Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The River Beneath

How Philadelphia is turning the tide on storm-water overflow with innovation and nature.

Storm-water runoff issues rising in US.
Though most people don’t think a lot about sewers, rainwater, and where water goes after a flush of the loo, the folks at the water department sure do. It’s a big problem for cities because water is a limited resource and when storms blow out sewers, it makes for a nasty mix with drinking water, which then takes energy and money to clean. To mitigate storm-water issues, cities like Philadelphia have increasingly relied on green infrastructure tools designed to limit overflow, such as the tree trench and planters shown below in Philly’s Columbus Square.

In the past few weeks I've had the opportunity to examine these important issues more closely through an innovative outreach effort called the Green Cities, Clean Waters Ambassador Program from the Philadelphia Water Department and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

The program aims to create a new partnership to promote green infrastructure education and stewardship in Philadelphia neighborhoods. With a boost of hands-on training by specialists from the water department and various other related organizations, a group of community leaders from designated civic associations will emerge to become Green City, Clean Waters Ambassadors.

More specifically, the program focuses on storm-water management, including development, care and advocacy for sustainable landscape projects or green tools, such as tree trenches, bump-outs, bioswales, rain gardens, infiltration trenches, green roofs, and others, as part of the city's innovative initiative to reduce contamination from sewer runoff. It also integrates issues such as stream restoration, soil conservation, and other regenerative processes that are essential for maintaining healthy urban ecosystems.

Tree trench, Columbus Square.
Unlike many big ticket urban approaches to water reclamation that often involve major overhauls of grey infrastructure, this program utilizes an interactive union of mother nature, the water department, and people power to make it all work. The end result is to give our local communities a sustainable development initiative that is light on the taxpayer's wallet, promotes community engagement and access, and creates a cleaner, more beautiful city. It's a very Philadelphia-like, neighborhood-minded solution to an issue that's troubling much of the nation these days. And this city is certainly worthy of claiming expertise in this realm, with its notable history of innovative waterway design leading as far back as urban planner Benjamin Latrobe, who was essentially the nation's first architect. (See our previous article on Benjamin Latrobe's legacy and work in Philadelphia with The Architecture of Democracy).

Thus last Tuesday, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, and a grouping of city officials and stakeholders came together outside the historic Fairmount Water Works site to officially announce commencement of the city's new green infrastructure project. The same announcement was scheduled for Earth Day nearly a year ago, but was muted, due to some last minute measures that needed amending.

This time there was no holding back, and Philadelphia has much to be proud of. This plan is a ground-breaking approach to storm-water and sewer issues that are reaching crisis levels in the US. Its unique green infrastructure methodology may set a new course on this issue for the nation, if not for the world - a notion which is further explored in the EPA's press release for the event:

(PHILADELPHIA – April 10, 2012) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, joined by U.S. Representative Allyson Schwartz and city and federal officials, signed an agreement that represents a $2 billion investment in Philadelphia green infrastructure during an event at the Fairmount Water Works.

Prospecting for green sites with GIS maps.
Over the next 25 years, the Green City, Clean Waters partnership agreement will transform many of Philadelphia’s traditional hardened surfaces to green areas to better manage potentially harmful rainwater runoff pollution. This unique federal – city partnership is designed to ensure the success of the Green City, Clean Waters Plan and to present the plan as a national model for cities embracing green storm-water infrastructure. Green infrastructure investments make our communities cleaner, healthier, and more attractive places to live and work.

 "The EPA is proud to be working in partnership to support green infrastructure advances that will lead to cleaner waters and a stronger economy for the city of Philadelphia. This city has earned a place as a national and global leader on sustainable innovation and clean water protection," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "The Green City, Clean Waters Partnership promises to lead the way for communities across the nation, which can use the lessons learned through this long-term project to protect their health, safeguard their waters and boost their economies."

EPA will provide assistance to the city in identifying and promoting higher performing green infrastructure designs, convening technical expertise from around the country to advance green designs and support a green design competition, and help remove barriers to innovation in the city’s plan.  EPA will also assist on research and technical assistance, and monitoring the effectiveness and evaluating benefits of the program through cooperation on water quality monitoring and modeling work that the city has undertaken.

Issue mitigation is critical.
“The Green City Clean Waters Plan is our proposal to revitalize our rivers and streams by managing stormwater in a way that provides multiple benefits. It will result in clean and beautiful waterways, a healthier environment and increased community value. The assistance of our many and diverse regulatory and public partners makes it the most cost effective investment of its kind in the country,” said Mayor Nutter. “Where other cities are challenged by very expensive commitments for tunnels, tanks and other gray infrastructure, we have worked with the state and the EPA to take this greener, more fiscally prudent approach that will realize multiple benefits.”

The city of Philadelphia is leading the development of green strategies to manage urban stormwater runoff – the 21st century’s greatest challenge to the health of our nation’s rivers and streams. Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters Plan layers green technologies modeled on natural practices on top of the city’s 3,000 mile sewer network, Philadelphia’s 20th century investment in traditional “gray” infrastructure, to capture rainwater on the surface. Capturing rainwater prevents sewer overflows containing industrial and human waste from discharging to waterways during wet weather. It will transform streets, parking lots, schools, public spaces into urban landscapes that reduce sewer overflows to our waterways while enhancing our communities.

 “The signing of this monumental agreement is a transformative step for urban environmental policy in the United States,” said Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz. “Philadelphia and the EPA's forward-looking collaboration on storm water runoff will help strengthen economic development, protect our drinking water and should serve as a model for cities around the country.”

Green City Clean Waters is based upon an adaptive management approach that will identify and maximize green practices that achieve the most efficient and cost effective environmental goals for the City of Philadelphia.

To view the agreement and other info on the Philadelphia's green infrastructure program, visit

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