudging to keep us moving forward thoughtfully."

If anyone would know about the explosion of farmer's market culture in Greater Philadelphia, it's Nem Ngo. The longtime food pro is half of the dynamic duo behind Market Day Canele, the incredible French pastry that is as tempting as it is complex.  As Market Day's artisanal approach has grown so has its national attention, like in Food & Wine in October. Ngo spends much of her week working the farmer's market circuit and selling caneles, tarts and a host of other goodies from Headhouse to Bryn Mawr.

""There are no negatives to buying your food there," she says of the dozens of farmer's markets in Greater Philadelphia. "It supports local business. It's fresher and riper and often grown or raised sustainably and/or organically. The variety is amazing."

Beyond the food, Ngo adds, is a growing community of like-minded chefs, farmers, bakers and food entrepreneurs that is tight-knit and ever creative. This scene is representative of food's ascent at-large, from the early days of Georges Perrier to the embarrassment of riches that is Philly's dining culture. On the flip side, never has there been more alignment of advocacy organizations fighting for healthy, fresh and affordable food in our city's food deserts.

ASSETS: Our chefs, iron or not. Garces, Solomonov, O'Shea, DiRienzo, and many more. .... But it's not just the big names with big ideas. It's the little guys with the quirky, new ideas, like the recent cohabitation of Pizza Brain and Little Baby's Ice Cream. …. Every major city should have an organization like The Food Trust, which celebrates 20 years of ensuring access to affordable and nutritious food. …. Common Market, which we profiled earlier this year, is working to bring fresh, healthy and local food to our city's institutional food operations, like schools and hospitals. …. Efforts by city and regional planning agencies to eliminate food deserts. …. Specialty, high-end food retailers, like the chocolate at John & Kira's, the cheese at DiBruno Brothers, the bread at Agiato, the gelato at Capogiro (voted best in the world).

DEVELOPMENTS: Incredibly interesting and dynamic restaurants continue to open regularly in every corner of the city. …. Food trucks are stronger in numbers. Nearly 60 people showed up for the first meeting of the Philadelphia Food Truck Association in December. …. Last spring's opening of the new, $218 million regional produce warehouse in Southwest Philly was long overdue. …. In West Philly, the Center for Culinary Enterprises is expected to be completed by summer as one of the nation's most comprehensive commercial kitchen centers, creating food-related jobs and businesses. …. Milkboy's expansion into Center City proved coffee, table service and full menus do indeed mix with live music. .... Food co-ops are on the rise and changing.

CHALLENGES: Providing healthier food options in schools and underserved neighborhoods, especially where corner stores are where the bulk of family shopping gets done. …. Connecting healthy food grown in the suburbs, and the associated resources, to the city. …. Increasing capacity of existing and new urban farms and gardens. …. Liquor licensing is still a bugaboo for the restaurant community, and the state's revision or elimination of existing standards would promote smaller, indie culinary efforts.

All the other pieces appear to be in place."Boosting local economies, using sustainable farming practices, making your citizens healthier by giving them access to better food, fostering a sense of community, you can't go wrong," Ngo says.
No matter where he is, when Perry "Vision" DiVirgilio turns on the radio or watches a movie or is moved by a poem, he hears, sees and imagines Philadelphia.

"People tend to forget that a lot of America's trends and visions come from Philly. And why wouldn't they?" says the 6-foot-7 North Philly native who is known for a melodic delivery and passion as part of spoken word collective Spoken Soul 215 and is a mentor for the award-winning Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement.

"We were the first capital of this country. The first major city. The heart of the country. Today you can't go anywhere and not feel it."

For DiVirgilio, though, there is much work to be done to restore that feeling to its fullest, and that will happen only when cultures cross and collaborations occur. "It's great to walk into an open mic and see artists live painting and dancers finding inspiration from lyrics," he says.

ASSETS: The Art Museum of Philadelphia for many obvious reasons. …. The Mural Arts Program attracts worldwide talent, attention and respect in addition to making every corner of the city a little brighter and more original. …. Other arts institutions, like Moore College of Art and University of the Arts, nurture future visionaries. …. The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance is one of the leading agencies of its kind in the country. …. The Knight Arts Challenge is in year two of its three-year, $9 million commitment and PNC Arts Alive is in year four of its five-year, $5 million effort to fund the most innovative and engaging projects the region has to offer. …. First Person Arts just celebrated 10 years of promoting storytelling. …. Cultureworks promises to be the next-generation resource-provider for arts and heritage organizations.

DEVELOPMENTS: The much anticipated and debated move of The Barnes Foundation collection from the Main Line to the Parkway has inspired many articles, movies and opposition. It finally happens in March and it is hoped the new location will help solidify the Parkway as a full-on arts and culture destination. …. The Cultural Alliance's Portfolio report revealed in November that the median ticket price for arts and culture events throughout the region was only $15, meaning the arts are more accessible here than ever. …. The Philly Fringe and Live Arts Festival is finally close to obtaining a home befitting its mighty mission of pushing boundaries and expanding minds and is in fund-raising mode for its agreement of sale with the city to purchase a historic former firehouse at the corner of Race Street and Columbus Blvd. …. The Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation earlier this month launched With Art Philadelphia, a $2 million, first-of-its-kind partnership led by the City and GPTMC that is the region's first coordinated and sustained visual arts marketing campaign to position Philly as one of the world's great arts destinations.

CHALLENGES: Addressing very real problems through the arts in a meaningful way is never as easy as it sounds. It costs money and it requires much planning. …. Re-emphasizing the Avenue of the Arts with serious funding and extending it north in a meaningful way. …. Funding, funding, funding – and of course, doing more with less through collaboration and shared resources.

When PYPM was in California winning an international competition more than a year ago, people in Philly (and everywhere else) were talking about the flash mob epidemic here instead. Indeed, as DiVirgilio points out, people "can't wait to talk down on Philadelphia."

"There is a market for showing negativity, but showing the positivity is the revolution we all seek," DiVirgilio says.

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.


The Navy Yard

The Comcast Center

The Suzanne Roberts Theatre

The Sustainability Workshop - The Navy Yard

One of Philly's biggest restaurant openings this year - Federal Donuts

Jeff Friedman

Kate Houstoun

Nem Ngo

Perry DiVirgilio

First five photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO
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