When Santa Monica’s General Plan went off the rails some years ago, I longed for Ed Bacon to step in and save Santa Monica, and he has been much on my mind since the Plan revision got underway.
He died last Friday, October 14, at 95, but his works and influence survive, and should be studied by all the people who call themselves planners.
Simply put, Edmund N. Bacon was a great city planner, perhaps America’s greatest city planner, in a field that is not notable for success, much less greatness. His primary turf was Philadelphia, America’s fifth largest city. Originally laid out by William Penn, it was a masterpiece of order, with a large public square at the center of each quadrant. But by the 1950s, the city had a population of 4 million people, was pocked by decaying neighborhoods, and had long been one of the most corrupt cities in America.
Then Ed Bacon, who was born in Philadelphia and always lived there, stepped in, and, against all odds, remade it and restored its original simplicity and glory.
“He told me when he was a little boy, he went to the top of City Hall and looking out on the city, he understood the plan William Penn laid out,” said Alexander Garvin, a Yale University professor who interviewed Bacon for a book on city planning in the mid-90s. “He’s not just significant in Philadelphia; he’s significant as a national figure.”
In 1964, Bacon was on the cover of TIME, which described the redevelopment of Philadelphia as “the most thoroughly rounded, skillfully coordinated of all big city programs in the U.S.” His 1967 book Design of Cities is a classic.
Bacon retired in 1970, but remained influential. I didn’t know him, but I knew his work because for a couple of years I lived in Society Hill, one of the Philadelphia neighborhoods he retrieved from the trash heap and resurrected. In downtown Philadelphia, on the banks on the Delaware River, two blocks from Independence Hall, it was just about perfect – gorgeous and functional.
Its streets were lined with restored 18th century three and four-story row houses, broken at regular intervals by greenways. I didn’t have a car because I didn’t need one. Everything was an easy walk away, including buses and the subway.
A 1933 visit to Beijing, China was key in the development of Bacon’s style.
He said the city’s arrangement of black and purple-roofed buildings leading to the red and golden buildings of the emperor’s Forbidden City “taught me that city planning is about movement through space, an architectural sequence of sensors and stimuli, up and down, light and dark, color and rhythm.”
An ardent believer in public housing, Bacon became managing director of the Housing Association of the Delaware Valley, a nonprofit group advocating low-income development, and he was instrumental in the creation of a commission to oversee and guide city planning.
After service in the Navy in World War II, Bacon joined the commission’s staff in 1946 and became its chairman three years later. When a reform group captured City Hall in the early 1950s, Bacon went into high gear and didn’t stop until the renaissance of Billy Penn’s city was complete.Bacon is survived by five children, one of whom is actor Kevin Bacon.