Emerald City: Philly ranked best in the nation for green infrastructure

Philadelphia is an Emerald City, according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, thanks to our city’s green infrastructure approach to stormwater management.

Philadelphia's Emerald City rating by NRDC.
(Philadelphia's Emerald City rating by NRDC.)

When it rains, our rivers take a beating. But that is changing. Like other American cities, Philadelphia is coping with a legacy of industrial pollution as well as dated infrastructure like our combined sewer-stormwater system and a lot of impervious surface.

For Philadelphia the choice was between reconstructing the sewer system or finding ways to manage stormwater before it hits the pipes. Lucky for us, the Philadelphia Water Department chose the latter.

In 25 years the goal is to turn 1/3 of Philadelphia’s impermeable surfaces into green spaces that will absorb stormwater. Not only will this reduce the stress on our aging sewer and water treatment systems, but make Philadelphia a more attractive, healthy city as a whole. This infrastructure belongs everywhere, so it’s also a way that the city’s diverse neighborhoods will see improvement and investment.

Philadelphia’s ambitious Green Cities, Clean Waters plan is turning heads in the planning and environmental world for its green infrastructure systems, funding solutions, policy initiatives, and incentives. In the latest of these accolades, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) gave Philadelphia a perfect score for its green infrastructure work, the only city in America to get this high mark.

The Emerald City Scale, from NRDC's Rooftops to Rivers II report.
(The Emerald City Scale, from NRDC's Rooftops to Rivers II report.)

Here’s how NRDC’s new report, Rooftops to Rivers II, describes what Philly is up to: Over the next 25 years, Philadelphia is committed to deploying the most comprehensive urban network of green infrastructure in the United States. Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters plan, recently approved by state regulators, requires the retrofit of nearly 10,000 acres (at least one-third of the impervious area served by a combined sewer system) to manage runoff on-site; relies on green infrastructure for a majority of the required CSO reductions; calls for the investment of more public funds in green infrastructure (at least $1.67 billion) than in traditional gray approaches; and leverages substantial investments from the private sector, primarily through application of a one-inch retention standard for new development and redevelopment projects citywide. The city will fund its share of the costs with a stormwater fee based on impervious area, supplemented by state and federal grants as available. To encourage retrofits on private property beyond that required by the retention standard, the city offers incentives such as reduced stormwater fees, free design assistance and low-interest loans to owners of large impervious properties, a green roof tax credit, rain barrel giveaways, and expedited permit reviews. Philadelphia also has installed dozens of green infrastructure demonstration projects, has published a technical design manual, and is developing a maintenance manual. Translation: The Philadelphia Water Department for working to making Philadelphia’s future healthier, cleaner, and greener. Bravo.

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