Christine Knapp on Philly’s green progress and where we need to go next.
Our exit interview with Christine Knapp asks about her time in office, as well as what the city needs for a sustainable future.
After six and a half years, Christine Knapp is stepping down as the Director of the Office of Sustainability. Under Knapp’s leadership, the city has seen the Climate Action Playbook, new iterations of Greenworks and addressing climate impacts from heating and flooding, to environmental justice, food waste and more.
We sat down with Knapp to ask about the highs and lows of her time in office, biggest accomplishments and advice for how to keep the City moving towards a sustainable future.
Green Philly: You became Director of the Office of Sustainability in 2016. What are your overall reflections of your journey?
Christine Knapp: It was my dream job that I had been working towards for a long time. It was a lot to take on, but I was grateful that I had that opportunity.
There’s been a lot of moments to keep revisiting, refining, and deepening the work in different ways that’s happened over that fairly eventful six and a half years of my time. I had a kid a year and a half into the job, so my work-life approach balance shifted then, and with the pandemic, everything shifted again. There were times to reflect on our work, like George Floyd’s death and revisiting our racial equity commitment.
What do you think has been one or some of the highlights working in your role as director in the Office of Sustainability?
Christine Knapp: Having the Trump administration come in about a year into the role and knowing that the federal landscape was not helpful. It wasn’t good. But it was helpful in getting cities to really be recognized as the champions in that moment. It helped galvanize support and resources behind the work of our office like the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge and other funders and organizations.
Some of the work I’m particularly proud of is the PGW transition work, which hasn’t gone quite as far as I would’ve liked it to go. Considering where we started, there are general agreements that things need to start shifting at PGW, and they’ve already got a financial commitment to a diversification project. It’s work that wasn’t even a pipe dream when I started and now has next steps that is transformative. Using natural gas is a big part of our carbon footprint, but also has health impacts and affordability impacts for people.
Having a chief resilience officer and launching the new resilience program, including the environmental justice commission, is impactful.
There’s almost too much that I could talk about.
What has been the most challenging in your role?
Christine Knapp: I have to say the pandemic, right? Like everything that came with it, working from home and not having sort of that in-person team. We had a big budget cut that year when we were originally supposed to see a major increase in the mayor’s second term for a resilience adaptation program. About two weeks later, all that got thrown out and went back to not only not having that, but having a cut on top of it and then having the zero away work went away. That was definitely the most challenging moment of my time.
Even from the first iteration of Greenworks, the city has added a lot of community assets like farmers’ markets, bike lanes, etc. What do you think are some things that Office of Sustainability accomplished that people may not know about?
Christine Knapp” You can no longer get plastic bags – whether people are happy or not as happy, that’s definitely something we hear a lot about from folks. We definitely play a behind-the-scenes role in the Philly Tree Plan and the urban agriculture plan helping to fundraise for both of those and then playing a key role in steering communities with both of those initiatives.
During heat events, SEPTA buses are deployed to specific locations where there aren’t libraries or other cooling centers. Our office brought that idea to the table in the summer of 2020 as a new way to help people stay cool.
You work with so many different people throughout your work. Who are some of the most inspirational people?
Christine Knapp: I was definitely inspired by Catherine Gajewski, my predecessor. I think she did an incredible job. As the first Sustainability Director, Catherine had the task of figuring out a way to work across departments without overburdening folks. I was both proud and intimidated to take over work from her, but she’s always been somebody that I respected a lot.
Working with Saleem, too. It’s so great to work alongside him for four years, learning from him and bouncing ideas off.
I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from many other folks in similar positions to mine across the country through the Urban Sustainability Directors network. That’s always been one of my favorite parts, learning what others are doing, seeing what challenges they face and how they overcame barriers that we can learn from.
What do you think Philadelphia needs for a sustainable future?
Christine Knapp: One of the things I’m recommending is what the Biden administration has been trying to do: a more “all of government” approach to climate work, so it’s not just the Office of Sustainability. Every department plays some role, and how do we institutionalize that? How can we deploy some of this work into other departments and use existing staffing?
The other is just the level of resources and level of funding that’s needed to really tackle this work. We’re starting to see other cities around the country passing really large bond initiatives or setting aside a specific tax to be driven into climate work. Those types of initiatives are looking at tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars in generation to really meet the scale of the problem.
The city budget is what it is, and it’s obviously always going to be tight. So, I think finding new and creative ways of financing more climate work will be a big challenge, especially with the resilience work.
Take flooding protection projects with huge price tag: They’re not going to fit into the Office of Sustainability’s existing budget. There will be some challenges there need to be tackled. Folks are already starting to recognize that.
What’s next in your career?
Christine Knapp: I’m not ready to talk about it yet. But I will.
What can Philadelphia residents do to help secure a sustainable future?
Christine Knapp: Whenever people ask me what the most important thing they can do for the environment is, I say they need to vote. If people want to see this work continue, local races are really going to be important for defining where this work goes. People should really be getting organized and motivated around these local elections – obviously, the midterms in November (i.e. the Pennsylvania governor and Senate).
If people want to see more climate work, they need to demand it from their electives at all levels. And I hope that I see some good activism going on from folks in the coming months.