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Building Resilience: Strategies to create a sustainable future for Philadelphia
Philly

Building Resilience: Strategies to create a sustainable future for Philadelphia

4 takeaways from Penn’s Future of Cities conference

By 2050, nearly 90 percent of the U.S. population is projected to live in urban areas. Expanding cities will dramatically transform biodiverse landscapes, increase energy demands, and worsen climate stressors. What solutions are available to address these challenges?

That question was on the minds of experts at the Wharton-Weitzman Future of Cities Conference, hosted this month at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here are four of their ideas for how Philadelphia can position itself for a more resilient, sustainable future.

Work with nature, not against it.

In addition to being a major contributor to climate change, urbanization can have devastating effects on biodiversity. Invertebrates, which are essential to human life, are particularly at risk, according to Gena Wirth, a landscape architect and design principal at SCAPE Landscape Architecture in New York City.

“Humans are dramatically intervening in some of these ecological systems in ways we don’t have any idea about,” Wirth said.

But urban designers like Wirth are also leveraging the intersection of the built and natural worlds for services like heat island reduction, stormwater management, pollination, and carbon sequestration.

One of SCAPE’s projects, called Living Breakwaters, offers a layered approach to risk reduction — aiming to enhance physical, ecological, and social resilience along the South Shore of Staten Island, which is especially vulnerable to storm surge. The project incorporates sloped rock formations, or so-called “reef streets,” that break waves and reduce erosion of the beach, while providing habitat for oysters, fish, and other marine species.

“Thinking in a more nuanced way about our landscapes…beyond whether they’re green or planted… cities can be much more expansive and embrace the many kinds of landscapes that exist in our world,” Wirth said.

Think beyond electric vehicles.

As advocates push for the greater adoption of electric vehicles and cities seek to electrify their bus fleets, Laura Culp said she remains a “healthy skeptic” about how big of a difference the change could make.

“Is it really solving the problem, or is it just kind of changing the problem?” said Culp, planning manager for Bicycle Transit Systems, which operates Philly’s Indego bike share system. “We are solving the problem of emissions to an extent, but did we really solve what made our country so car-centric in the first place?”

Reducing pollution (and the many other issues that accompany car-centric, dense cities) will require a culture shift, Culp said, and that means making other means of transportation more accessible to more people.

Indego and SEPTA collaborate, for example, to build bike docking stations in places that make sense for transit riders, and the two systems are exploring the possibility of fare integration in the future. Though the latter idea is easier to dream about than to implement, admitted SEPTA Data Policy Manager Grant Engel.

“From my understanding, there are two very willing parties that come to the table, and they come with two very different toolsets and find out that they don’t have any connection or relationship to each other,” Engel said. “The best we can do before overhauling the current assets we do have for fare payment are workarounds.”

But there’s at least one big change for Indego on the horizon: Culp said the system is looking to bring back the Single Ride option in the future, which went away in 2018. The last time the option was available, a 30-minute Single Ride pass cost riders $4.

“At this point, being able to provide SEPTA and Indego as complements to each other is really our goal,” Culp said.

Invest in public space and preparedness.

As extreme weather events continue to increase, public spaces often must play “double duty” —  absorbing rainwater, providing heat protection, and providing other ecological benefits, while still serving as places for gathering or respite.

“That means that our city tax dollars don’t go as far, and we do have to lean on the private sector,” said Meera Joshi, deputy mayor of operations for the City of New York.

While there are also several federal mechanisms for funding urban green projects, Joshi said she’d like to see federal formula dollars — which allocate funding to recipients based on formulas set by Congress — go toward resiliency initiatives in all 50 states.

“We have to compete each time to do big resiliency projects, like creating sea walls and bluebelts… if it’s a Whac-A-Mole system to compete for these dollars, it’s very difficult for large urban environments to plan accordingly,” Joshi said.

Currently, she said, more federal dollars are spent repairing the damage after disaster strikes, rather than preventing it.

“We need a collective acknowledgment that building isn’t just about building anymore,” Joshi said, “it’s also about protection.”

Build community trust.

Philadelphia Parks and Recreation’s Urban Forestry Unit manages over 10,000 acres of parkland and 117,000 street trees.

A year ago, the city launched its Philly Tree Plan — a 10-year strategic plan for how to grow the urban forest equitably and to work with residents to combat climate change.

When creating the plan, the project team mapped priority areas of the city (using income levels, heat indexes, health outcomes, and other indicators), and recruited 22 community members from those areas to be ambassadors for the tree program in their neighborhoods in exchange for a stipend. The ambassadors completed 62 peer interviews in total, and the project team spoke to about 850 additional residents at community meetings.

“We were not having the ambassadors go prophesize about how great trees were to their neighbors. We wanted them to tell us what were the challenges their friends and neighbors were encountering,” said Erica Smith-Fichman, community forestry manager, for Philly Parks & Rec.

She emphasized that people in the city understand that trees have value. What they need, she said, is for the City to be a trusted community partner when thinking about planting and maintaining trees, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

“They need for the City to maintain the trees it has and to build trust, so that they will be more confident and comfortable in having trees planted around their property,” Smith-Fichman said. “Because trees have costs, and some of them are surprise costs. We have a city with over a quarter of residents living under the poverty line, and people cannot afford to have those surprise costs.”


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Lauren Ingeno is a Philly-based freelance writer and editor who covers science, health, and humans. She is a mother to one mischievous tabby cat, and in her spare time enjoys dancing, finding the best sandwiches in Philadelphia, and being in and around water. Follow her on Twitter (@laureningeno) and subscribe to her newsletter: stopgap.substack.com. View all posts by Lauren Ingeno
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