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The Opportunity for Green Stormwater Infrastructure in Philadelphia’s Rebuild Initiative

by Lena Smith

By combining the goals of Green City, Clean Waters and the Rebuild Community Infrastructure (Rebuild) Initiative, Philadelphia can align two major infrastructure investments and multiply its investment in its residents, our neighborhoods, and the environment.

The Rebuild Initiative, made possible by the Philadelphia Beverage Tax, is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in physical improvements to our neighborhood parks, recreation centers, and libraries. From a list of more than 400 eligible sites, the Rebuild office is prioritizing neighborhoods that face high rates of poverty, drug crime, and poor health outcomes. It is selecting facilities where investment will promote community development and stabilization, as well as sites that are in extremely poor condition. It is currently moving forward on revitalizing more than 50 sites.

In addition to making physical improvements to these sites, Rebuild prioritizes engaging community members in the site planning and design process as well as promoting diversity and economic inclusion through small business and workforce development initiatives. 

Parks, recreation centers, and libraries offer many social and community benefits. Libraries create opportunities for learning and access to important services. Parks and recreation centers are areas where neighbors gather for play, exercise, social interaction and other leisure activities. They also serve as safe spaces for our city’s residents. Studies have shown that having access to parks or green space can reduce stress and contribute to improved general psychological health and well-being for people who live or work nearby. 

Rebuild represents a major investment in our city and its people. Another major city investment – Green City, Clean Waters – creates very similar tangible benefits for residents while also creating a cleaner and more resilient environment. Green City, Clean Waters is Philadelphia’s 25-year stormwater management program initiated in 2011 that invests primarily in green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) to manage combined sewer overflows. As stormwater runs off roads, parking lots, and roofs it picks up oil, dirt, and other pollutants that make their way to storm drains.

Approximately sixty percent of Philadelphia’s storm drain system is a combined system that mixes stormwater with household wastewater. Most large storms cause untreated sewage to overflow directly into local rivers and creeks. The Philadelphia Water Department defines GSI as a “soil-water-plant system that intercepts stormwater, infiltrates a portion of it into the ground, evaporates a portion of it into the air, and in some cases releases a portion of it slowly back into the sewer system.” GSI tools reduce pollution and flooding events by naturally slowing and filtering rainwater before it enters the city’s stormwater system.

Green City, Clean Waters’ cornerstone is the tangible benefits beyond Clean Water Act compliance that other approaches cannot achieve. GSI implementation has the potential to accomplish substantial triple bottom line benefits— economic, social, and environmental. GSI creates community green space, revitalizes vacant lots, enhances recreational use, and even has the potential to reduce illegal drug use in public spaces. It decreases heat stress and energy use while improving air quality and contributing to climate change resiliency. It also stabilizes property values and reduces poverty through job creation. 

The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), the agency tasked with implementing Green City, Clean Waters, exerts minimal direct control over city property. PWD cannot accomplish all necessary public GSI projects without strong partnerships with other city agencies and stakeholder communities. Parks and recreation centers are more than just the physical buildings – they are situated on impervious surfaces and open spaces, thereby providing ideal opportunities to manage stormwater with GSI.

While the Rebuild Initiative process includes a commitment to sustainability, communities can advocate for GSI projects that provide additional benefits. The Rebuild Initiative is prioritizing community engagement to inform the improvements made to facilities. Public participation in GSI and parks and recreation center design is essential for achieving the positive community benefits they are expected to create.

Residents can advocate for GSI in the Rebuild Initiative by attending Rebuild community engagement events, meeting with park advisory committees, friends groups, and civic associations, requesting GSI be implemented in design plans, meeting with their city council members to discuss Rebuild investment, and writing a letter to the editor in support of GSI investment in their Rebuild site.

Green Stormwater Infrastructure is integral to Philadelphia’s economy, environment, and social equity. If you agree, please sign our petition here, which will be delivered to city council.


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