By Tiffany Ledesma, Elizabeth Svekla, and Maura Jarvis
Philadelphia Water Department (PWD)
October 22, 2020
What have we learned about green investments, planning, partnerships and public engagement? Almost a decade ago, the City of Philadelphia embarked on a remarkable journey to improve the health of its waterways through an approach that led with green infrastructure investments while also improving traditional infrastructure at a scale unlike any other in the nation. The forward-looking Green City, Clean Waters reimagined stormwater management on public spaces, including sidewalks, parkland and vacant lots in neighborhoods across the city. The City also revised stormwater regulations to reduce the impact of land, property and real estate development on our rivers. Property retrofits were incentivized with grants on non-residential properties. The objective was clear: Reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in waterways to meet federal water quality standards. In layman terms, this means decreasing the amount of diluted, polluted water entering the creeks and rivers in Philadelphia. The primary tool to get us there was straightforward: Use primarily green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) to 1) collect the rainwater close to where it lands on site (not at the end of the pipe), 2) direct that rainwater to infrastructure that holds the water underground until the rain passes, and 3) release the water, letting it slowly absorb into the earth and/or gradually flow back into the sewer for treatment.
The historic 25-year Green City, Clean Waters program catalyzed creativity and innovation. Like most unprecedented initiatives, the plan also came with its challenges and complexities. Launching a program that influences planning, design, construction, maintenance and monitoring of widely distributed above ground infrastructure, requires special considerations. Unlike traditional, underground infrastructure (i.e., a sewer under the street) which is hidden from our view, green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) investments are on display. Projects are visible to the eyes of passersby at the corners of intersections on residential blocks, adjacent to playgrounds, outside of recreation centers and along corridors on park properties. Community outreach, public participation programming, partnership development and communications to facilitate information sharing about GSI were all critical during the planning and design of the infrastructure. The visible nature of GSI alone warranted interpretation to residents and site-users.
When the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) plans public GSI projects, the identification of locations (siting) is conducted in a fairly distributed manner, which is mostly driven by physical feasibility and cost-effectiveness. And the City has seen great success in implementing GSI on public property, particularly when collaborating with city agency partners, neighborhood groups and others with an interest in community investments. Partners that fully understand the context in which the GSI projects are sited make all the difference. There are a multitude of drivers that lead planners to target locations for stormwater management in neighborhoods (i.e., heat vulnerability, pedestrian safety improvement and insufficient tree cover). However, ultimately, technical feasibility and cost-effectiveness are first and foremost. Because of the combination of challenges presented by the sheer scale of implementing a citywide program and the difficulty of capturing stormwater runoff in a highly dense urban environment, the City recognizes the importance of targeting GSI in every place determined feasible, which results in investments in almost every neighborhood in Philadelphia.
In 2018, the Beat the Heat – Venza el Calor pilot project was initiated by Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability (OOS) along with a host of partners. The project aims to address the disparity in how heat is experienced in the city. It launched in Hunting Park, a culturally rich community of color, primarily comprised of Latinos and Black residents. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most heat vulnerable neighborhoods in the city, containing blocks with some of the highest mean surface temperatures in Philadelphia – as much as 22 degrees hotter than cooler parts of the city! An understanding of how residents are coping with heat and collaborating to increase community capacity to adapt and decrease their exposure is at the core of Beat the Heat – Venza el Calor. As one of the project partners, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) identified feasible green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) opportunities in the target neighborhood. The plan involves the design and construction of stormwater tree trenches and stormwater bump-outs along a multitude of residential blocks throughout Hunting Park. And while the primary functions of the tree trenches and bump-outs are to soak up rainwater to reduce the adverse impacts on waterways, the investment is meaningful locally. The blocks of trees are welcomed by residents where shade and cooler temperatures are especially desired, as evidenced by positive responses in the Beat the Heat Hunting Park Survey.
Beyond the increased tree canopy, there was a great deal of outreach, education, community planning, capacity-building and programming that resulted from Beat the Heat – Venza el Calor. PWD’s Public Engagement Team connected the residents of Hunting Park to green stormwater infrastructure but also set up the vibrant Philly Water Bar pop-up to spread the gospel of drinking healthy, affordable, safe tap water in reusable bottles to stay hydrated, particularly in heat health emergencies. The Public Engagement Team also shared resources on the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP) to help customers that struggle to pay their monthly water bill. PWD’s Planning Team not only sited the locations of the GSI but collaborated with the local community organization, Esperanza, on a successful grant application to obtain a fellow that would conduct geospatial analysis (mapping) to further support heat equity work. Philadelphia Parks & Recreation’s TreePhilly and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Tree Tenders offered residential and street tree giveaways to locals and coordinated with PWD to ensure that tree plantings do not conflict with the stormwater trees. North 10 Philadelphia, The Lenfest Center and Esperanza collected feedback from stakeholders and enlisted local ambassadors to conduct surveys that informed Beat the Heat Hunting Park: A Community Heat Relief Plan. The first of its kind community-led climate resiliency plan in Philadelphia makes specific recommendations to increase the use of green stormwater infrastructure on the hottest blocks and surrounding key industrial and commercial sites to support neighborhood cooling.
The wisdom gained in implementing a citywide program to date tells us that when we collaborate with other public agencies, nonprofits, businesses and community members, we can create impacts that are much bigger than our individual efforts, notwithstanding reducing inequities. Partnering on mitigating the heat island effect, for example, directly impacts people, particularly in communities of color. When we install the right type of infrastructure to fit local needs, we create long-term impacts with social, economic and environmental benefits. We have learned the importance of evaluating our approach as we move forward in our regulatory obligations to improve the health of our waterways in Philadelphia. By creating the best portfolio of investments to meet the needs of Green City, Clean Waters, in addition to partnering to address the needs of others, we can collaboratively address other challenges our city faces: a prudent consideration as practitioners plan for the next decade of necessary green investments in neighborhoods, cities, and nations across the globe. During Covid times in particular, humans seek respite in nature now more than ever. A quick cool moment under the canopy of street trees on city blocks with chirping birds atop and wiggling earthworms below can make all the difference to the people who live, work, and play in a heat island – all while we still meet our commitments to clean up our creeks and rivers miles away.
Tiffany Ledesma is a 2001 Master of Environmental Studies Penn alum. While at Penn, she focused her academic interests in environmental management. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Tiffany had a passion for the world of water and in her professional endeavors she applies her personal passion and people-centric lens to science. Tiffany is a consultant for CDM Smith and provides public affairs and planning support to clients. She has spent the past 15 years working on a variety of initiatives with the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) and leads the Green City, Clean Waters Public Engagement Team. Tiffany holds a B.A. from Villanova University and she’s a proud mom to her teenager.
Elizabeth Svekla, AICP, is the Manager of the Green Infrastructure Planning Group at the Philadelphia Water Department. Her work with PWD over the last decade has focused on guiding a team of planners, landscape architects, and GIS specialists, to develop a range of strategies for implementing green stormwater infrastructure projects on public land throughout the City of Philadelphia. These projects range in size from a single stormwater tree trench to large scale plans for stormwater management districts. Liz has a B.S. in Landscape Architecture and a Master’s in City and Regional Planning from Rutgers University, and is also a full-time mom to a kindergartener and 1-year-old.
Maura Jarvis works for Trans-Pacific Engineering Corporation as an in-house consultant to the Philadelphia Water Department. As a member of the Public Engagement Team, Maura’s role includes informing North Philadelphia communities about green stormwater infrastructure projects, drinking water quality in the city, and related sustainability initiatives. A proud Philadelphia native, Maura holds a degree in Sustainable Product Development from Drexel University and is passionate about working with her local community.