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  • Rachel Aland
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PHL Makes It Look Easy Being Green

While Philadelphia’s recent designation as a World Heritage City will bring with it increased international attention, it has quietly been building a global reputation in an area that is invisible to most – green infrastructure. At last month’s Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange, a group of 40 area business and civic leaders toured sites along the Schuylkill River that are contributing to this growing green reputation.


Philadelphia has been in the vanguard of developing green infrastructure that uses vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage water and create healthier urban environments, especially in the area of stormwater management. It is the first city in the U.S. to meet state and federal water quality mandates through green interventions, applying an innovative, multi-pronged approach that utilizes green roofs, porous paving, and rain gardens in addition to stormwater retention facilities.


One impressive exhibition of the city’s approach to stormwater management can be found on the southern end of Venice Island, a sliver of land behind Manayunk’s Main Street bounded by the Schuylkill River and the Manayunk Canal. Manayunk is one of the few neighborhoods in Philadelphia with a separate sewer system for sanitary sewage and stormwater. Though a separate system is preferable to the combined sewer systems found throughout the city, due to the age of Manayunk’s infrastructure, its separate sewer system often fails during heavy rainfalls. Pollution of the Schuylkill and high risks of flooding in the area can result. To combat these issues, the Philadelphia Water Department partnered with the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation on a $45 million renovation project on Venice Island to ensure the future resiliency of Manayunk and cut back on pollutants flowing into the Schuylkill River.


While many of the Venice Island renovations—upgraded basketball courts, a sprayground, and a state-of-the art 250-seat theater—are highly visible, the most integral component of this 10-year undertaking—a four million gallon storage basin built to hold sewer system overflow—is out of sight underground. During heavy rainfall when water levels in the sewer system are over capacity, water is diverted into the tank. Once rain slows, the storage basin releases its contents back into the system where it continues on to a treatment facility. Other “invisible” subsurface structures on Venice Island include rain gardens and underground frameworks called silva cells that retain onsite stormwater. These are the kinds of stormwater management innovations that have garnered international praise for Philadelphia as a “sponge city” and drawn in visiting delegations from around the globe, including officials from the Netherlands, a country that has worked in flood control for centuries.


In another sphere of environmentally friendly infrastructure, the region’s growing network of cycling trails, yet to attract the same level of international attention, has world class aims. Only a short walk from Venice Island, the recently opened Manayunk Bridge pedestrian and bike trail acts as a critical connector in the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia’s vision for a 750-mile regional bike trail network known as The Circuit. As additional miles of bicycle lanes and trails are added to The Circuit, the region’s share of commuters who bike and number of recreational cyclists continues to climb. Philadelphia now ranks fifth in the country among large cities for total bike lane miles and fourth for bike lanes per mile


The Manayunk Bridge, originally built for freight rail and completed in 1918, had—prior to last month—been closed for 30 years. It took sustained collaboration among an array of stakeholders to reinvent this aging structure as a green asset. With the SEPTA-owned bridge connecting two counties, stretching across both the Schuylkill Expressway and privately owned rail tracks, and carrying live power lines for Amtrak and PECO, finding a conference room large enough to accommodate all involved parties for the initial stakeholder meeting was the first challenge.


The vision for the Manayunk Bridge Trail was fueled in part by a larger regional bike trail planning effort. In 2008, organizations including the Bicycle Coalition, Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Manayunk Development Corporation, and Schuylkill River Development Corporation, among others, banded together to identify nine projects within six local counties to close gaps in the region’s existing trail network. When a new batch of federal transportation grants were made available to “shovel-ready” projects after the Great Recession, this alliance submitted an application to fund all nine projects and was awarded funding for seven of the identified trail segments. Though the Manayunk Bridge project was not among those funded, the coalition continued to push for its development and assembled funding from a variety of state and local sources. The bridge now acts as a critical connector of Lower Merion Township, one of the wealthiest municipalities in the region, to communities across the river in Philadelphia, including Manayunk as well as lower-income neighborhoods such as Strawberry Mansion.


To reach the final stop of our green infrastructure tour, we traveled downstream along the Schuylkill where cranes dot the expanding University City skyline. There, we got a sneak peek at the new Cira Green project that has transformed the roof of a parking garage just south of 30th Street Station into the city’s first elevated park. Located between the sleek new evo student housing high-rise and the FMC tower under construction at Cira Center South, Brandywine Realty Trust has developed a 1.25-acre parcel of green space with sloping hills and stunning views of Center City. The roof has stormwater retention capability cleverly tucked under its green landscape, demonstrating creative adaptive reuse and spatial efficiency in a rapidly developing section of the city.


All three sites—Venice Island, the Manayunk Bridge, and Cira Green— repurpose existing development to promote sustainable systems, provide new open space, and/or improve regional mobility. These projects point to how Philadelphia is leading the way on green infrastructure. 


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