Tower and rowhouse

Urban Renewal of Society Hill

This tour covers the urban renewal of Society Hill, within the context of two related projects: the creation of Independence National Historical Park and the battle over the Crosstown Expressway. 

INHP came first and was a project, in some ways, of national civic space development and also an attempt at new office development. It was grounded, in part, in the colonial era history of this area, thereby setting the scene for the colonial restoration of Society Hill, to its south. Society Hill was the “landmark” preservation project of urban renewal, focused on residential rehabilitation and new construction, with significant commercial and industrial demolition, and some commercial redevelopment. The Crosstown Expressway’s story was in many ways shared nationally – as highways proposed through downtowns across the U.S. often sparked highway revolts (only some of which were successful).

The tour will ask you to examine old maps and photographs and compare them to present-day landscapes in order to unearth processes of change. At some of the tour stops, it will also incorporate audio clips from municipal leaders and neighborhood residents who share their ideas and experiences in their own words (click on the audio button to hear their voices).

Before we begin, here is just a little background on urban renewal in Philadelphia. A group of civic and business leaders formed the Greater Philadelphia Movement and helped establish the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) in 1942. The PCPC developed a city-wide plan and individual area renewal plans. In 1945, Pennsylvania passed its Redevelopment Law. One year later, Philadelphia created its Redevelopment Authority. The federal Housing Act of 1949 provided critical funding to make redevelopment possible. It provided grants to cover 2/3 of the cost of acquiring and clearing land, thereby ensuring that most early projects would be clearance-oriented. Also in 1949, Edmund Bacon became director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. He would be a leader behind the redevelopment of these areas.

Over time, rehabilitation and preservation became part of urban renewal as well, thanks to changes in federal funding (including in the federal Housing Act of 1954), the lessons of experience, and the increased power of community voices. In Philadelphia, rehabilitation was championed by planners for being cheaper than clearance and new construction. At the same time, a limited conception of what was “historic” led only some of the city’s historic fabric to be retained. And, even as a significant portion of the physical fabric remained, the community that populated it changed dramatically.

Image Source:

Tour Credits and Acknowledgments:

Eugenie L. Birch, “The Planner and the Preservationist,” Journal of the American Planning Association 50, no. 2 (April 1984): 194-207.

Gregory Donofrio, “Attacking Distribution: Obsolescence and Efficiency of Food Markets in the Age of Urban Renewal,” Journal of Planning History 13, no. 2 (May 2014): 91-112, doi: 10.1177/1538513213507540.

Francesca Russello Ammon, “Picturing Preservation and Renewal: Photographs as Planning Knowledge in Society Hill, Philadelphia,” Journal of Planning Education and Research (OnlineFirst December 5, 2018), doi:10.1177/0739456X18815742.

Francesca Russello Ammon, “Resisting Gentrification Amid Historic Preservation: Society Hill, Philadelphia and the Fight for Low-Income Housing,” Change Over Time 8, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 8-31,

Stephanie R. Webster, “Historic Preservation's Urban Renewal Roots: Preservation and Planning in Midcentury Philadelphia,” Journal of Urban History 39, no. 2 (2013): 193-213, doi:10.1177/0096144212440177.

Map Free
540 Market St, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Urban Renewal of Society Hill
  1. Independence Mall
  2. American Philosophical Society (Reconstruction)
  3. Rose Garden (Intro to Society Hill)
  4. Bingham Court (New Construction)
  5. 317-321 Spruce St (Greenways and Restoration)
  6. 340 Spruce St (Commercial displacement)
  7. Hill-Physick House (Preservation) and Perkins House (Contemporary Infill Construction)
  8. 401 Pine St (Restoration)
  9. Old Pine Community Center and St. Peter's School (Institutions and Displacement)
  10. 6th and Lombard Sts (Affordable Housing)
  11. 419 Pine Street (Neo-colonial new construction)
  12. Delancey / Three Bears Park
  13. Head House Square (Commercial Use)
  14. Lombard and S 2nd Sts (Crosstown Expressway)
  15. Society Hill Towers (Clearance and New Construction)