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The Urban Environmental Movement

December 1, 2017

In recent years, the ownership and advocacy for environmental issues has broadened significantly from the interests of small groups of passionate activists, to a core concern of public administrators. While the image of these activists protesting in the streets still holds, public administrators working in some of the densest urban environments in the world are taking advantage of the natural agglomeration benefits of cities to complete projects that combine economic, social, and environmental benefits. This is especially true in Philadelphia, where planners, architects, engineers, economists, academics, and community activists are working on one of the most ambitious environmental projects in the country, which will have far-reaching impacts on neighborhoods and businesses all over the city.

On a per person basis, cities are already among the most environmentally friendly places on earth. In Philadelphia, these environmental benefits are partially outweighed by the nearly 16 billion gallons of raw sewage that is released into the natural environment every year. The reason for this comes from Philadelphia’s outdated Combined Sewer System, in which storm drains connect to sewage pipes. During storms, the amount of water overwhelms the system and in order to save the water treatment plants, excess water and sewage is diverted into the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.

To address this problem, in 2009 the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) started a 25 year long, $2.4 billion green infrastructure program with the stated goal of “protecting and enhancing our region’s waterways by managing storm water runoff to significantly reduce our reliance on construction of additional underground infrastructure.” Green infrastructure uses natural ecosystems to help slow down, filtrate, and reuse storm water so it is less likely to overwhelm pipes, storm drains, and water treatment plants. And unlike more traditional storm water infrastructure, this management can be accomplished in ways that resemble attractive, parklike settings, with examples in Philadelphia including the Mormon Temple and the new CHOP Roberts Center.

Implementing this sort of infrastructure requires, and invites, community support on a much larger scale than more traditional forms of infrastructure. The reason for this is that although the infrastructure is relatively simple to understand and install, it requires basic ongoing maintenance to keep clear of debris and to care for the plants. As part of my job with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC), I helped build materials for PEC and PWD to gather the support of businesses, politicians, and local community members to help develop and take care of the green infrastructure in their communities. This means telling the story to residents, local politicians, and business leaders that environmental work is not only good for the earth, but also has tremendous benefits to their neighborhoods, their economy, and their community health.

In the long run, the only truly successful way to stop the worst impacts of climate change will have to come at the national and international level. As that process continues to evolve and change in effectiveness, cities around the world are stepping up and completing projects that have significantly broadened the perception of what it means to be an environmentalist. As the world becomes more urban, this work of connecting environmental causes to economic and social development will hopefully result in not only better places to live, but also a better Earth in general. 

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu