City Rising 5: How Philly is Combatting Climate Change with Christine Knapp
On this episode of City Rising, we explore what local government is doing to mitigate the impacts of climate change, while positively engaging all communities. Cities are stepping up where the federal government is letting us down. Our guest, Christine Knapp is the Executive Director for the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability (OOS), works with partners to improve quality of life in all neighborhoods, reduce the City’s carbon emissions, and prepare Philadelphia for a hotter, wetter future. Tune in to this episode to learn from the City of Philadelphia’s sustainability leader:
- How Philadelphia is positioned and will adapt to climate change
- Ways cities are stepping up when the federal government steps down
- How Christine Knapp created her own position (by accident…)
- Specific steps Philadelphia is taking to reduce its carbon emissions
- Ways Philly is engaging schools and the next generation
- OOS’s Strategy for public engagement
- The “secret society” of city leaders forwarding climate solutions
- The shocking difference in degrees of how much hotter one neighborhood can be than another
- How voters are demanding sustainable changes in Denver?
CITY RISING EPISODE 5: How Philly is Tackling Climate Change with Christine Knapp, director, office of sustainability
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EPISODE five OF CITY RISING – how philly is tackling climate change
We’ve transcribed City Rising to help make the message more accessible.
Julie Hancher: Welcome to city rising, a podcast that compares how different cities are working towards climate solutions. I’m Julie Hancher, Co-founder and editor with Green Philly,
Brady Halligan: and I’m Brady Halligan, the director of strategy and business development with the green program. Our goal is to chat with diverse stakeholders about our changing environment on how it connects people planet and creates future opportunities.
Julie Hancher: Green Philly is a website that helps you live a more sustainable lifestyle by making sustainability simple, accessible, and fun. Find recycling tips, news about local change makers and upcoming events by visiting thegreencities.wpengine.com.
Brady Halligan: Christine, welcome and thanks for joining us today.
Christine Knapp: Thank you for having me.
Brady Halligan: Of course. I’m excited to have you shed some light on our home. City is responding and preparing to climate change. So with that, could you start by introducing yourself to the city rising listeners and maybe touch a little bit on your career path. What led you to this position or why this work so important?
Christine Knapp: I’m the director of the office of sustainability. I’ve been in the position for about two and a half years. I came in with Mayor Kenny at the beginning of the administration, and my career path is interesting. My little anecdote about how I ended up here is that I actually was an environmental advocate and policy person for a long time and I actually advocated for the creation of this office when I was running a campaign called next great city around the 2007 mayors race. I’m pushing the mayoral candidates to adopt a sort of environmental and community quality of life platform that included making a centralizing office to implement this work. So I essentially created my job eight years before I took it over. Perfect. So, next time I would ask for a bigger office, so yeah, I spent most of my career in environmental policy and advocacy at this point, most of those years in nonprofit sometime at an academic institution and then in the last about six years in city government.
Christine Knapp: So I worked at the water department previously right to coming into this position. So it’s been sort of my career passion this far. It’s been interesting to see the work. I’m sort of evolve and change since we didn’t have the word sustainability when I first started working on what we now call sustainability. , so just the terminology, the sort of professionalization of the work and a lot of ways the building of networks across cities, which I know we’ll talk a little bit more about. , so it’s been a fascinating ride. Yeah. Creating your own job. Yeah.
Brady Halligan: A Nice route especially to lead the whole sustainability initiatives in the city. That’s an incredible background. And , that leads right into my first question. So, it’s been the 10 year anniversary of the establishment of the sustainability of Philadelphia which was launched during the Mayor Nutter’s administration. I think this was also the time our team came down to Philadelphia was real exciting time for sustainability, not just in Philadelphia but what was happening, but since then it’s been a little rollercoaster ups and downs in the sustainability world, severe weather. And he just like the past couple of weeks, how many thunderstorms you’ve had for like three weeks straight to causes with complications and health and what that does to of course the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris climate agreements. But negativity aside, cities have stepped up. So what are some of the positives are coming at a Philadelphia and what can we celebrate?
Christine Knapp: I think your point is important that there’s a silver lining in some of the inaction or respect steps of our federal government, which is that cities and states and the private sector are all really stepping up in ways that I don’t think they saw as much urgency around doing a couple of years ago. Yeah. , so if everyone who is stepping up now continues that aggressive implementation and then our federal government also become sane and starts taking action we’ll be in a better position ultimately then if we were just all relying on the federal government to sort of take care of it for us. So there is a silver lining in that. I’m in Philly we’re, I, I also say this a lot to people to give them some, some ability to sleep well at night, which is Philadelphia is well positioned to ride through climate change.
Christine Knapp: We know we’re not a coastal city so when you look at our flood maps and our projections for sea level rise in comparison to Boston or in New York or DC or Baltimore we’re, we’re much better position. We still will of course have some flooding issues and sea level rise issues to address and we are beginning work to do that. But that’s that’s less of a problem for us and we do have heat impacts in the city we already sees or disparities and heat. , but we, we know a little bit more about how that is distributed in some solutions to address that. So I just want people to recognize that, like our city once had 3 million people, so we have room to grow. We have will likely be the recipients of climate refugees which would mean our city could grow sort of back to where we once were.
Christine Knapp: And I think I personally like to see cities grow with their more sustainable places for people to live. So it’ll be interesting to see how that helps Philadelphia continue to thrive and create economic opportunity for our residents. So there’s a lot of positivity in there just from the Philadelphia side. Now it’s going to be hard to watch wildfires and droughts and all the devastation that comes with climate change. So we also need to be doing our part as everyone is to reduce, are the our contributions towards climate change and there’s a lot that we’re doing right now that I’m really excited about. , we last year done a lot of energy planning that underpins our commitments. You, American, he has sort of said we’re still in the Paris climate agreement. We’re going to try to meet those goals. So we’ve done this energy planning to figure out what it looks like for Philadelphia to meet those goals and now really starting to implement some of those projects.
Christine Knapp: A huge $11,000,000 energy efficiency project. The Philadelphia Muse of art just kicked off last month. , this fall we hope to sign a contract with a power purchase agreement which would provide between 20 and 40 percent of the municipals electricity need from a renewable provider, so a solar farm or wind farm will develop somewhere in the state and, or the region and we’ll buy it directly from them and then we’ll get success and do it again and hit a hundred percent and then also teach others how to do the same so we can get other universities and institutions to also do that. And a really increased the amount of renewables that a feed the city,
Brady Halligan: a lot of positivity coming out. And that’s why I’m excited to have you talked about this stuff because a lot of times the sustainability world, it can be quite depressing , when, when everything you’re going up against can be negativity, negativity, complex issues are so many different stakeholders, so many different public opinions and things which I know, firsthand. , but you have to celebrate the small wins and you’ve got to keep pushing forward. And I just love also how you’re, you’re looking future. We are going to have climate refugees, we are going to have some flooding issues were the strategic location. These are all really great topics. , so switching gears a bit, I want to dive into a little specifics of something that, that I love. , and one of the recent initiatives that your office came out with a green futures, which from my understanding takes aim at the school district of Philadelphia inspiring the next generation sustainability leaders. , And I actually even saw on the front page of the recent and Green works review the highlight of sustainability books for kids. That’s like in the middle of the review. Yeah. I love that. Yeah. Education my background really. I think that’s crucial in this from educating the older generations, the workforce, but then also starting young. Right? So what do you hope to accomplish with the green future strategy?
Christine Knapp: , so yeah, it’s the, it’s what Whitney Houston always says children are our future. , but like when I, when I first started doing environmental outreach and education in 2002 , I got to a point where I was very frustrated and I kind of said I don’t want to talk to adults about the recycling anymore. I just want to teach kids how to recycle so that in 15 years there are adults who are recycle and then we’ll just eventually everyone will know how to recycle because they’ve, they were taught it when they were young. And that I think that is just essentially the real way that we need to tackle this is kids absorb information and behaviors like recycling are so much about habit that once you learn them you basically just carry it with you through your whole life.
Christine Knapp: And then they do come home and they annoy their parents too. And so they, there’s a sort of secondary learning that happens that way. So it’s really critical that the school district be a partner in this, not only for the curriculum but so that they’re also implementing sustainability in their buildings. And facilities and their own sort of climate contributions as well. So green features really attempts to do both in terms making sure the school district is as a stainable as an entity, but is also teaching and instilling sustainability values into teaching as well. And, if again, if we do that well then our jobs will be a lot easier in the future. Exactly.
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So another, switching gears to something that I think is really important in your possession and I’ve witnessed it is just the strategy for public engagement, since your leadership and the office of sustainability. , I’ve witnessed it firsthand coming to , different educational opportunities, your, your open public sessions that you had for the different reviews which I’ve attended. Would you Facebook live streams so clearly trying to get outside the, the sustainability circles, which a lot of the events and things can, can draw the same and we need to educate past that and engage people. You’re updating the websites reports. So talk to me about the public engagement and this feedback loop has become such a key focal point from, from your strategy and , any pros and cons
Christine Knapp: that come from that? Yeah. So we, I think we made sense for our office in its early years to really focus internally. Again, you’re not going to go and preach to others to go do things that your, as an entity not doing yourself. Right. So there was a huge opportunity to make sure the city had its policies and processes in place to be able to come from a place of leadership on sustainability. And so with limited pretty small staff, I think the staff was really kind of like one and a half people with limited resources focusing there made sense. It’s also on sort of energy efficiency front a way to save some money for the city and show the value of sustainability from that side of the world to, to get more buy in for more actors. So but , as time went on and the city became more, more sustainable on its own practices we’re hearing from more and more people like, well, what about us, how do we help you achieve these goals?
Christine Knapp: And we updated Greenworks for the 2016 plan. We, that was one of the major messages that we heard from, whether it’s from community groups or sort of more of the issue experts. Everybody felt like the office really should be playing a larger role in educating and engaging more people are on this. And we already had the inclination that that was what we were going to do too. But it’s nice to have that sort of echoed back to us. So so that’s what we’ve really been trying to do. We just hired in May, our first communications and outreach person in our office. So we’re excited to have her on board and she’s sort of starting to frame out what plan really will look like. , she comes to us or her name’s Sierra Williams. She comes to us from your arts where she was running their trash academy.
Christine Knapp: So she has a lot of background in community engagement around using art and sort of games and creativity to engage people , starting with trash, but that, that can lead to other conversations about what they’d like to see in their community and what they, their vision is and how sustainability can help them achieve those visions. So I think she’s gonna know, really help us figure out how to bring this work out to the communities and engage more and different types of people in it. Then have historically been involved. And that’s really the sort of why, right? We, we don’t when I’m just by talking to the same couple hundred people. We only win when everybody in the city as her rowing in the same direction and we need action from businesses, from institutions, from residents, from legislators it’s all in all above strategy.
Christine Knapp: So we feel like government can play a role and we are playing our, our role. , we can do more too, but we kind of need more people to join in with us. The downside, I will say this, you didn’t ask about ups and downs, is we’re still a small office. , we are, we’ve grown substantially from one and a half people, but we’re still relatively small. We have about 10 person staff. So even if we all did engagement all day long to reach one point 5 million people it’s a lot. So we, we really need partners like you and others to help us spread the word, to take on some of the engagement work and education work. And that’s great because we are seeing more, more people stepping up and doing that.
Brady Halligan: Fantastic. And that’s why we wanted to have you here on city rising podcast trying different ways to reach new people and get them engaged in however we can do that. That’s, that’s the whole point because we want to see our city move forward in a sustainable light and prepare for what’s to come. So more on the positivity. So what is your personal favorite program or initiative that your office has completed or is currently working on? , and then flipping it, what’s the hardest sustainability challenge that Philadelphia is facing?
Christine Knapp: My favorite thing we’re working on right now is a heat projects. So we’ve mapped average surface temperature is in the city by census block and so we can see down to that level of detail how hot some neighborhoods are compared to others. And the difference between the hottest and the coolest neighborhoods can be as much as 22 degrees. , which , is astounding for a lot of people. And I don’t think people who even live in those hottest neighborhoods know that because they’re just hot. It’s summertime; we’re all hot, right? You don’t know in relative comparison to another neighborhood of mile away how much hotter you are. , and when we layer the that, the, that map with demographic information, we also see that those are predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods. So we know there’s a racial inequity that’s being distributed through that heat is being experienced differently.
Christine Knapp: So this project picked one of those neighborhoods. We also mapped vulnerability on it to see where people live who are most prone to vulnerability, so people, chronic diseases, asthma, obesity, cardiovascular disease, as well as other demographic information like income or age that would be likely to make them vulnerable. , and we focused in on one community that was both high heat and high vulnerability in hunting park in North Philadelphia. And we have a fellow that we got grant funding to bring on who’s doing basically a big community engagement process there to understand how are people, was sort of two, two elements of it. One is how are people currently coping with heat and what can the city or others do to help better that community? their ability to cope with high heat. And these can be very simple things like having cooling centers better located or have better programs so people would actually want to go to a cooling center.
Christine Knapp: and then secondly, what do they like would like to see in their community in the long-term that could actually help make it cooler, which would be more, big-ticket items like tree plantings, cool roof installations, green infrastructure of any kind. we don’t want to just go feet first into a strategy like saying everyone’s gonna get a million trees in this neighborhood and then find out this community isn’t really want those trees, they’re not going to take care of them. They’re going to die. And then we have wasted everyone’s time and money and trying that strategy. , or maybe the community doesn’t want trees now, but through this engagement process will understand how tree canopy can help with the heat. And maybe there’ll be a different feeling about trees and there’ll be more accepted. So there are a number of really great partners in hunting park that are helping to lead this. There’s Esperanza, there’s a Lenfest center, the North Tenth Revitalization Project, a hunting park, united in hunting park, Nac, all these community groups, they’ve been doing this work for years, right. , so we’re just bringing them some additional data and resources and information and they’re, but they’re the ones who really telling us what’s been going on in the community and what they need, which is great. So it’s without those partners, this project wouldn’t be happening.
Brady Halligan: A perfect segue into my next question partners and collaboration. , I would think that collaboration is pretty key for, for this type of work and you’ve said that through , get shedding some light on some of the initiatives you’re working on, but , are you looking to any other cities, national or international to learn from, to even collaborate or share what you’re working on so then they can adapt to new, what do you think?
Christine Knapp: Yeah, we’re really lucky to be a part of the urban sustainability directors network. If we call it [inaudible] for short. And it grew from a handful of cities that were sort of early adopters and creating a sustainability director office that were kind of talking to each other like, Hey, what are you doing and what’s my job? How do I go about this work up to now it’s 175 cities in the US and parts of Canada. , and I’m sure when you talked to Chris Castro, he’ll mention it as well. It’s an amazing resource for sustainability offices because again, we’re the people who are doing this kind of work and can have the best information and understanding of what we’re all going through both from like a therapy side of the world, but also a practical best practices access. So the network is really that.
Christine Knapp: It’s a network where we share our successes, our failures. We have an annual meeting that’s actually coming up in October where we all get together for a couple days and have sessions. There’s working groups around specific topic areas. There’s innovation funds that they make available. So if a couple of cities want to get together and work on a project collaboratively, there’s some funds to help them do that. So it’s , yeah, it’s really fantastic and it really opens your eyes to what people are doing well that you can replicate. I always tell people to not get bogged down in the like what cities more sustainable sort of list, know thing that always. Yeah. Everyone likes to try to do, to compete and , if there is a competition amongst cities, it’s a very friendly one because we all want the same thing. , and we’re like, it’s a very open door policy so if I do something good, someone’s more than happy to steal it.
Christine Knapp: but , there are cities that of course for different reasons have, are better positioned around different areas. So a couple of I would point out is Boston has had this green ribbon commission for a number of years that’s really led by a foundation and a private sector interests that’s really aligned with the mayor’s office. So it’s got a lot of really high level leadership. I’m pushing behind it to get the whole city moving in towards their sustainability goals. So that’s a commission structure that we’ve often looked at and thought about maybe trying to replicate something like that here. , Seattle has a really wonderful equity program and they’ve created and a community advisory board made up of entirely of people of color to give advice into their sustainability office about sort of how they can use a better racial equity lens on the office’s work and how their work impacts communities of color.
Christine Knapp: So we’re an observing city on a little innovation grant that around that to see sort of, again, if there’s something we wanted to try to replicate here, what we can learn from that. I’m just recently on a more sort of legislative policy level. Denver passed a legislation by voter referenda that every building in the city had to have a green roof and the no one, no one in the sort of policy work, like any of the official decision makers didn’t really think that was feasible, but it was again, voter referenda. So the voters just said do it. And then everyone had to figure out how to feasibly make that work, so they ended up coming into a compromise where it’s not going to be just a green roof on every building, but it could be a solar roof or the building could be lead certified.
Christine Knapp: So they came up with a whole sort of menu of options that buildings should be doing more, was the bottom line and voters just went to green roofs because I think that something that’s very tangible and sort of trendy right now, but the idea was really that we just want buildings to be more better contributors to our climate goals. So that’s a really interesting model, that sort of menu that you don’t have to pre-assign the solution, you can let building developers decide what solution works best for them, but that there is many things that people can be doing and they should. So that’s something we’re looking to learn a little bit more about how that was done and what we can learn and see if we have an option to do something like that here as well. So yeah, there’s lots of cities that we learned from and try to steal from.
Brady Halligan: Yeah, you have to and the public voting to, to get something done and then forcing the government to look at things because that to me is a beautiful sign. Of course it’s in Denver, a little bit different, a little different, but I think that would work well in Philadelphia or something like that to, to allow the different communities to say let’s have this menu, let’s together develop the best options and get city government to work. Right. , so it’s an incredible thank you for joining us today on this. I’m on city rising podcast. I’m so if our listeners wanted to connect with your office, engaged with your office, learn more, get involved, actually do that.
Christine Knapp: well our website is phila.gov/green and you can sign up for our newsletter by sending an email to sustainability at Philadelphia. Have we’ve, we’re on Facebook, we’re on twitter, we’re on Instagram, so you can follow us any there and even places there. We have a pretty extensive events listing on our website as well, so, come out to an event. So yeah. Well, there’s opportunities to get involved, to learn more or to come to events and everyone should do that. They should. Thank you very much for having me.
Brady Halligan: Thanks for tuning into city rising. We hope this podcast helps you understand how climate change is presenting opportunities in our urban environments. Check the show notes for links from today’s podcast. This podcast is brought to you. Thanks to funding from cusp, the climate and urban systems partnership. For more information, visit cusp project.org.