Mark Twain once said, “In Boston they ask, how much does he know? In New York, how much is he worth? In Philadelphia, who were his parents?” And Philly has seen a great many mothers and fathers.
Philadelphia has been a pretty major city for over 300 years. While it has always been a metropolitan area, much of its history has been centered on manufacturing and industry. That, and being home to millions of people, has made it a city with a history of being dirty. And to a large extent, it still is.
But things are changing for the City of Brotherly Love.
Philadelphia hired a young lady named Katherine Gajewski to be the city’s “sustainability director.” She organizes a group of individuals and works with the city to implement the Greenworks Philadelphia Plan, and is starting to see some results. And she’s not doing it with billions in tax dollars or amazing new technologies. Philly is like many American cities, and doesn’t have a ton of money to spend. So they’re taking advantage of opportunities as they arise.
Two things that Philadelphia has going for it are a great public transit system and a lot of parks. About 10% of the city is, in fact, already parkland. Fairmont Park is a system of neighborhood parks and green spaces that run through the city, include the Philadelphia Zoo, and borders the Schuylkill River. It is over 9,000 acres and is the world’s largest landscaped urban park. Many of the residents of the city don’t own cars, as they don’t really need them. The city has busses, trains, and trolleys that make it easy to get where you need to go, and the city’s neighborhoods make it easy to get what you need. The city also has a subway, which is the third oldest in America. It is also considered a very “walkable” city.
Here’s the cool thing:
One of the most common problems facing aging cities is water pollution. In an older city like Philadelphia, much of the infrastructure under the city dates back years, decades, and in some cases centuries. Sewers and drain pipes were buried when the need and the population was much smaller. Storm runoff often overwhelms these systems and rainwater ends up mixing with sewage, which then ends up washing out to sea. And replacing these aging sewers is a complicated and costly project.
As opportunities present themselves, the folks in Philadelphia are turning water problems into water wins. As a street comes up to be repaved, they use porous materials that help to absorb rainwater. Traffic islands and sidewalk planters are being used to grow rain gardens that not only ease the load to the sewers, they absorb pollution and help scrub the atmosphere. Nature’s air filters. Vacant lots and rooftops are planted, and the amount of green space in Philadelphia grows a little more each and every day. All of these actions combine to not only make things easier on the sewers, it allows the rainwater to be used in a way that is productive for Philadelphia and it doesn’t just run down the Schuylkill.
And Philly actively engages its citizens in this transformation. Local and civic groups have the backing of city leaders, there are people like Katherine Gajewski sounding the call, and individuals are stepping up to the plate. If your visit the Fairmont Park website, you’ll find that many of their most popular programs point to the fact that the citizens own the park, and encourage them to play their part with tree give-aways and plantings.
When we talk to people about things that they can do to Keep Virginia Beautiful, we hear about wide open spaces and the cost of being green. But it is more than forests and natural waterways. Sometimes it can happen in the cramped confines of a city.