September 29, 2009

It's Always Raining in Philadelphia
Or so it's seemed the last few months. And rain can be fun, except when it overloads your stormwater system and causes raw sewage to pour into your rivers. It took Grist to alert me to what's going on in my own backyard but now I know that Philly's got a plan:

Philadelphia has announced a $1.6 billion plan to transform the city over the next 20 years by embracing its storm water - instead of hustling it down sewers and into rivers as fast as possible.

The proposal, which several experts called the nation's most ambitious, reimagines the city as an oasis of rain gardens, green roofs, thousands of additional trees, porous pavement, and more.

The plan is a radical departure from the highly engineered tunnels and sewage plant expansions cities have traditionally opted for.

"This is the most significant use of green infrastructure I've seen in the country, the largest scale I've seen," said Jon Capacasa, regional director of water protection for the Environmental Protection Agency, which has the final say on whether the plan passes muster.

"We commend Philadelphia for breaking the ice," he said.

Apparently, cities around the country are waiting to see if the EPA gives the plan the greenlight; if so, this could be the start of a nationwide trend. And all it took was a little shift in perspective:

"Instead of figuring out how to manage this pollution, maybe we should be looking at how to prevent it in the first place," said Howard Neukrug, director of the Office of Watersheds in the Water Department. "Let's break down some of the barriers against nature and deal with rainwater where it lands."

The idea now is to "peel back" the city's concrete and asphalt and replace them with plants - with rain gardens, green roofs, heavily planted curb extensions, vegetated "swales" in parking lots, and mini-wetlands.

One of the most radical departures for city planners is this shift from "management" to "prevention." Instead just accepting that the city has to vastly increase its built infrastructure to handle the huge amount of stormwater runoff that currently exists (the prospect of which was, among other things, prohibitively expensive), Philly decided that it would attack the problem at the source. It's funny how that subtle shift in mindset leads to such a radical shift in policy. If we can apply this kind of thinking to other things like car usage or, oh, I don't know, carbon emissions, maybe we can make some real progress.

Photo credit: Cynthia Greer

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