Philadelphians often talk of "the suburbs" as if all suburbs are alike - with new development, lush green spaces and an abundance of resources.

In fact, the older, developed "first suburbs" of Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties face challenges that are familiar to those living in the city of Philadelphia: loss of businesses and jobs, decaying infrastructure, a shrinking tax base coupled with rising tax rates, failing schools, social services lagging behind the needs of their citizens, and public and private investment policies that fall short of community needs.

The first suburbs experience these challenges differently from Philadelphia. Unlike the city, the first suburbs are often small communities that lack the size, cohesiveness and political representation to respond effectively to these challenges. Until now, what these first suburbs lacked was a coalition that allowed them to speak with one voice.

In recognition of these facts, leaders from these communities have come together to form the Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project.

The First Suburbs Project is a non-partisan strategic coalition that will directly engage citizens to prioritize the challenges that the first suburbs face, identify individuals and organizations to recruit as allies, and develop winning strategies and action plans to bring about the changes that will lead to the stabilization and revitalization of these communities.

On Friday, the First Suburbs Project will convene 400 suburban leaders at a day-long summit at Bryn Mawr College.

Participants include elected and appointed officials and other leaders from the labor, business and faith-based communities.

They will hear two national experts - David Rusk and professor John Powell - speak about the challenges facing older suburban communities nationwide.

They will hear regional leaders - Barry Seymour, Andrew Reilly, Robert White, professor Walter Greason, Pastor Byron Craig and Sandi Vito - comment on the specific issues confronting southeastern Pennsylvania. Most important, the attending leaders will begin to develop an agenda for action and for regional change. The First Suburbs Summit is thus the start of a larger and longer-lasting regional effort.

As the co-chairmen of the First Suburbs Project, we believe Philadelphians should welcome the emergence of our effort. It is an effort that challenges the unhelpful and incorrect assumption that all suburbs are alike. It is an effort that recognizes that the first suburbs and the city are interconnected and have common interests. And it is an effort that will create an ally to advance those interests alongside the city of Philadelphia.

THE SOUTHEASTERN Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project will work to effect changes in state policies that will benefit the city and the first suburbs because ultimately, the future of the greater Philadelphia region depends on the viability of all our communities - urban and suburban. *

William Montgomery, a member of the Rose Tree-Media school board and Jacquelynn Puriefoy-Brinkley, who sits on the Yeadon borough council, are co-chairmen of the Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project.