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How a Clean Water Program is Addressing Equity in Philadelphia

by Lena Smith
While testifying in front of Philadelphia City Council’s Joint Committees on Finance and Commerce and Economic Development about COVID-19 recovery strategies last week, I highlighted a strategy that Philadelphia can take to address the many interlocking crises the city is currently facing. 
Whether it’s the COVID-19 public health crisis, structural racism, economic downturn, or gun violence, one action can offer real solutions to them all: investing in green space. In particular, I sought to highlight how green space is addressing the structural inequality created by a practice known as redlining that black and brown neighborhoods were subject to during the 20th century. 
Redlining was a practice that began in the 1930’s where many banks in the U.S. denied mortgages to people, mostly people of color in urban areas, preventing them from buying a home in certain neighborhoods or getting a loan to renovate their house. The practice was once backed by the U.S. government and occurred in many of the nation’s largest cities with large minority populations. 
While the South had segregation and Jim Crow laws, the North had redlining. As part of the practice, financial firms, real estate agents and other parties demarcated geographic areas that were effectively off limits for issuing loans by literally using red ink to outline parts of the city. These areas were considered high risk of default. Riskier neighborhoods were predominantly Black and Latino, but also recently immigrated European groups like Jews and Italians.
Redlining has had a devastating long-term impact on U.S. urban areas and Black people particularly. Redlining allowed for the systematic denial of various services by federal government agencies, local governments, as well as the private sector. It has also had a lasting environmental impact. Redlined communities were often subject to air quality deterioration from urban highways, industrial plants and landfills. They are also more likely to experience extreme heats than other communities because of a phenomenon known as the Urban Heat Island effect.
The Urban Heat Island effect occurs in urbanized areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying neighborhoods because of a lack of green space and a high density in asphalt pavement and rooftops. The divestment from redlined neighborhoods also resulted in a lack of investment in green spaces from those same communities. In Philadelphia, these neighborhoods experience up to a 22 degree temperature difference during hotter months of the year. These neighborhoods also have a greater amount of impervious surface that produces a larger amount of stormwater pollution.
In 2011 when Philadelphia implemented their Green City, Clean Waters plan, they did so recognizing the opportunities to reverse some of the historical divestment from Philadelphia’s Black and Brown neighborhoods. Green City, Clean Waters is the City’s Combined Sewer Overflow Compliance program. When Philadelphia first constructed its wastewater and stormwater system over 200 years ago, before enactment of the Clean Water Act, they relied on a combined sewer system model. 
While combined sewer systems were the standard wastewater/stormwater management practice during that time, with the increase in impervious surface, growth, and development, the sewer system can no longer withstand the amount of stormwater runoff entering the system. Traditionally, the solution is to invest in the construction of large tunnels, storage tanks, and wastewater treatment plant upgrades. The costs associated with the traditional approach were estimated to cost about $8-10 billion and would rely on large infrastructure companies that typically bring in high skilled labor from outside of the region to construct the infrastructure.    
Green City, Clean Waters is a more cost effective alternative that is also bringing investment back to neighborhoods that often need it the most. The program relies on the implementation of green stormwater infrastructure - like rain gardens, tree trenches, and green roofs - to filter stormwater through plants, soil, and stones before it enters the combined sewer system. This water infrastructure investment is also creating green space and addressing the Urban Heat Island Effect.
Green City, Clean Waters provides approximately 1,000 local jobs annually and creates a $4 million economic impact - creating local jobs and building a robust regional green economy. Research shows that access to green space reduces crime and blight, increases opportunities to play and recreate, and improves mental and physical health. 
Green stormwater infrastructure may not be able to solve the entirety of structural racism and its impact on Philadelphians, but investing in this innovative approach to stormwater management is one way the city is seeking to address the harm caused by racist housing policies. 
PennFuture is a proud supporter of Green City, Clean Waters and the efforts the City of Philadelphia is taking to reinvest in historically neglected neighborhoods. Through it we are seeking to do our part in addressing racism and creating a healthier environment.

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