‘We can have nice things’: Philly climate activists rally for investments in public spaces

The Sunrise activists want Philly’s next mayor to put solar panels on rec center roofs, open libraries longer, and turn vacant lots into gardens.

protesters holding up signs at the rally

Activists held a climate rally at Philadelphia City Hall October 16, 2023. (Sunrise Movement)

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Climate activists rallied at City Hall Monday to demand solar panels on the roofs of Philly recreation centers, libraries open longer hours, and vacant lots transformed into community gardens.

Weeks before the Pennsylvania general election, they’re calling on Philadelphia’s next mayor and City Council to “fully fund” the city’s public spaces.

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“We can have nice things,” Erica Brown, West Philly resident and chapter coordinator for the Sunrise Movement in Philly, shouted into a megaphone at Monday’s rally.

Activists set up a “pop-up rec center” beside City Hall, with a mini basketball hoop, a hopscotch game drawn on the sidewalk with chalk, and tiny potted plants.

Sunrise wants to see the more than 200 library and rec center buildings in Philly retrofitted by 2030, with basic repairs, rooftop solar, climate-friendly heat pumps to heat and cool the buildings, appliances that run on electricity rather than natural gas, insulation to make the buildings more energy efficient, and flood resiliency upgrades.

“We need to be rapidly transitioning to renewable energies, so that way we can have a livable planet and a livable future,” Brown said.

The group is also pushing for additional staff, so that all libraries can stay open six days a week and rec centers seven days a week — including evenings.

“When you have these libraries that … close at like 5 o’clock, it puts you in a situation in which not everyone is able to go and actually enjoy these things,” said Sultan Smalley, a college student, native Philadelphian, and organizer with Sunrise. “Kids who go to school until 3 o’clock, they’re not able to actually go and experience the library like they should be able to.”

All neighborhood libraries are open until 5 or 7 p.m. weeknights and closed on weekends, under a new standardized schedule rolled out this week.

Budget increases for libraries over the last two years have allowed the library system to start digging out of an understaffing crisis, hiring over 200 staff members since summer 2022. Roughly 50 vacancies remain. According to a statement on the Free Library of Philadelphia’s website, planning is “currently underway” to restore Saturday hours across the system.

Many rec centers are currently open until 9 or 9:30 p.m. on weeknights, but some are not open weekends.

The city has been investing in improvements to rec centers and libraries through its Rebuild program, funded primarily with projected revenue from Mayor Jim Kenney’s sugary beverage tax. The city estimated that over 90% of the more than 400 neighborhood parks, recreation centers, and libraries are “in need of investment.” So far more than 70 of these sites have been approved for Rebuild projects, ranging from fixing leaky roofs to entirely new master plans.

Last month the city broke ground on three multi-million-dollar projects at rec centers in West and Southwest Philly, with improvements including accessibility upgrades, stormwater management measures, a new community garden, new plantings, new electrical and HVAC systems, and new sports fields and courts.

Sunrise’s vision includes greener public spaces. Organizers want to see more trees and gardens at rec centers and libraries, the city acquiring and transferring more vacant lots into the Department of Parks and Recreation’s portfolio, and an expansion of the Farm Philly program, which provides land, compost, and technical assistance to approved community gardens on city parkland.

The city estimates there are around 40,000 vacant lots in Philly — roughly three quarters of which are privately owned. Thousands of lots have been cleaned up, planted with grass and trees, and maintained through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s LandCare program.

Sunrise’s goal is to lower Philadelphia’s planet-warming emissions and make the city more resilient to the impacts of climate change, including extreme heat and increased flooding. The city has committed to zeroing out carbon emissions over all sectors of its economy by 2050.

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The group hopes the investments would also combat gun violence by providing safe public spaces open evenings and weekends, and turning vacant lots into beautiful, food-producing spaces. Research has shown that cleaning, greening, and maintaining vacant lots in Philly significantly reduced nearby gun violence.

“What we should have … is places where we can grow fresh food,” Brown said. “People should have easier access to fresh food than guns.”

Philly famously spends less per capita on its park system than many other big cities.

This year’s budget included $15 million in already-allocated money for improvements at rec centers through Rebuild and nearly $4 million for cleaning up vacant lots. The Department of Parks and Recreation received $79 million in operating funds — over $5 million more than the previous year. This is a smaller percent increase than the Philadelphia Police Department got, for a total of $856 million in operating money, Sunrise organizers note.

Both mayoral candidates have signaled an openness to the types of investments Sunrise is calling for.

Republican candidate David Oh has said he’d “fully fund” libraries and rec centers, would fill all vacancies across the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Free Library of Philadelphia, and would make sure rec centers and libraries stay open nights and weekends, “especially during the summer.”

Democrat Cherelle Parker has said she would “at least double” funding for the Department of Parks and Recreation’s operations by the end of her first term, focusing on “safety, programming, personnel, green spaces, and building sustainable infrastructure in the communities that … need it most.”

It’s not clear how much Sunrise’s vision for Philly public spaces would cost — although the group has estimated that the rec center renovations alone could cost over $1 billion. The group is not specifying where the money would come from, but hopes the city will tap into any federal funding available through the Inflation Reduction Act.

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