Ken Steif, Penn urban planning professor, dies at 38
Many of Steif’s major professional achievements have come over the past seven years as he battled a rare form of cancer. His leg was amputated in 2016, eradicating the disease for nearly half a decade. Even when he rose at the end of last year, he continued to teach, finished his book, and worked on a new tool that sought to walk the circle between community engagement and positive community outcomes. Planning. The program predicts the future of a neighborhood based on market trends and demographics, while allowing residents to weigh in on how they would like to see their community evolve.
Steif was a resident of the first neighborhood where the tool is used. Spruce Hill is a neighborhood of beautiful Victorian townhouses and walk-up apartment buildings on the border of the University of Pennsylvania. Over the past few decades, the neighborhood, and its surrounding municipalitieshosted not only scholars and graduate students, but also a racially and economically diverse mix of families, collective homes, anarchist enclaves, immigrant businesses, and underground performances.
But as the real estate market has warmed over the past 15 years, the neighborhood has struggled with soaring housing prices, the demolition of historic buildings and battles over zoning.
Steif didn’t just observe the forces reshaping the neighborhood he loved. He also took an active part in shaping them. In 2017, he was elected to the Spruce Hill Civic Association Board of Directors.
In this role, as in his work, he tried to bring a sense of justice and nuance. In a 2017 email about a zoning change intended to protect Victorian townhouses from demolition without traditional historic protections, he carefully analyzed the trade-offs between preservation and affordability. He didn’t land completely on either side, but struggled using hyperlinks relevant sources.
“Planners must try to strike a balance,” Steif wrote to PlanPhilly. “How to regulate without being too cumbersome? How can we ensure that future residents, regardless of income, can enjoy life in these diverse and historic communities? »
In a political landscape often dominated by acrimony and bad faith, he has always offered fair and generous interpretations of current affairs. (That’s why PlanPhilly often quoted Steif on zoning and housing issues.) He also brought that perspective to his community activism, and he wouldn’t let others fall into easy or self-serving dogma.
“He was very generous, very sweet, but he could send you stilettos,” said Spruce Hill Civic Zoning Committee Chairman Barry Grossbach. “He could burst balloons when people felt really good about themselves, spikes that punctured complacency at the table. Sometimes when you’re watching hard truths, it’s uncomfortable.
— Ellen Kwon (@ellen_hwang_phl) September 13, 2021