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Amid fireworks, a time for a long hard look at the future

Century IV isn't going to be all fireworks and parades.

As part of the 300th birthday celebrations, hundreds of citizens organized into a great civic powwow called ''Philadelphia: Past, Present, and Future,'' have been taking a long hard look at their city. They're trying to see just where it is and where they might be able to take it in the years ahead.

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They're finding new ways to keep energy costs from going through the roof. They're also discovering that recreation and culture are not all fun and games.

The project consists of citizen task forces on a dozen urban issues such as housing and transportation. The task forces have prepared reports which are being considered in light of one another and reviewed by national experts. ''The idea,'' says Dr. Theodore Hershberg, project supervisor, ''is to think systemically -- to see things in context.'' Action agendas will be drawn up in the months ahead.

But the project is already affecting city policies. After the housing task force drew attention to the collapse of the low-cost rental market, the city changed its federal block grant spending strategy. Building improvements in low-cost apartments are now being emphasized over expensive rehabilitation of abandoned buildings.

The energy task force has found that middle-class homeowners are already about as energy-efficient as they can be. Those on public assistance, however, are often uninformed and unmotivated to weatherize their dwellings.

The result is astronomical utility bills, which the middle classes ultimately wind up paying through their taxes.

But Dr. Hershberg expresses confidence that as middle-class Philadelphians discover they have a financial stake in weatherizing homes of the poor, it won't be hard to line up public support to get the job done.

Other task forces, says Dr. Hershberg, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Public and Urban Policy, have faced knottier issues, like education, where vested interests prevented really free-wheeling discussion.

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The task forces were encouraged to respect that kind of limitation -- and not to look for abundant federal aid. ''There's been no instance of 'pie in the sky ,' '' says Dr. Hershberg. But this Century IV project does afford an occasion to think ahead -- ''for people who don't have to fix the streets today.''

Another important theme: recreation, culture, and the arts, far from being frills, are essential for healthy cities.

Remote computer terminals, cable television, and the telephone are making it easier for a lot of people to do business at a distance. If there aren't theaters, restaurants, and attractive parks to draw people to city centers, the ''next best thing to being there'' -- remote communication -- may in fact be even better than being there.

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