Philadelphia’s Green Victory: From Underdog to Champion

by | Nov 14, 2011

These days, plenty of cities are vying for the title of Greenest City. While obvious ones come to mind include Portland, Oregon, one underdog is fast emerging as a category leader.

The best kept secret in the Northeast” was what one friend called Philadelphia when I bought a home here after living in Florida. Like a tree sprouting green leaves from every branch, Philly has a vast network of sustainable businesses, buildings, and initiatives.  Taking into account the number of green jobs, The Brookings Institute ranked Philadelphia as the 5th largest clean economy of the nation’s 100 largest metros, even beating out San Francisco at #6.

How does it all happen?  It starts with commitment and leadership from the top. Mayor Michael Nutter pledged in his January 2008 inaugural address, to make Philadelphia the number one green city in America. To make good on his pledge, he created the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability (MOS).  This office is an active office at the forefront of all of the city’s efforts, working with all city departments and the community.

The city then created a Plan, follows the plan, measures results, reassesses, updates, and then again follows the plan.  The MOS Greenworks is the city’s progress plan focuses on 14 target areas, which are reported on each spring. Two years into the plan, the city has achieved an average of 44% of its total targeted goals.

The city’s Green City, Clean Waters program is Philadelphia’s 25-year plan to protect and enhance watersheds by managing storm water with innovative green infrastructure.  This will protect and enhance the region’s waterways by managing storm water runoff to significantly reduce reliance on construction of additional underground infrastructure.  In effect, investing in green storm water infrastructure solutions to reseed what are currently our impervious watershed hardscapes.

The plan will create a green legacy for future generations while incorporating a balance between ecology, economics, and equity. “Lead with the green” is the phrase Joanne Dahme, Philadelphia Water Department’s Manager of Public Affairs uses when discussing Green City, Clean Waters, explaining that Philadelphia’s plan is “revolutionary” and is “probably the first city in the country to really take this green approach as a primary approach.”

Another program announced in December of 2010, Green 2015, is a bold plan to transform 500 acres of empty or underused land into publicly accessible green space in neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia over the next five years.

Philadelphia has put out a big welcome mat to green and sustainable businesses to make their home in the region.  Companies such as the Mark Group a UK based home energy retrofit company, chose its US location to be in Philadelphia. The Mark Group looked at many cities before selecting Philadelphia and selected Philadelphia based on the strong energy efficiency policy in Pennsylvania, the housing stock, and the location. Governor Rendell and Mayor Nutter worked closely with their teams to select their office and connect with local job-training agencies.  CEO Jeff Bartos said at a recent sustainable business presentation that, “The personal involvement, and interest of Governor Rendell and Mayor Nutter made a significant difference as we evaluated where to locate the office.”

Philadelphia is the first city in the country to adopt a financial incentive for sustainable businesses by giving tax breaks to businesses that pass the B Corp Rating System for sustainability.  Other organizations supporting green businesses include the Sustainable Business Network and the Greater Philadelphia Green Business Program.

Other large green/sustainable businesses in the region include B Lab, MPC, Sun and Earth, and Terracycle, (Trenton, NJ).  Smaller green and sustainable businesses are too numerous to mention, but as an example on move-in day I was able to walk one block to Red Hook, a coffee shop with organic coffee and gluten free options, have a vegan sloppy joe sandwich for lunch at Royal Tavern, 3 blocks away.  Then bring my clothes to a Green Village Cleaners, one block away.  I was able to get a low-cost home energy audit and find a painting company that uses no-VOC paints and car-sharing vehicles to get around.  Philly even has two car-sharing programs.

Green businesses translate into green jobs.  A recent Pew Research study says Pennsylvania is third in the nation in the number of green jobs.  A network of private and public resources that attracts growing companies supports Philadelphia’s clean technology sector.  Green jobs in the region are diversified and require many skills and education. The Energy Coordinating Agency, a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to help people save energy and to promote a sustainable and socially equitable energy future for all in the Philadelphia region, provides green jobs training and education.  Green Jobs Philly is a grass roots green jobs resource in the region.

One area of green jobs is in building and construction.  In addition to over 103 LEED registered residential, office and retail projects, Philadelphia is 9th in ranking of cities and is home to one of the highest number of green roofs in the nation, with a Green Roof Tax Credit available since 2007.  PECO, the local electric company also has a rebate for white roofs.

Construction waste disposal is a significant problem in the US, but solutions abound in Philadelphia with companies such as Revolution Recovery, a construction waste disposal business that, since 2008 kept 63,000 tons out of landfills, added 38 jobs to the local economy and completed waste management for 250 LEED projects.

CitiesAlive, the only conference in North American devoted to the green roof and wall industry, chose Philadelphia for its 2011 conference and Greenbuild 2013, the annual green building conference will be held in Philadelphia.

In Philly it’s easy to get to a green job in a green way.  Planned before the automobile, center city Philadelphia is designed for walking.  Over half of center city residents walk to work. ranks Philadelphia at #5 in the nation for “walkability”. In June 2009, Mayor Nutter laid the policy foundation for a transportation system that balances the needs of all users with the Complete Streets Executive Order. It directs all City departments and agencies to give full consideration to the safety and convenience of all users of the transportation system, whether pedestrians, bicyclists, public transit users or motor vehicle drivers.

Target 12 of the City’s Greenworks Plan aims to reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled by 10%. Part of this plan is the network of bike lanes that criss-cross the city.  The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reports that Philadelphia has, per capita, twice as many bicycle commuters as any other big city in the US. Between 2000 and 2009, the percentage of workers who bike to work counted by the US Census grew by 151 percent.

The city’s integrated transportation system features a network of an extensive public transit system (bus, subway, trolley and regional rail), an international airport (accessible by train to center city), the largest freshwater port in the world, and highways.

Forty-six million people live within a 200-mile radius; the City is within a 5-hour drive of 25% of the US population and a 2-hour flight from half of the US population.

Residents and visitors have access to world-class entertainment, dining, retail, medical care and education.  Home to so many “firsts” – the first library, first hospital and medical school, first zoo, first department store, first Thanksgiving Day Parade and more, the city continues today with innovation and its commitment to sustainability.

But sustainability also means an individual’s ability to earn a good income that is not eaten up by the high cost of city living.  Philadelphia offers livable neighborhoods with affordable housing.  In comparison to the other major Northeast cities, Philadelphia’s cost of living is 30% lower than New York City, 14% lower than Boston, and 20% less than Washington, DC.

According to the Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, car ownership costs are the second largest household expense in the U.S. with an average cost of $10,000/yr.  Philadelphia’s walkability, car-sharing programs, bike lanes and mass transit easily allow one to live car-less.

The local population even supports a successful sustainability magazine, Grid Magazine, which inspires the people of Philadelphia to create a more just, livable and sustainable city. Beyond the helpful how-to’s, GRID explains complex issues — whether they be economic, environmental, social — in a straightforward and easy to understand way.

A smart combination of fun, affordability, central location, access to medical care and top-notch higher education, livability and a commitment to sustainability, Philadelphia is positioned to be the greenest city in the US for many years to come.

Nancy Schneider is a consultant for EarthPeople.

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