by Leslie Irwin, NOAA Research Communications Fellow
I could have easily gone home to King of Prussia and commuted to the Sea Grant Assembly and Communicators Meeting in center city Philadelphia. But where is the fun in that?
I love Philadelphia. It really is a great city to walk around in. There is an awesome combination of towering skyscrapers and historical architecture that you can’t find many other places in the states. Boston is the only other one that immediately comes to mind. New York may win for skyscrapers, but they aren’t next door to where the Declaration of Independence was signed. I was quickly reminded that the “tall buildings” in DC are less than impressive after staring up at the two Liberty Place towers. I was home.
I grew up in the Philadelphia area, and spent two years of graduate school exploring the city. I’ve been on more grade-school field trips to the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, Ben Franklin’s house and print shop, and Independence Hall than I can count. Don’t get me started on the Franklin Institute or Zoo. I’ve even done the bus tour a couple of times. But the tour offered to the Sea Grant attendees would show me a side of the “City of Brotherly Love” that I had never seen before.
City Hall, with Liberty Place in the background, Philadelphia, PA
After a long day of sitting in conference workshop sessions, the Sea Grant group was ready for some fresh air. We were soon piling into the trolley car for a tour of Philadelphia’s green infrastructure.
The most critical environmental issue in Philadelphia is improving stormwater management. The sewer system is over a hundred years old, and was not built to handle the increase in intense rainfall that the region has been experiencing. Rainwater flows over the impervious street surfaces and enters the sewer system through storm drains, combining with the sewer water. When a high volume of storm water runoff enters the system, it can exceed the capacity of the system and overflow, discharging into the city’s streams and rivers before it is treated. This means trash and pollutants are being dumped directly into vital and sensitive ecosystems, degrading the heath of aquatic communities and affecting biodiversity.
There are many tools for reducing stormwater runoff. Pervious pavement allows water to infiltrate a porous surface and trickle into an underground stone reservoir, where it is temporarily stored before reaching soil. Tree trenches may look like your typical street side trees, but under the soil is a lining of permeable geotextile fabric holding stone and gravel that provides empty spaces for storing stormwater that is directed into the trench by a special inlet. Green roofs can vary in complexity from a shallow soil supporting low maintenance, hardy grasses to something deeper that supports more complex shrubbery. Rain barrels and cisterns can collect water from gutters and drain pipes on buildings that can be emptied later for watering lawns and gardens. All of these methods and several more are designed to relieve some of the stress of excess water entering the sewer system and prevent overflow.
The first stop on our tour was to the Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts (KCAPA), which just happens to be the first public high school in the country to be Platinum LEED certified. This is the highest certification under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System, which takes into account sustainable design concepts, energy and water efficiency, and environmental quality. KCAPA’s roofs are 60 percent green, they have a geothermal well field to heat and cool the building, an infiltration basin to collect stormwater for use in the school’s toilets, pervious pavement parking lots, and numerous rain gardens and tree trenches. Energy efficiency increased 21 percent, with a 33 percent reduction in utility costs. It’s an incredible feat.
Liberty Lands, www.phillywatersheds.org
Another stop was Liberty Lands Park in the Northern Liberties neighborhood. The two-acre park was reclaimed by the local community, originally a superfund site, more than fifteen years ago. The neighborhood was run-down, with no outdoor recreational space available. The dirt plot was given clearance by the EPA and with the persistence of the local community’s grassroots development, it now boasts a garden with 37 plots, park benches, a children’s playground, picnic areas, composting, retaining walls, a mural, sculptures, 180 trees, and a public stage and entertainment area. The park is situated on a downward slope to facilitate the drainage of stormwater into its massive rain garden in the bottom corner. The upkeep of the park relies solely on community volunteers, who understand the value of the space which offers events like Halloween hayrides, a Welcome America Neighborhood Festival, garden tours, summer outdoor movie showings, concerts, and plays.
Overall, I was blown away by the examples of technological breakthroughs, urban beauty, and community perseverance in Philadelphia. People understand the value of their environment, even in a city where it’s easy to forget about nature. When we make an effort to improve our environment, we only stand to benefit from it. The city of brotherly love is truly extending that love to the environment.