Philadelphia – Making the Most of Limited Resources
Moving from the west coast to the east coast not only meant a change in the weather. It was also a change in the climate risks that cities are facing. In the case of Philadelphia, this also meant confronting a significantly different economic situation.
The city has for many years been one of the U.S. cities with the highest poverty levels and has suffered from a very low tax base. And although times are changing for Philadelphia, which is now seeing a rapid growth in investments and new groups of people moving in, it is still hard for the city to make ends meet.
This is very visible when you look at the city’s work on sustainability. The Mayor’s Office for Sustainability is very small, and they have to focus their work on getting other city departments to deliver and integrate sustainability and climate change adaptation into their mainstream work.
The lack of funds has also played an important role in the city’s approach to storm water management. Faced with demands from the EPA to reduce overflows from the combined sewer system and to some extent building on the experience that had been done in Portland, Philadelphia launched a plan called “Green City, Clean Waters” in 2011, proposing that they move from grey infrastructure to green infrastructure to manage storm water. One of the very strong arguments for this was the business case. A grey infrastructure-based solution would have cost in the vicinity of 30 billion dollars, while the green infrastructure solution was only a fraction of this at less than 3 billion dollars.
Nonetheless, because the focus is still only on the economic aspects of the storm water management, the city has so far not been able to fully utilize the added effects of working with green infrastructure. This has begun to change in a few examples where thinking across sectors created novel opportunities for collaboration. One example of this is in schools throughout the city, where a project on creating new green schoolyards was combined to meet storm water management goals. In this way, storm water management resources can co-finance part of the improvement, making it possible to rebuild more schoolyards and allowing the city’s storm water system to handle more water at the same time.
The green infrastructure is also more resilient to climate change. Philadelphia will be seeing more extreme weather, and with more heat and more extreme rain, the city will have to go looking for ways to cope with this reality.
So far, the city’s climate adaptation work has just begun. The Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Agency has been working directly with the various sectors to ask a series of simple questions: “how would changes in the weather pattern affect you? And how much would certain type of events cost you? And what could you do to prevent damages?”
And unlike the other cities that I have visited on this trip, climate change adaptation is much more present in what the city is doing. For example, the city is working on an ambitious outreach program to property owners and residents in flooding zones, and are also able to provide financial support for the installation of sewer backflow prevention in basements because they have been able to prove that these changes have a high return on investment.
So what is the main lesson for Copenhagen from Philadelphia? There are two main issues:
Lesson number one: You can actually achieve a lot with very little money. This can be done through integrated planning to make sure that every dollar that you do spend is spent for more than one purpose.
Lesson number two: Taking your time also has its benefits because it gives you time to be more thorough. In Copenhagen, we have been in a hurry because we have experienced a number of severe flooding events. This has meant that we have not mapped out the risks across sectors or created vulnerability assessments as Philadelphia has. This is something that I am going to take back home and try to include in our future work.
Lykke Leonardsen is head of the City of Copenhagen’s Climate United within the Technical and Environmental Administration and a 2014-2015 Urban and Regional Policy Fellow. As a fellow, she is currently researching emerging best practices for climate adaptation measures in four U.S. cities. She will travel to Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; New York City, NY; and Philadelphia, PA, focusing specifically on what these cities are doing in the fields of storm water management and costal protection. This is the third of several blog posts from Lykke on her travel and research.
Pictured above: tree planters and swale at the Franklin Institute.in Philadelphia.
 Per the EPA’s definition, “Gray infrastructure refers to traditional practices for stormwater management and wastewater treatment, such as pipes and sewers. Green infrastructure refers to sustainable pollution reducing practices that also provide other ecosystem services.” http://www.epa.gov/research/NRMRL/wswrd/wq/stormwater/green.html
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.