By Sandol Park and Corey Wills

University of Pennsylvania

Edited by Katie Pitstick and Dan Schupsky

July 16, 2020


Cobbs Creek Watershed

The Cobbs Creek watershed spans three counties and roughly 14,200 acres of land. (Cobbs Creek, 2004) The watershed is 92% developed, meaning that there is a high area of impervious surface and increased stormwater runoff during wet weather events. Many of the sewers in the combined sewer overflow area empty directly into Cobbs Creek and its tributaries, which threatens the health of both the watershed and its residents (Cobbs Creek, 2004). In order to restore and protect the health of the Cobbs Creek watershed, restoration efforts must be jointly conducted by all parties involved in the watershed. There are currently more than 70 stakeholder organizations in the Cobbs Creek watershed which have been involved in past restoration projects, and we have identified 51 more potential partners (Appendix 1). The first step needed for future restoration initiatives is to facilitate the engagement of all stakeholders in both the planning and implementation phases of the project.

A Lack of Stakeholder Engagement 

Although stakeholder engagement is essential for watershed restoration and creek rehabilitation, such environmental concerns are often considered to be low-priority issues by surrounding communities and residents. This lack of prioritization is often due to the fact that environmental benefits can seem intangible or unimportant when compared to issues regarding safety or financial stability. The poverty rate in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood is over twice the national average, and 94.6% of residents are people of color. (Cobbs Creek; n.d.) Due to the high poverty rate, many residents must work long hours or multiple jobs to make ends meet and do not have the time or financial resources to devote to volunteer-driven environmental projects. Additionally, the long history of systemic oppression of people of color in Philadelphia has created tension between residents and local government agencies that can make collaborative projects difficult to navigate. All of these factors can make it challenging to promote and implement environmental sustainability projects, despite a growing body of evidence which suggests that environmental restoration projects can provide improved health and financial outcomes for the surrounding communities. 

Green spaces can reduce heat-related fatalities, improve air quality, provide valuable mental and physical health benefits, reduce flooding events, lessen stormwater runoff, and lower crime rates. Access to such green spaces is often a major issue for communities of color due in large part to the historic divestment of resources in neighborhoods of color. Cobbs Creek has long been overlooked as a valuable environmental asset; one cannot help but draw comparisons between the resource-scarce Cobbs Creek Park and the resource-rich Wissahickon Valley Park, which is located in a predominantly white area. In order to increase investment in and access to the Cobbs Creek watershed, it is important to prioritize and amplify the voices of diverse community residents and local stakeholders.

Although stakeholder involvement is essential in the enactment of environmental restoration initiatives, interviews with area stakeholders revealed several challenges in creating and sustaining such involvement. These challenges include low stakeholder participation or attendance rates, absence of trust between parties, and the lack of a cohesive umbrella organization. Joanne Dahme, the former head of the Public Affairs division at the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), stated that one of the greatest limitations which stalled a past attempt to restore Cobbs Creek was a low participation rate and lack of interest on the part of stakeholders. (Interview with Joanne Dahme, 2020). This highlights the need to increase the level of participation of Cobbs Creek watershed stakeholders. 

Key Principles for Improved Stakeholder Engagement 

There are several principles important to creating stakeholder engagement such as (i) creation of a transparent process that promotes trust, respect, equity, and learning among stakeholders; (ii) the integrated utilization of scientific and technical knowledge in conjunction with the knowledge of area residents; (iii) the establishment of clear organizational rules; (iv) the engagement of stakeholders in the early phases of a project; (v) connecting all stakeholders to create unified coordination; (vi) allocating resources, finances, and time adequately; and (vii) sharing a common understanding, respect, and appreciation of cultural, political, and historical contexts. 

These principles are all critical factors in the improvement of stakeholder participation rates, but equally important is having a clear mission and a vision that stakeholders can share. This shared vision can be a powerful tool to bring all parties together as one team to engage in collaborative governance. While having a shared vision can be a powerful method to bring stakeholders together, identifying incentives which are directly related to participation can also be a major asset to expedite the collaborative process. Given the voluntary nature of stakeholder participation, the provision of concrete and tangible benefits that are directly related to their participation can be a strong driving factor for incentivizing stakeholder participation. However, in order to create a unified vision and concrete benefits for participants, trust among stakeholders must first be established. (Heikkila et al., 2005)

Generating Trust Among Stakeholders 

Collaborative governance will fail when there is no trust among stakeholders. Ansell et al. suggest that “the collaboration process is not merely about negotiation but also about building trust among stakeholders” (Ansell et al., 2007). Trust building is a time-consuming process that requires a firm commitment throughout a long period of time and is therefore quite difficult to cultivate in the early collaborative process. This creates a paradox wherein trust is necessary for collaborative action, but collaborative action is necessary to create trust. 

One method to create trust in such a scenario is to foster an interorganizational culture of transparency. Having open access to critical information and resources can enhance stakeholders’ sense of inclusion and can provide immediate tangible benefits which can act as incentives for continued participation. The aggregation of reliable and concrete data and resources and the provision of full access to these data platforms can lead to a gradual change in belief systems and the eventual improvement of collaborative organizational functioning. 

In addition to technical or financial information sharing, another valuable trust-building asset could be an open education resource highlighting information about the watershed in which stakeholders live, possible options that are available for stakeholders to improve watershed conditions, and other ways for stakeholders to get involved in watershed restoration projects. This would provide a platform for stakeholders to closely relate or connect to the natural world and its waterways, especially for those who do not already have extensive environmental knowledge. Such efforts to facilitate stakeholder education as well as technical and financial information sharing are crucial in order to ensure that all parties are aware of who benefits from what, what those benefits are, and how this can affect other stakeholders’ interests.

The creation of a decentralized leadership system with designated leading and supporting agents for each function and responsibility is critical in order to carry collaborative restoration work forward in Cobbs Creek. In many cases, problems arise from a top-down organizational structure when compared with a collaborative management structure. For example, a recent Pew survey found that trust in government from people of color nationwide is low; therefore, a government-led initiative without significant co-leadership from communities of color would be unlikely to succeed in Cobbs Creek. (Rainie & Perrin, 2019) Future Cobbs Creek restoration projects should refrain from having a single primary driver leading the whole project and stakeholder engagement. Having a decentralized leadership structure with diverse parties leading different facets of the restoration initiative within their areas of expertise could be an effective method to orchestrate the project.

Key Suggestions for Sustained Stakeholder Involvement at Cobbs Creek

Throughout the course of our research, we were able to identify many different functions and tasks necessary for watershed restoration that require extensive time and expertise such as data collection and analysis, water quality sampling, biological monitoring, financial control, legal assessments, human resources, public safety, and education. One agent alone cannot oversee and effectively control such a diverse array of functions and missions while bringing all relevant stakeholders to a mutual consensus, especially when the involved parties are coming from different backgrounds and perspectives with regard to water resource management. 

Some stakeholders such as community organizations, religious communities, and student groups may not have sufficient expertise or skill sets to engage in discussions about highly technical watershed issues. This may lead to organizations which have stronger capacity or status assuming control of the governance process. Also, smaller organizations may not have sufficient time or resources to engage in labor-intensive collaborative processes. A decentralized leadership structure can allow for the sharing of power and resources, which can increase the capacity for smaller organizations to make their voices heard. There may be many ways to select the leading and supporting agents for different functions and missions, but Ansell et. al (2007) argue that it is important to designate collaborative leaders based on their ability to facilitate widespread active participation and create productive group dynamics. 

One possibility for a decentralized leadership system in the Cobbs Creek watershed would be to have a neutral outside organization assume the facilitator’s role to create clear ground rules, build trust, facilitate dialogue, explore mutual benefits, and stimulate creativity so that the collective collaboration process can be achieved. In other words, the facilitating organization should take a role that focuses on promoting and safeguarding the process rather than focusing on a traditional top-down leadership role. This facilitating role is necessary in order to provide adequate management of the collaborative process, maintain technical credibility, and ensure that the collaborative is empowered to make credible and convincing decisions that are acceptable to all. For example, the facilitating organization may intervene to empower participants with fewer resources and de-escalate tensions between different stakeholders when conflict is high and trust is low. By remaining above the fray and by maintaining the procedural integrity and transparency of the collaborative process, stakeholders can more easily trust and rely on the services of the facilitating organization. 

In addition to the role of a facilitator, it would be helpful to have an organization take the role of connecting the needs of stakeholders to relevant authorities. For example, as Cobbs Creeks falls entirely inside Philadelphia Parks & Recreation’s (PPR) jurisdiction, they will most likely be a major player in the creation, implementation, and sustainability of any large working group housed in their green spaces. A key component of collaborative work between the Cobbs Creek community and various government organizations should be based on the recommendations of PPR’s stewardship team and environmental educators due to the fact that they frequently interact with residents in and near their parks. Finding a Cobbs Creek “champion” inside PPR to act as a catalyst could be helpful in promoting and maintaining future collaborative environmental initiatives in Cobbs Creek. 

In conjunction with the aforementioned decentralized leadership structure and the roles of facilitator and connector, collaborative initiatives should begin with the pursuit of “small wins”; achievable victories that keep momentum and sustain stakeholder interest in the project. Such achievements in Cobbs Creek could include adding park benches and restrooms; adding lighting and increased park ranger patrols for improved safety; increasing the amount of educational and recreational programs for people of color in the watershed; and the facilitation of community events such as barbeques, tree plantings, and regular creek cleanups. Such achievable wins are necessary for creating and maintaining stakeholder interest, but they are only one part of the overarching structure necessary for sustained stakeholder engagement and collaboration.

Key suggestions for sustained stakeholder involvement in future Cobbs Creek restoration projects include: the equitable inclusion of diverse community partners in collaborative leadership; the establishment of shared missions and vision with clear and tangible benefits and incentives for each stakeholder; building trust and confidence through a platform where all stakeholders can have full access and participate in all forms of opportunities and resources; and constructing a decentralized leadership structure with leading and supporting agents for each function. These findings are based on a small sample of stakeholder interviews, our research regarding other regions’ case studies, and scholarly articles on natural resource and watershed management projects. Further localized analysis is necessary to assess how these suggestions can be effectively applied in order to enhance stakeholder engagement in future Cobbs Creek restoration projects while maintaining trust, equity, commitment, and transparency. 



Ansell, C., & Gash, A. (2008). Collaborative governance in theory and practice. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 18(4), 543–571.

Cobbs Creek integrated watershed management plan. (2004). Philadelphia Water Department & Darby-Cobbs Watershed Partnership. Retrieved from

Cobbs Creek neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (PA), 19139, 19143 detailed profile. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Data hub: Crime in Philadelphia, West Philadelphia/Cobbs Creek. (n.d.). The Inquirer.

Heikkila, T., & Gerlak, A. K. (2005). The formation of large-scale collaborative resource management institutions: Clarifying the roles of stakeholders, science, and institutions. Policy Studies Journal, 33(4), 583–612.

Rainie, L., Perrin, A. Key findings about Americans’ declining trust in government and each other. (2019, July 22). Pew Research Center. Retrieved from



Sandol is a second-year graduate student in the Earth and Environmental Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Arts and Sciences. His research is focused on environmental sustainability and natural resources, and he is a recipient of the Water Center’s Graduate Student Research Program Award 2019 for his project on the Water-Reuse and Rare Earth Elements Recovery. He has over five years of experience in the Solar Energy business with Hanwha Group during which he participated in numerous meetings for business opportunities including the 2018 Davos World Economic Forum. Prior to this, he earned his Bachelor’s degree in International Development Studies at McGill University and served at the U.S.-Korea Combined Forces Command and United Nations Command as an Army officer for over three years. 


Corey has a diverse background spanning food justice, grassroots organizing, mental health advocacy, and sustainable agriculture. She is currently pursuing a dual Master of Environmental Studies and Master of City Planning degree program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is focusing on the creation and management of water and food systems which are both sustainable and just. Her professional goal is to implement equitable city planning practices which provide clean water, healthy food, and green spaces for all residents. Corey works with The Water Center at Penn to provide geographic information systems analysis of Pennsylvanian watershed conservation efforts while also analyzing the best sites for green roofs on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus.